It’s not particularly highbrow, but when talking about Ofsted’s impact on the education sector, I tend to rely on a Spider-Man quote from Peter Parker’s uncle: "With great power, comes great responsibility." Here at Ofsted, we’re under no illusion that what we say and do creates not just ripples but waves, and not always of the good kind. That means that there must be a high bar for any changes we make to our inspection framework and that those changes must be well thought through, well tested and well explained before they are introduced.
So I’m not surprised to hear some calling for us to take more time and delay the introduction of the new inspection framework. I want to provide some reassurance as to why 2019 is the right time to do it.
The first thing to remember is that this framework was originally planned to be launched last month. Upon coming into Ofsted, Amanda Spielman made plain this didn’t work for her. She wanted the framework to be based on the evidence of what works, not her personal whims about what makes a good school.
To enable that we launched a major research programme. A three-stage deep dive on the curriculum, the latest instalment of which is coming shortly. But also separate projects on educational effectiveness, what happens on inspection, lesson observation, teacher workload and book scrutiny. As a result, the 2019 framework will be underpinned by more evidence and research than any in Ofsted’s history.
Everything we do is going to be robustly tested, piloted and evaluated. There’s no use having something that works perfectly in theory but doesn’t translate into practice. And testing is starting now a full year before the framework goes live.
Alongside that we’ve revamped our inspector training, putting in place a three-year lead-in programme to get our inspectors up to speed on what they need to know and look at when inspecting something like the curriculum. We’ll also be running similar training sessions for schools and colleges so you can be clear about our expectations.
Finally, from January we’ll be consulting not just on the inspection framework, but unlike previous consultations on each individual inspection handbook as well. That means we’ll be able to capture your views, and where there are problems we’ll make changes. Just like we did with our short inspection model. When we consult we listen.
All of which means in practical terms we will be more than ready to go in September 2019. But more important perhaps than that, is that this change can’t wait.
Our proposals will refocus the inspection conversation back toward the real substance of education. What young people are learning and why. Outcomes matter, that’s without dispute. There’s no doubt that from the unambiguous impact of the phonics check to the fairer approach of progress eight, that we have access to better data than ever before. But the role of inspection should be to balance performance data, to look not just at what young people achieve, but how. And crucially to tackle the perverse incentives that come from any data-driven accountability regime, no matter how perfect.
That’s why instead of just focusing on the headline results, the new framework will provide for an inspection conversation about what makes a school distinctive, what choices have been made and why, and how are these decisions implemented. We all know a conversation along those lines is more likely to help a school improve, and to provide parents with the information they need to make informed choices.
Another year of the current system is equivalent to 8.5 million pupil years across all our schools. Another year of a system that we agree isn’t working as it should for children or teachers.
We understand why some of the practices we see in schools today have emerged. If you’re set a performance target you do what you need to do to meet it, I certainly do. But those practices have consequences. Nothing is more likely to kill the love of learning than children spending year six sitting reading comprehension tests rather than being able to read widely and deeply. Nothing is more likely to shut doors on their future than forcing them to drop whole subjects after just a year of secondary school study. We all know it’s wrong. And yet we have to acknowledge an inspection framework that doesn’t get to the heart of educational quality plays a part in driving it.
And while I don’t teach (no doubt a blessing to the nation’s children), I have spent the past five years working with teachers. They are sick of being treated as data managers rather than professionals in their subject. I’ve heard from teachers who’ve spent weeks solely focusing on the correct ‘starter sentence’. Teachers who left primary teaching because they couldn’t face endless key stage two data drops. A year of delay is equivalent to half a million teacher years as well. At a time when we have a recruitment challenge, we need to be doing what we can to make teaching more attractive, and we need to be doing it right now.
What is odd, then, is that some of those who are the biggest critics of the current system are the ones agitating for a delay in the changes we want to make.
No change please
Of course, I’m aware that there are powerful vested interests against change. While most heads and teachers we’ve spoken to welcome a refocusing on the substance of education, and the curriculum, there are a small minority of heads who hide behind Ofsted as they impose unreasonable practices on their staff. In other cases, a change in our focus will undoubtedly expose the emperor’s new clothes, those who have trumpeted stellar headline results that are built on the back of curriculum narrowing and teaching to the test.
Some in the union movement will not want to lose the current Ofsted bogeyman to rail against. To be clear Ofsted will always engage with any teaching union and listen to the concerns of their members, whether you call for our abolition or not. But I will say this: those unions who are having actual influence in shaping the new framework are those who, yes robustly challenge us with the concerns of their members, but who also provide constructive suggestions for how we improve our current practice. Rather than rallying for the politically impossible they have pushed us to make practical changes to our proposals that will both improve education and working conditions for their members.
I know it can be passé to hark back to your own experience. But I was lucky enough to attend a school where the curriculum was put first, where academic interest was encouraged above all else, but like many grammar schools, the nature of academic selection meant that they didn’t have to worry as much about the hoop jumping necessary to secure the right sort of headline results. And that I’m afraid makes the current system even more iniquitous. Access to a broad and rich curriculum shouldn’t be the preserve of those in the minority of selective and private schools or those with an affluent intake where schools think they can afford to do so. It should be the right of every single child. That’s why getting back to the substance of education, rewarding those schools that do what’s right, who’ve really thought about what they offer and why, is something that we should, must and can do without delay.