If we’re serious about school improvement then we have to make school inspection more than the sum of its parts; it’s culture that we need to nurture. The inspectorate’s next framework can help us to ask the right questions about the things that really matter.
HMCI Amanda Spielman’s speech on Tuesday at the Education Policy Institute’s policy conference provided encouragement for those in the system who are concerned that Ofsted’s current model is too focused on data.
“I very much want to make sure that at Ofsted we focus on the ‘how’, on what performance tables cannot capture,” she said, “so we can get the clearest view of whether schools, and where relevant, the MATs to which they belong are doing the right things.”
The heartening sentiment emerging from Ofsted is that, whilst they will of course continue to evaluate pupil outcomes, inspectors will pay more overt attention to what Spielman calls the “why and what”). I hope this is the case.
Meaningful and sustained improvement
This is important, not only because of concerns about contextualising outcomes, but because this approach will give more scope to school leaders to focus less on short-term survival and more on longer-term strategies that deliver sustainable and meaningful improvement.
But what are the “right things” Amanda Spielman refers to? The danger, of course, is increased subjectivity, which is always tricky for Ofsted to balance against the demand for consistency. While consistency must always be strived for, it can’t be the end in itself.
We know that consistency can be more easily created by focusing on indicators which require low levels of inference from inspectors. But it’s these practices which tend to lead to a compliance culture and inspection by numbers. Ofsted’s mythbuster work has been helpful because it has begun the process of undoing years of compliance with methods perceived to be preferred by inspectors. Ofsted need to extend and deepen this approach in the 2019 framework. Ofsted’s top brass must now move beyond busting myths to look more holistically at school culture.
How do we know looking at this might help? For starters, Ofsted has already improved inspection of safeguarding under the current framework by looking more at a school’s culture.
Twelve months ago, I was concerned that inspection of safeguarding was a driver of a compliance culture among schools and inspectors. To Ofsted’s credit it responded well to this concern, and I was fortunate to sit in on a training session inspectors undertook in September which outlined a welcome change of emphasis, moving inspectors on from a ‘tick box’ approach to a more holistic understanding of a school’s safeguarding culture.
Results seem to have been positive. I’ve heard fewer complaints this year from school leaders about the inspection of safeguarding and I don’t believe safeguarding in schools has been weakened as a result.
The same thinking can help to improve other aspects of Ofsted’s framework, particularly in relation to the areas we know make the biggest difference to school success and improvement.
Developing curriculum thinking and practice
I’ve been struck by several recent books and their compelling insight into the issues that face our schools. Among these are David Weston and Bridget Clay’s Unleashing Great Teaching, which provides an excellent account of the importance of high quality teacher development. Also, Becky Allen and Sam Sims’ The Teacher Gap makes the case that schools need to do more to reduce workload and improve the working conditions of teachers in order to boost teacher retention. You can add to that a number of recent publications, including Ofsted’s own research, which stress the importance of developing curriculum thinking and practice.
Teacher development, curriculum, and working conditions matter not only because of their effect on the here and now, but because they probably provide our best shot of creating meaningful and sustained improvement within and across schools.
How can inspection support schools in this venture? It won’t be by adding, for example, a ’workload judgement’, or a ’CPD grade’, however, a more overt focus on and exploration of school culture may well be helpful to both schools and inspectors.
Ofsted has already hinted at the importance of culture in its curriculum work through a focus on the three i’s:
Implicitly, this digs into the curriculum culture of the school and inspectors can use this sort of approach to explore the values, thinking, and alignment of school culture without resorting to tick boxes.
Most importantly, by talking more overtly about culture, Ofsted can give school leaders the confidence to develop the distinctive values, thinking, and practices which meet the needs of their pupils and focus on the “right things”.
Amanda Spielman may be right that “You can’t create a precise, codified rule for what good looks like.” But by focusing more on culture, the 2019 Ofsted framework could at least help schools move away from Ofsted compliance and truly make Ofsted a “force for improvement”.
Stephen will be leading our series of Ofsted Seminars: Understanding and managing inspection beginning in September 2018, and to be held in locations across the country - click on the link for more information and to book.