While most people’s attention has been on the outcome of the election, I have been – and still am – eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new Ofsted framework for schools.
How different will it be? The initial four areas of judgement don’t seem that different and while there may be a redefinition of some of them, the focus for many of us will still be how Ofsted plans to ensure the quality of the inspectorate – its ability to make secure and consistent judgments that we can all have confidence in. Is that possible, given the growing remit of its task?
Interestingly, the ‘achievement’ grade has been replaced with ‘outcomes for children and learners’. While there will inevitably be a strong focus on the progress of groups of pupils, does this indicate a broader sense of outcomes which reflect the intrinsic value of a rounded education? How will this be measured? Is it down to the professional judgement of our inspectors? Undoubtedly, the need for skilled inspectors who understand and appreciate a school’s particular context will be of paramount importance as we herald the new dawn of ‘professional dialogue’ with inspectors as a key part of the process.
No doubt we all welcome the rhetoric around ‘lighter touch’, one-day inspections, but I have a nagging feeling that if by lunch time the inspectors haven’t met the right people and seen the right evidence, or have seen teaching or marking which may not be representative of the norm, they may jump to erroneous conclusions. The shorter inspection could immediately be converted into a full section 5 with its likely downgrading! At least with a two-day inspection, everyone has the chance to reflect overnight on what has been seen and discussed, even if it is a gruelling process for all concerned.
Which leads me onto my next area of concern – we all know that safeguarding and curriculum are going to be increasingly important in the new framework. We also know how difficult it is already for inspection teams to scrutinise all the evidence presented to them during inspections. I worry that Ofsted is attempting to squeeze even more into this onerous process which will dilute the quality of discussion around the validity of the school’s own evaluation. With schools having different assessment systems, different target setting and tracking processes and new accountability measures to grapple with, can the inspection team possibly be expected to evaluate all of this effectively and accurately? And of course they still have to ensure action points are agreed upon as to what the school needs to do to improve!
I believe the whole process has become unwieldy. While we absolutely need an independent inspectorate to whom schools are accountable, I believe its brief should be primarily on reporting the outcomes of schools, set against a fair and credible progress measure which really does reflect the starting points of all pupils and offers the opportunity for senior leaders to discuss in detail the actions being taken to improve these outcomes.
So what should Ofsted do? Removing the individual grades for quality of teaching and behaviour would be a start. Here is why.
I am still hearing that in some inspections, judgements on the quality of teaching are largely formed by the snapshot seen in schools. We all welcomed the move away from judgements based on one-off lesson observations but I am not sure that the current practice is any better! It seems that in too many cases the judgement on the quality of teaching is now largely determined by what is seen by inspectors in pupils’ books. My view is that the headteacher should be responsible for judging the quality of teaching over time, and should provide evidence for that.
Removing the grade for the quality of teaching would also contribute to the energy and growth of professional learning by reducing the workload associated with an inspection compliance culture. I believe it would allow more schools to encourage teachers to research and develop best practice to meet the needs of their students, rather than worrying about what Ofsted wants to see.
Similarly, I am concerned about the variances in the behaviour judgement which can sway one way or another depending on both the direct observations of inspectors and on an inspector’s own view of what constitutes ‘boisterous’ or ‘compliant and passive’ behaviour. Is this symptomatic of a rushed job with too much to evaluate during the time allocated, resulting in perceived inconsistencies in Ofsted practice?
A single grade which reports the overall standard of education, supported by a written nuanced text which reflects accurately the effectiveness and context of schools should be within the remit of skilful and trusted inspectors in the short time they have. But asking the impossible doesn’t make it any more possible.