Last Wednesday, Amanda Spielman, HMCI, delivered the annual @SotonEd lecture. This was followed by a really interesting panel discussion with Amanda, erstwhile colleague Daniel Muijs – now seduced by the dark side – and HMI and SE Regional Director, Chris Russell.
Amanda Spielman is a refreshing change from Michael Wilshaw, who seemed to think that if only all school leaders and teachers were even half as capable as him, every school would be Outstanding. Remarkable, isn’t it, how few very successful people can see that a different sequence of events would have left them looking on with irritation as someone else peddled that line. I think we are lucky to have someone as HMCI with an open mind and no sign of hubris.
She has certainly been on a bit of a (very welcome) mission to talk to a wide range of teachers and others involved in the school system about the way forward for the new Inspection Framework. It was good to hear from her directly. She spoke openly and convincingly and had some good things to say. Does she really understand, though, at a visceral level, what it’s like to have marginal data, a disadvantaged cohort, and a looming inspection. I’m not sure she, or other senior Ofsted figures, really get this. I think that’s a massive problem.
When Ofsted focused on judging quality of teaching through individual lesson observations, the school system developed a massive and largely unhelpful system of high-stakes graded observations, “Perfect Ofsted lessons” and so on. These may or may not have been a fair reflection of the inspection framework but they were definitely a reaction to it – an attempt to reassure school leaders that inspection teams wouldn’t see ‘poor’ lessons.
When Ofsted abandoned all that twaddle and moved to a focus on outcomes, schools fell over themselves to develop hideously detailed data and intervention systems, increasing day-to-day workload and eating into teachers’ after-school PPA and holidays. Some schools achieved Ofsted success by genuinely doing a great job of teaching but there was also a whole lot of gaming of the system to nudge A*-CEM or P8 over whatever benchmark senior leaders thought would please an inspection team. Many secondary schools have been slashing at non-EBacc provision, and it’s a lucky Y6 child that doesn’t spend an entire year on 3-step maths problems and fronted adverbials. At the same time, it seems very likely that a poor, white working-class catchment, has been a disadvantage in trying to keep a school out of the murky waters of RI or a category.
You see, I don’t think it matters how much myth-busting Sean Harford does. I don’t think it matters that there are no longer active inspectors coaching schools. Apply any set of metrics to a high-stakes accountability process, and schools will improve performance on the metrics and not necessarily on what they are supposed to be measuring: Campbell’s Law.
And so, I worry about a change of focus from Ofsted. What new perverse incentives will it unleash? In particular, having got a sense that curriculum will be at the heart of the new framework, I have been really concerned that this will result in subject leaders being required to either re-write, or justify in minute detail, each little step in every SoW. Bearing in mind most of them are only just emerging from the workload hell of the new National Curriculum, GCSE and A-Level requirements, I think that would be a disaster.
Perhaps it’s just that the renewed focus on curriculum (the last edition of Impact is an excellent reflection of the Zeitgeist) had me thinking this is what Amanda has in mind. But that’s not it, as far as I could tell from her speech. It seems much more as though she is focused on the problem of EBacc GCSEs and Y6 SATS dominating choices made in schools. Better that, than the curriculum micro-justification I’d vaguely been envisioning, but I still have three issues with this.
Firstly, I do think the quality of the curriculum, by which I mean detailed, subject-specific planning of schemes of work, is really important. To talk about curriculum and mean something closer to ‘broad and balanced’ is to fail to recognise the central importance of a genuine curriculum focus. I’d rather Ofsted stayed out of the latter, but where Ofsted lead, schools tend to follow. I think there’s a danger of sidelining the current impetus to improve curriculum design within subjects by shifting the focus to the curriculum across subjects instead.
Secondly, how will inspectors decide if a school’s curriculum offer is meeting the needs of their children? It seems like a rather nebulous thing. I may be underestimating inspectors, and obviously a leadership team that have thought really hard about curriculum needs should do better than one that has not. However, I wonder whether the ability to talk the talk (or write the write) will influence judgements. Maybe Daniel Muijs can convince me that valid and reliable judgements can be drawn from the sort of qualitative data that’s going to be available but he has some work to do.
Finally, are we just looking at something that is sort of like the current inspection framework, but with an attempt to punish those making outcome-driven decisions, rather than making a broad, balanced and fair curriculum offer? Will it come down to adding some non-EBacc time back in, and providing a mixture of subjects in Y6? Maybe some better primary science and a genuine open option to do triple at GCSE for anyone who’s keen? These would be excellent things but it begs the question, is this Ofsted deciding they don’t like the government agenda and imposing their own view? Where will that end up?
So I’m reserving judgement. Possibly a “Good” for Amanda, from me but not until I’ve seen what actually happens. The people she needs to talk to are the teachers and headteachers that have been on the wrong end of this process – the bombers that didn’t come back. If she did, I think she might still be interested in trying to reverse some of the damage caused by the combination of recent DfE policy and an outcomes-focused inspection framework. But I think she might also be looking at softening the high-stakes, cliff-edge nature of inspection. That would be a massive step forward.