Can we expect a more meaningful Ofsted?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In 2019, the Ofsted inspection framework will change. As speculation grows, we look for clues, including from the new IDSR, Amanda Spielman’s testimony to the Education Select Committee, and Ofsted’s annual report...

The Ofsted document School Inspection Update: Special Edition (September 2017) includes in its introduction that data is “a signpost, not a destination for inspection”. The theme is that inspectors must use data in valid and reliable ways and that:

  • Assessment data and information is only a starting point for discussion with schools. It is far from the only piece of evidence that informs judgements about outcomes.
  • Inspectors will use “meaningful data” to inform areas for investigation. They will not focus on single measures with small cohorts.

For many schools, this news will come too late. The use of data, almost to the exclusion of all other evidence, has already determined Ofsted judgements for years now.

However, for those currently anticipating an Ofsted visit, could this really lead to a more considered and reflective inspection that values both the qualitative as well as the quantitative?

The new data dashboard

One of the chief concerns has been schools’ and inspectors’ ever-narrowing analysis of small cohorts of pupils, leading to a skewed understanding of where strengths and weaknesses really lie. For example, drilling down into small groups such as high-attaining, disadvantaged boys can lead to very small numbers being analysed with meaningless results.

School Inspection Update: Special Edition concludes: “Inspectors must be cautious in making any inferences about underperformance of small numbers of pupils in schools in any group.”

Instead inspectors should be “getting to the essence of the daily experience of pupils right across the curriculum”.

In line with the change of tack comes the new data report, the IDSR (inspection data summary report), which replaces the previous inspection dashboard. The IDSR now has context at the beginning of the report – information that was previously relegated to the end. It also includes “areas to investigate”, which will form the lines of inquiry that inspectors will take.

These areas includes fewer detailed breakdowns of groups than previously but will include trends for key stage 2 in relation to other schools over the past three years. The intention is that the appearance of “outliers” will be more easy to identify as a result of the use of scatterplots, again allowing for a more meaningful interpretation.

This newly introduced caution does not mean that schools can ignore the experiences of vulnerable groups of students. Far from it. Inspectors will be looking for the self-evaluation of pupils’ everyday experiences and the thoughtful and considered deployment of resources. These need not be purely determined by statistical evidence, however.

For many, these changes will provide some grounds for optimism that an Ofsted grading need not be pre-determined by data. However, school leaders might want to place a hold on their celebrations. We might be seeing some concessions, but Amanda Spielman’s performance in front of the Education Select Committee last term was neither strong nor inspiring.

The Select Committee

The Education Select Committee is a cross-party group of MPs who can investigate particular issues and produce reports. They have made some important contributions to debates in the past.

In July 2016 the Education Select Committee rejected the appointment of Amanda Spielman as chief inspector. Meeting them again in October she seemed hesitant and lacking in confidence and the committee remained clearly unconvinced of her qualifications for the role. She was challenged across a number of topics that have received media attention recently and her replies did not indicate that there is a new era to look forward to.

The opening question referred to a report by the Education Policy Institute suggesting that schools with fewer disadvantaged pupils were more likely to get favourable Ofsted judgements. Ms Spielman brushed the findings aside pointing out that this data was old and that more up-to-date data made greater use of progress measures and as such was less detrimental to those schools with a more challenging intake.

The interrogation continued with questions about her view of the “outstanding” grade and whether she would be instrumental in getting rid of it. Her response to this, and other questions, provided little indication of a strength or determination to see through major change. Instead she tells MPs that although along with others in the sector she has concerns, parents like the grading and she is looking for some way of reconciling these opposing views.

The committee raised concerns that schools that are truly inclusive are punished in the Ofsted system, whereas those schools that manage to avoid taking their fair share of challenging children or pupils with SEND are rewarded. Ms Spielman did go so far as to acknowledge that it might be worth including a grade in the new framework that rewards schools for their level of inclusivity. How this might be achieved, and the conviction that it will be was less clearly expressed.

The only area on which Ms Spielman appears to stand firm – and at odds with the Department for Education – is on the inspection of multi-academy trusts. She claims to have been raising this issue for several months. She recognises that Ofsted must be able to change to reflect the current structure and not how schools used to be run. However, she is reluctant to go as far as saying that there is a gap in accountability as far as multi-academy trusts are concerned.

Some of the questions by the committee continued to direct a criticism at the Ofsted leader for her lack of direct experience of schools and insufficient consideration of the experience of children. They appear to have carried forward their initial suspicions that she is not sufficiently qualified for the job.

The 2019 framework

Overall, the hour-and-a-half that Ms Spielman spent answering questions felt like a defence of the status quo rather than a leader driven to see through major change. However, the rather vague replies from Ms Spielman are in contrast to some recent Ofsted publications.

Bold Beginnings (November 2017), with its clear preference for a more structured and academic Reception curriculum suggests that the uneasy role of Ofsted as an independent regulator is not yet resolved (for more on the report and the reaction to its conclusions, see our article here).

These views were also repeated in Ofsted’s annual report, published in December, although this also includes some clear warnings about schools that teach to the test and narrow the curriculum in order to focus on SATs in year 6 (for more on this annual report, see our article here).

With Sir Michael Wilshaw at the helm, Ofsted’s vocal intrusion into policy and practice was to be expected and his own experience allowed some tolerance of this. With Amanda Spielman’s lack of education background, we might have expected Ofsted to draw back a little from front-line assertions about what should and shouldn’t be taught in schools. But these recent reports suggest that this is not to be the case.

Meaningful data might be a clear focus for the 2019 framework, but closer scrutiny and attention to the curriculum could be hot on its heels too. Ofsted itself has said that the framework will “build on recent findings” and will have “a particular focus on the curriculum”.

One point to note, however, is that the annual report also carries clear warnings about some primary schools that are teaching to the test, cramming for SATs, and “erroding the depth and breadth of the curriculum in the process”. The report states: “ Exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round.”

This wide range of views will mean that the 2019 inspection framework will be awaited with baited breath across the country.

Further information


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