The new Common Inspection Framework – key considerations

Written by: Chris Byrne | Published:
Photo: iStock

Offering his commentary on the new Common Inspection Framework and Ofsted inspection in general, school improvement advisor Chris Byrne considers the key talking points and areas for concern

The revised Ofsted inspection framework was launched recently with much fanfare. Changes were said to be "far-reaching".

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw wants to "listen to professionals" to continually improve the inspection process. We are assured that the new Common Inspection Framework will provide "consistency" so that inspectors' judgements will "mean the same things". So what are those at the sharp end – headteachers, teachers and governors – to make of it?

Calming words from the Ofsted hierarchy about how they will listen more, how "good" schools will be presumed to still be good on short inspections, and how consistency in inspection processes will be increased are re-assuring.

However, it is difficult to reconcile the calming rhetoric with the failure of the revised evaluation schedule to address the structural deficiencies that lie at the heart of the consistency issue.

Poring over the details of the evaluation schedule, a number of issues emerge that may not induce calm and may even add fresh anxiety among school leaders about the inspection process.

The distinction between good and outstanding

While not wanting to diminish in any way the expertise and achievements of schools that are graded as outstanding, there appears a growing move to question the validity of a separate outstanding judgement. In principle, being able to identify schools that demonstrate outstanding practice is a laudable aim. The problem is how do you identify outstanding schools in an objective way?

If you have nothing better to do, try this. Cut out the criteria for the outstanding and good judgements in the CIF's leadership section. Put them side-by-side and see if you can distinguish between them.

The same themes occur in the criteria, but what seems to elevate practice to outstanding is if schools can demonstrate that they satisfy a number of subjective qualities.

Words such as "unwaveringly"," substantially"," uncompromising", "deep"," incisive" pepper the outstanding criteria. How are inspectors supposed to accurately interpret these in the day-to-day practice of schools consistently in the pressurised atmosphere of an inspection? Will inspectors' judgements really "mean the same thing" from inspection to inspection, school to school?

The idea of dispensing with the outstanding judgement is gaining traction because in practice it is complex and is very much open to interpretation in a snapshot visit that is an Ofsted inspection. Furthermore, the prize for being outstanding is to be exempt from further inspections.

This raises another issue – where is the "consistency" of approach in subjecting good schools to inspections every three years as a matter of routine ("to spot signs of decline") but not apply the same logic to outstanding schools?

Quality assurance

Much of the new framework, I assume, was written prior to the election. The new Conservative government has made it clear that schools that are judged to require improvement may now be compelled to become an academy answerable directly to the secretary of state.

Belatedly, after continually defending the robustness of inspector quality assurance processes in the past, Ofsted has admitted that there have been weaknesses in inspectors' skills. Inspection is "a human process, and because of that there's room for things not to be right". This suggests that inspectors' judgements are far from the reliable or infallible outcomes that the Ofsted hierarchy would previously have had us believe.

Schools that are judged to be inadequate have a separate moderation process to validate the decision. However, given the potential consequences of a requiring improvement judgement, it is a particular weakness of the new framework that the quality assurance process has not been revised to include schools judged as requiring improvement.

Government rhetoric since the election poses particular threats to the status of schools judged to be requiring improvement and, accordingly, the lack of a quality assurance process for schools judged to require improvement is worrying.

I am sure that Ofsted will seek to maintain its independence from the government. However, the Conservative government doesn't quite see things in the same way and will likely rely on Ofsted to identify schools for possible forced academisation.

Ofsted may wish to pretend that it is just doing its job "without fear or favour" and if a school is judged to be requiring improvement then so be it. What happens after is not their business. However, the landscape has changed and Ofsted does not exist in a vacuum – the inspectorate should seriously consider a moderation process for requiring improvement schools given the potentially irreversible consequences of their judgements.

Achievement

Schools grappling with the abolition of levels of attainment have been waiting anxiously for Ofsted's take on how they will judge achievement in a school. Pupil outcomes has become a key judgement that influences how the other judgements will line up.

Given that the familiar metrics that have become part of normal inspection discourse have been dispensed with, schools are looking for guidance from the evaluation schedule as to how Ofsted inspectors will approach this new landscape. Here there is a worrying lack of clarity and the potential for confusion without further clarification.

To be graded as good for achievement, schools need to demonstrate that children's progress is above average. There is no clarification of what average progress means. Again to be good, schools need to demonstrate that pupils making and exceeding expected progress compare well with national figures. In previous iterations of the evaluation schedule footnotes were added to clarify what this meant. There are no footnotes in this version.

Without such clarification, will inspectors' judgements "mean the same thing" from school to school? How will schools be able to challenge inspectors' judgements with such lack of clarity, especially as the new framework is bedding down this term?

The government's response to the consultation on assessment and accountability only last year stated that progress was the fairest way to assess schools. The Department for Education (DfE) stated that schools would be deemed to be below the floor standards if they failed to make "sufficient" progress. Is sufficient progress the same as average progress? How does average and sufficient progress relate to expected progress? It is incumbent on Ofsted and the DfE to be in alignment. Failure to do so just increases anxiety among school leaders.

A final thought regarding the achievement section. For the first time there is an explicit reference to children's performance in the year 1 phonics screen in the judgement criteria. This completes the transition of the phonics screen from a diagnostic assessment to support children's phonic development to a metric to judge schools. It is likely to encourage further gaming of this assessment because the stakes have been raised in the inspection process.

Teaching

It is noticeable that the considerable preamble from previous frameworks extolling inspectors to make sure that they do not give the impression that they favour a particular teaching style has disappeared.

The reason seems clear. In the current framework there is specific guidance to inspectors of what they should expect in maths lessons in terms of the teaching approach. The guidance may be appreciated by schools but that is not the point. It seems that in the space of six months Ofsted has completed a volte-face. It doesn't inspire confidence in the permanency of the current framework.

The bigger picture

So is the revised Ofsted framework a radical change? Sir Michael in his speech to launch the new framework said that HMI would ask a number of questions of school leaders during inspections. One of these was: "Are they focused on what really benefits children and young people, rather than wasting their time endlessly preparing for an Ofsted inspection which could be years away?"

That such a question needs to be asked reveals much about the current climate in education. The headteachers that I work with are driven by a moral imperative to make children's lives better. But they are also pragmatic. They know and have first-hand experience of an inspection system that has the power to impose severe sanctions on a school, and therefore the people within it.

They can hardly be blamed for preparing and complying with what they anticipate inspectors will want to see. There is pressure in the system for schools to distort their practice to what somebody else wants rather than the needs of the children or what the school context requires.

A radical change would be if Ofsted conceded that it has contributed to this climate and has encouraged a sense of compliance. Even more radical would be if it took the bold decision to examine its future relationship with the movement that is emerging towards the self-improving school system.

At the heart of this movement is an acceptance that school improvement does not go on in government or Ofsted offices, but in schools and classrooms up and down the land – that school improvement is the domain of school leaders and practitioners working day-in, day-out with children and their families in their schools.

For the self-improving school system to become a reality we need "more mavericks" as Sir Michael puts it. By this he means we need a generation of school leaders who are acutely focused on their children and communities and devise innovative ways of providing for them – leaders who are prepared to accept responsibility for their schools' outcomes, who are prepared to account for their impact to their respective local communities as a matter of course (not to an inspector who may call once every three years).

As one headteacher said to me recently:"We have to work as if it is Ofsted every day." When confronted with this reality, a key question to be addressed by Sir Michael and Ofsted is: have they prevented the development of "mavericks"?
There is a growing clamour for Ofsted to be abandoned and replaced with something different. To Ofsted's credit the more emollient tone is welcome. It is a sign that they are responding to their detractors. However, they have a considerable trust and credibility deficit among school leaders.

A more benign tone on its own will not make up the deficit. Perhaps this latest framework is an acknowledgement that the direction of travel is towards a destination where there is a healthier balance of power between schools and inspection in the accountability process to encourage "more mavericks". Time will tell. 

  • Chris Byrne is senior school improvement advisor with Achieving for Children, a social enterprise company created by Kingston and Richmond Councils to provide their children's services. His views here are personal.


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