Brutal or a blessing? Reactions to the new EIF

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

Headteachers have described the new Ofsted inspection regime as ‘brutal’. Unsurprisingly, the chief inspector disagrees. Suzanne O’Connell looks for the truth behind the impact of the EIF so far

The report A change for the better?, published by the National Association of Head Teachers last month, states that the experience of inspection is regularly described as “brutal” (NAHT, 2020).

However, in Ofsted’s own annual report, chief inspector Amanda Spielman writes that “responses to the new framework have been very positive so far” (Ofsted, 2020).

The introduction of any new inspection framework is bound to be controversial. However, the new approach heralded by Ms Spielman has taken some schools by surprise. With a reduced focus on outcomes and a return to the importance of the curriculum, it seems that even some outstanding schools have struggled to find the balance in time.

The Guardian’s recent article, Outstanding primary schools fail Ofsted inspections under sudden rule switch (Lightfoot, 2020), includes stories of inspectors grilling young pupils on their curriculum knowledge and using any mistakes as evidence of “misconceptions and gaps in the children’s knowledge”.

In the article, multi-academy trust leader, Michael Gosling, accuses Ofsted of penalising schools that have focused on English and maths. The piece also includes the story of Parkinson Lane Community School whose “requires improvement” rating came as a shock following their previous outstanding judgements.

Further indications of this disquiet have been picked up by the NAHT, which reports that 3,000 of its members have visited their web page looking for advice on the new inspection framework. The school leaders’ union has been collecting feedback and the resulting report – A change for the better? – does not hold back. It states that:

  • The new framework tries to do too much; inspectors cannot hope to fulfil its demands. Too often judgements are formed on a scant evidence-base.
  • Ofsted has adopted a secondary lens through which to judge the primary curriculum, which is proving to be deeply problematic in primary schools.
  • Ofsted’s curriculum methodology is driving new workload and demanding a model of curriculum management that schools do not have the capacity or resources to implement.

The NAHT has now launched an on-going survey, asking its members whose schools have been inspected since September 2019 to feedback their views – good and bad.

General secretary Paul Whiteman has written about the research in his latest Headteacher Update article (2020), setting out the report findings in more depth. He says: “Our members’ feedback suggests that Ofsted’s new approach does not address the widely recognised negative impacts of high-stakes inspection and risks driving new and unnecessary workload for teachers and leaders which in turn undermines efforts to improve recruitment and retention.”

However, many in education agree that a change was needed. Headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in Richmond, Helen Frostick, told Headteacher Update: “I welcome curriculum being centre stage and the focus on long-term, deep knowledge; ‘sticky’ as it’s being called. I think that as educators it is making us reconsider meta-cognition and what we can do to help our pupils retain knowledge.”

Dorota Milner, a serving headteacher, is also supportive of the overall tide of change: “I am pleased that there is recognition now for the work that schools do to ensure a broad curriculum for all.”

And according to the NAHT’s report, the majority of primary headteachers had not abandoned the need for breadth even when pressured to focus on “ever-smaller tranches of pupil performance data”. However, in spite of this, schools are finding themselves second-guessing what inspectors might ask their pupils and chasing ready-made models of “intent, implementation and impact”.

Speed of introduction

A key problem seems to be the speed of introduction of a radically different inspection framework. Ms Frostick continued: “I feel that schools haven’t been given time to develop their curriculum knowledge maps in the foundation subjects and that to make it a meaningful change it needs to be worked through with all staff.

“I heard of a headteacher who spent all summer writing curriculum knowledge maps, but that doesn’t lead to a deep understanding by the staff who are the ones delivering at the chalkface.”

Alex Colclough, a teacher at St John’s CE Primary School in Surrey, points to the haste with which she feels some schools have tried to adapt: “I fear in general schools are being quite reactive in their response to the new framework and not taking the time to really think carefully about their curriculum, rather box-ticking in preparation to satisfy inspectors.

“Each school’s curriculum offer should be tailored to the children within that particular context and what they need – this takes time to deliver.”

Comments on the Facebook page “Intent, Implementation and Impact” are evidence of the panic felt by some who have suddenly been given subject leadership responsibilities and required to put together supporting documentation.

In spite of calls to resist a knee-jerk curriculum planning spree, teachers are finding themselves in an uncomfortable front-line position that is difficult to resist when they are put under pressure by senior leaders – leaders who, in turn, feel pressured by the prospect of an inspection.

Mr Whiteman says that Ofsted has responded positively to the concerns raised in the NAHT’s report and the inspectorate itself has now extended the transition period from one to two years. Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for education, wrote in his blog (2019): “Our inspectors will look favourably on schools where – based on leaders’ actions – the quality of education could reasonably be expected to be good by September 2021.”

But however long is allowed – will the model still be seen to disadvantage primary schools?

A secondary lens

A major criticism made by the NAHT report is that the EIF is not suitable for primary schools and that Ofsted has “adopted a secondary lens”. It states: “The heart of the issue is that primary subject leadership simply does not work in the way that Ofsted appears to feel would best fit its revised inspection methodology. This is not simply an issue for very small schools, it affects most, if not all, primary schools.”

In his article for Headteacher Update, Mr Whiteman warns that the demands of inspectors effectively impose new curriculum management requirements on primary schools which they have insufficient resource and capacity to deliver.

Ms Colclough agrees: “The new framework is narrow and too procedural and puts small primaries, especially one-form primaries, at a disadvantage because we don’t have as much capacity as larger schools for subject leadership.”

“As much as schools would like to acknowledge extra responsibilities – they cannot afford to pay,” Ms Milner continued. She believes that the role of the subject leader has probably been undervalued for a long time and particularly when it comes to leadership of subjects such as art and design technology.

A key concern for NAHT members is that the so-called “deep dives” are putting huge pressure on subject leaders and producing judgements based on very limited evidence, particularly in foundation subjects. Headteacher Update raised similar concerns in January (2020). Ms Milner believes that this approach to inspection places too much pressure on individuals and could drive teachers away just at a time when they are in short supply.

It may also be an uncomfortable fit when it comes to the cross-curricular approach that many primaries prefer to take: “I shudder at the emphasis on knowledge-based learning,” explained Ms Colclough, “because while I agree that there is content which each child should learn and deserves to be taught, in our modern society it is also crucial to ensure we teach children the skills but also the values needed to be a happy and successful citizen.”

Insufficient evidence

Not only is the concept of the “deep dive” problematic for primaries but the evidence it produces is also questioned in the NAHT report: “Judgements are snapshot impressions based on a single part lesson observation, a high-stakes discussion with a classroom teacher who coordinates a subject, a cursory review of pupils’ books and a handful of questions put to a very small and unrepresentative number of pupils.”

Ms Milner is concerned that there is insufficient time in the schedule to “get under the skin”. She explained: “I am not sure how they can assess progress in writing based on a superficial ‘book look’ without actually spending time looking and reading children’s work.”
She is concerned that judgements may be made more on superficial factors such as handwriting and presentation.

Data provided an apparently objective indicator, although we know it is vulnerable to tampering. Judging the breadth and richness of a curriculum requires a different type of measurement tool.

Inspector quality

The NAHT report also raises concerns about lack of consistency between inspectors and the frenetic schedule they are trying to follow.

One example given is that not all inspectors are allowing school leaders to accompany subject coordinators during interviews.

“I hear anecdotally about inspectors who were not particularly encouraging to schools,” Ms Milner said. “I still think that there is no consistency among inspectors – inspections have to be less confrontational, less high-stakes, more constructive. The new framework can put primary staff under unreasonable pressure. Primary teachers are not curriculum specialists!”

Already time to reconsider?

Schools have been catapulted from one set of measures to another with little time to adapt. A data-thirsty inspection framework must now cast judgement on whether a school has a rich and broad curriculum.

School leaders seem not to be denying the value of focusing on the quality of what is taught, but they do question the wisdom of introducing this approach so quickly and without acknowledging the primary ethos.

In the early days of Ofsted many primary leaders felt that the framework was more orientated to the scope of secondary schools. Now that sinking feeling is back. Can Ofsted really maintain the same framework irrespective of the phase of education or the size or catchment of the school? And what is the purpose of doing that anyway?

For many people, the use of the same model to judge both primary and secondary schools, schools in wealthy catchments and those in abandoned communities, has never worked. Perhaps what we need is a more supportive model that begins with the nature and context of the school and moves from there to the quality of the education that is being provided.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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