Will Ofsted’s inspection framework changes make a difference?

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

After years of prioritising outcomes and data, Ofsted has signalled a change in focus. It comes after the NAHT’s landmark report into accountability. So what can we expect come September 2019 and will it really be an improvement?

The indications have been there for some time. Schools and teaching associations have known that there was likely to be a shift of ground in the new Ofsted Common Inspection Framework, scheduled for implementation in September 2019.

More details have now been revealed and we know that we can expect an inspection service that is once more focused on what’s being delivered rather than just on what the outcomes are.

The move by Ofsted to prioritise the curriculum and step back from a focus on raw data and results is seen as a welcome one by most. However, what some are anxious to establish is whether Ofsted can implement this change in time and in a way that schools can cope with.

The NAHT report

Ofsted’s latest revelations about next year’s framework closely follow the publication of Improving School Accountability – a report from the Accountability Commission, which was set-up by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) in March 2018. It clearly indicates the detrimental impact that high-stakes accountability based on outcomes can have. The report concludes that the accountability system:

  • Limits ambition.
  • Incentivises self-interest.
  • Deters talented staff from working in more deprived communities.
  • Narrows the curriculum and encourages teaching to the test.
  • Diverts attention from teaching and learning and provides less assurance of standards.
  • Drives good people from the profession.

It states: “At a system level, the approaches used by the government to hold schools to account are, on balance, doing more harm than good.”

It is a report that will have resonance with many headteachers. Some of those reading it will have lost their jobs and their self-esteem as a result of the insistence that the quality of a school can be judged predominantly from its test results.

However, Ofsted’s change of heart could have been forecast well before the NAHT report. The mood has been changing for some time with chief inspector Amanda Spielman commenting back in October 2017 about a narrowing of the primary curriculum and increased teaching to the test.

Since then, concerns have grown over the practice of off-rolling and exclusion – that some schools are placing their league table performance above individual pupil welfare has become increasingly clear.

Ofsted’s new direction

When speaking at an education conference in Newcastle last month, Ms Spielman indicated that Ofsted had a level of responsibility when it came to teaching to the test: “For a long time, our inspections have looked hardest at outcomes, placing too much weight on test and exam results. We know that focusing too narrowly on test and exam results can often leave little time or energy for hard thinking about the curriculum, and in fact can sometimes end up making a casualty of it.”

Now, Ms Spielman has outlined four new inspection judgements that will be introduced, subject to consultation:

  • Quality of education.
  • Personal development.
  • Behaviour and attitudes.
  • Leadership and management.

The proposals place personal development as a separate judgement to behaviour and attitudes in recognition of the significant differences there are in these aspects of education.

Meanwhile, the quality of education judgement will replace “outcomes for pupils”, which had been criticised for relying too heavily on data. It will also replace the “teaching, learning and assessment” judgement. The new judgement is to be separated into three aspects:

  • Intent – what does the school want for all their children?
  • Teaching and assessment – how is the intent being carried out?
  • Results and wider outcomes – what do children achieve and what are their destinations?

Ms Spielman said: “Ofsted will challenge those schools where too much time is spent on preparation for tests at the expense of teaching, where pupils’ choices are narrowed or where children are pushed into less rigorous qualifications mainly to boost league table positions.”

Of course, there will still be room for the use of data under the proposed new system...

The devil’s in the data

In its report, the Accountability Commission was keen to see a move away from what it refers to as “unintelligent use of performance data”. Instead it prefers the use of data that allows for comparisons between similar schools.

It recommends that schools should be grouped into families and outcomes compared within these groups. The Commission suggests that this would make for a fairer system, both for schools in challenging areas as well as those with more advantaged pupil populations. The families might consist of around 50 other schools that are as close as possible in the kind of students they have. The families of schools might then be used to form “realistic accountability targets” along with examples of schools that might be able to provide advice and support.

The Department for Education (DfE) has already agreed that floor and coasting standards will be replaced by a new threshold for support and that three-year averages will be used. However, the Commission wants more. It wants to see a “requires improvement” judgement acting as a trigger for funded support, thus creating an inspection-driven rather than data-driven threshold.

The exact nature of the data to be used in the new Ofsted framework should be made clearer in January, when the draft framework will be published for consultation. And this may be one of the most difficult decisions that the inspection service has to make. Whatever it chooses, the use of data – in whatever form – is up for manipulation and tends to skew practice. Ofsted will need to be absolutely clear about any unintended consequences of the chosen format.

Delivery concerns

Within all of this, there is concern about the timescale. The consultation will launch in January and the new framework is due for implementation in September.
Nick Brook, the NAHT’s deputy general secretary, said: “What concerns us is that Ofsted’s new framework is due to be implemented in less than 12 months’ time and it has not left itself enough time to introduce change of the magnitude that’s being suggested. There’s a real risk that not all schools will understand it and not all inspectors will apply it consistently.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “We remain acutely concerned about the ability of Ofsted to deliver this change. We will await further detail as to how Ofsted will find the time to inspect a school’s curriculum in a one or two-day visit. We question how inspectors can make a fair judgement on the curriculum in this timescale and with the very variable quality of Ofsted inspectors.”

Ultimately, we know very little so far about the new framework. How will it deliver all that it promises? How will a service that has dwindled in many cases to a one-day health check, be able to rise and be robust enough to provide the depth of judgement that its leaders are now hoping for across schools?

If good and outstanding schools are brought back into the usual inspection cycle, as the NAHT report proposes, it will be a challenge for a slimmed down inspection service to manage.

The NAHT report adds: “The Commission believes that Ofsted is at a crossroads and the choice is stark – either the government chooses to invest heavily to ensure reliable inspection for all, or we revise our expectations about what to reasonably expect from the inspection process.”

The Commission suggests limiting what Ofsted does but doing it better. So focusing on schools that are facing difficulties and providing a more diagnostic role to support them. This should be accompanied by high-quality, funded support “which will help shift the narrative from sanction to support”.

At present, there is no indication that this is part of Ofsted’s plan. Given that it isn’t we can only speculate whether the planned changes will go deep enough and be backed by the right personnel. If not, we could find schools faced with more disruption for very little gain.

Further information

  • For fuller details on Ofsted’s proposals and Amanda Spielman’s Newcastle speech, see Schools prepare for January consultation over Ofsted plans (Headteacher Update, October 2018): http://bit.ly/2R6vJ1F
  • Improving School Accountability, Accountability Commission, NAHT, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2yapeng

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