Education: An inspector calls again

by
15 February 2019

Ofsted is changing its rules in September. Dennis Richards looks at what will change

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IT HAS been quite a while since Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools made what could be a far-reaching intervention into the minefield that is education. The Chief Inspector of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, has put the cat among the pigeons by responding to a number of growing crises in our schools.

For a start, a burgeoning number of school students are pleading for help with their mental well-being. Their teachers are not in a particularly good place, either. Recruitment is poor; and there is a high dropout rate for newly qualified teachers once they have experienced the daily grind of endless preparation, assessment, and target setting.

The new Inspection Framework, to be introduced in September, is the response to some of this. It is now coming under scrutiny, as school leaders absorb the details. Not surprisingly, there is a difference of view. For some, it is merely, in the words of one commentator, a “cosmetic respray” of a battered old banger. For others, it is a welcome and much-needed “paradigm shift” in the inspection system.

As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. As one educationist noted: “The devil is in the data.” And you can add to that the inevitable law of unintended consequences, which will undoubtedly occur, once the Framework is up and running.

The OFSTED judgements made on a school from September will now be based on four factors: Quality of Education; Personal Development; Behaviour; and attitudes; and Leadership and Management.

It is the “Quality of Education” judgement which has fired the imagination of school leaders. No longer will pupil outcomes — i.e. exam results — be used as the main factor for inspectors when they are considering their judgement on a school. Nor will inspectors use schools’ internal performance data for current pupils as evidence during an inspection. This constitutes a bombshell dropped into the statis­ticians’ playground.

Some see the hand of the current Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, behind this reform. His breezily insouciant manner is in stark contrast to the “I know best” tone adopted by his predecessor, Michael Gove. Indeed, some would go so far as to say that the new Framework endeavours to undo the damage of the Govian era.

The aim is a noble one: it is based on the premise that we need an education system that enables children to succeed for life rather than jump through exam hoops.

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SOME of the other changes are obvious responses to obvious problems. Changes to the inspection of “private schools” are driven not by a desire to put Eton on the spot, but to take greater control over some of the religious “free” schools run by Christian “fundamentalist” groups and their Muslim counterparts.

Inspections of “Good” schools will now be two days rather than one, based on the suspicion that many schools that were inspected several years ago no longer merit a Good or Outstanding judgement.

The warning given to schools that an OFSTED inspection is imminent will be shortened even further. As from September, a head can expect a call “no later than 10 a.m.”, after which the inspector will arrive “no earlier than 12.30 p.m.” for the new on-site preparation for an inspection the following day.

There are no prizes for guessing what that particular change is for. It’s a game of cat and mouse. There will be no chance in future of telling that nightmare Year 11 class that they are “going out on a special school trip tomorrow”. The inspector will know what the school roll is, who is absent, and why. . .

There must be doubt about whether this will work. Some would argue that the real blight on schools’ day-to-day provision is the pernicious effect of league tables, published now in a variety of formats at least twice a year. Ms Spielman has made it clear that they are here to stay. She has also suggested bringing back a system that has been tried before: grouping schools according to their pupil intakes, and assessing their per­formance against other schools within their grouping.

But how is that to be done? By the proportion of students on free school meals? Or post codes? Or performance on entry (back to the data argument)?

As ever, there is the usual evidence of a lack of joined-up thinking. The new Framework lays great store by the curriculum, and, in particular, on the EBacc in secondary schools (i.e. passes in English, maths, science, a humanity, and a foreign language), setting an improbable 90-per-cent target of students’ achieving the qualification by 2025. Since modern-language learning in schools is collapsing by the day as Mr Gove’s GCSE reform takes hold, we are entering the realms of fantasy.

One thing we can be grateful for: the Chief Inspector is trying hard to respond to the crisis in our schools. Let us hope that the hubris of some OFSTED teams is a thing of the past. It used to be a war out there — head teachers would sit in their meetings with ashen faces and hunched shoulders; the language was reminiscent of 1940; and new targets would arrive like V2 rockets. We never saw them coming.

Well, now it’s OFSTED’s turn, and its boss has set it a stiff target.

Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.

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