Alex Ford

You might have missed it in the flurry of dismay/excitement (delete as you see fit) around the government's historic defeat on the Brexit plan yesterday, but today (16 January 2019) saw the publication of Ofsted's new draft framework for school inspections. The cynical might argue this was a deliberate ploy, however a detailed read of the proposals does leave a lot of room to be optimistic.

New freedoms

In some ways the new inspection framework seems to have just two main goals:

  • to place the focus of school provision firmly on the base of curriculum design and provision; and
  • to reduce the role of Ofsted in mandating curricular and pedagogical approaches from the centre.

In both of these respects, the new framework document does seem to offer lots of freedoms which have not been present since before the advent of the national curriculum and, later, school league tables. However, it is not yet clear if, or how, some of these provisions will be inspected at a subject level (more detail on the way presumably).

I want to begin with areas for optimism. The core element of the new framework does appear to be centred on the curriculum. The four elements on which schools will be judged are listed as: Quality of education; behaviour and attitudes; personal development; and leadership and management. The more astute of you will notice that the "outcomes" element from the old framework is gone, and that leadership and management have been moved to last position.

The movement of the leadership and management element reflects a significant shift. In this version of the framework, it is given the role of ensuring safety, community engagement, staff training, and crucially enabling high quality curriculum provision. In essence, leadership is made partially subservient to curricular provision. The focus on workload is also notable. Senior leaders especially are charged with ensuring staff workload is manageable; that assessment is fit for purpose and manageable; that resources are shared to make planning manageable, and so on. It remains to be seen what kind of impact this has, but it does feel like a step in the right direction. By far the biggest positive here is the fact that schools will be expected to support and develop their staff through high-quality, subject-specific CPD focusing on subject knowledge and subject pedagogy. Anyone who has sat through some of the generic training which has become so common will surely see this as a step towards greater professional autonomy for teachers. The shift in focus from the old framework with its links to direct management of programmes, inspirational leadership, and the business language around performance management, is stark.

The bulk of what is new in the framework comes under the heading of "quality of education". This is subdivided into three headings: intent, implementation, and impact. In all three, the focus is very much on schools providing a coherent, ambitious, and broad-based curriculum which meets the needs of their students. This is defined both in terms of "cultural capital" but also in a broader sense of being a means to transition into further study or employment. For those panicking that this would be a framework which demanded a rote learning curriculum, I cannot see much trace of that here. There are of course some references to students developing knowledge and having this checked systematically, but then I think all teaching does this anyway. A significant refocusing however comes in the sense that subject expertise and curriculum sequencing take centre stage when it comes to assessing the work of teachers in the classroom. Whereas the specific role of the teacher in imparting new knowledge or developing understanding only receives a single bullet-point in the current framework, in the new one it gets four times the space. Encouragingly however the focus is on whatever works to achieve the desired curricular outcomes, rather than demanding a specific approach. Anyone who has been told that "Ofsted says teachers should only talk for 10% of a lesson" will be delighted by this I hope.

There is also a note that schools will be expected to enable their students to study a full curriculum, and to have extra-curricular provisions for as long as possible. This is also true in terms of assessment. Here, the framework suggests that assessments need to be appropriate for identifying and tackling misconceptions and securing progress. The slightly veiled point about students not specialising too early is presumably targeting the narrowness of some Year 6 experiences, as well as the increasing trend for students to take GCSE options in Year 8 and to have GCSE assessments used throughout their secondary school life.

Beyond this, the sections on behaviour and personal development feel appropriate and largely uncontroversial. There is no central demand for all schools to adopt a zero-tolerance type of approach and there is a sound focus on developing children as individuals who are allowed to explore talents, take pride in their achievements, and pursue their interests and ambitions, not in an economically or results-driven sense, but for their own sake.

Old problems

As you'd expect, it is not all good news. Those schools hoping that Ofsted would completely remove the system of grading from the new framework will be disappointed. In addition to this there are still a few terms used in the framework which might need more critical consideration than they are given. Off rolling is held up as problematic, but is not properly defined. Equally, terms like "cultural capital" and "knowledge" are used without much exploration of their problematic and contested meanings.

Beyond these things, my biggest concern with the framework draft is the same concern I have when Ofsted release any new framework: that schools will attempt to tick boxes, jump through hoops, or otherwise try to confound the underlying intentions of the document out of fear of what might happen during an actual inspection. The perfectly valid point in the framework that any curriculum should have a clear intent, plan and sequencing may well lead to unnecessary demands for heads of department to write extensive schemes of work, or curricular justifications. The theoretically neutral demand that teachers present subject matter clearly might yet be misinterpreted as a directive to only have chalk-and-talk style lectures given by a subject expert to a hall full of kids, thereby undermining some of the potential freedoms offered. And the bullet-point dealing with systematic learning checks may well manifest itself in weekly examinations for no reason other than a lack of imagination, or indeed trust in teachers on the ground. As long as the system of high stakes grading remains, I cannot see any reason why at least some schools would not try to "game" the new framework.

Now this could turn into a rant about the problems of Ofsted. Certainly the initial inspections and what the inspectors comment on will have a huge impact on how schools respond to the framework. However I think it is equally important that schools step up and take professional responsibility for delivering the kind of education we want to see. Ofsted have been asking schools not to second guess their inspectors for a long time now. A new framework provides schools with a real opportunity to strike out in a different direction. I sincerely hope that this charge will be led by the many schools who have always focused on students education above all else, rather than engaging in the "Ofsted game". This is your time.

Alex Ford is a Senior Lecturer within the Institute of Childhood and Education at Leeds Trinity University, and a discusses the key differences between the current and new framework, and the impact for schools. Alex's blog was first published on his website, And All That.

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