Climbing The Hill
New Framework, Same Familiar Problems
It really is time we put distance between our work as school improvers / teacher leaders and the value placed in Ofsted evaluating this. The new inspection framework may have delivered a change of focus but many of the existing challenges remain. Having received two simultaneous inspection visits recently, I thought it would be useful to share a few key thoughts. Both inspections were section 8 inspections of ‘good’ schools lasting 2 days led by a single inspector. Sadly, there is still a sense of new framework, same old problems.
The biggest issue with the new framework is that inspection remains a very hierarchical process which makes it difficult to engage in the deep professional dialogue our teachers should be entitled to when evaluating the complexity of school communities. Effectively, Ofsted has moved into the position of becoming both regulator of education and policy maker for education. But they should never own this territory of defining how we should lead our schools. That is our job as professionals.
Ofsted's postition is problematic because it disempowers teachers and leaders from the core business of crafting school improvement. It encourages curriculum delivery rather than curriculum design. It reduces leadership to task management; it shouts 'follow the instruction manual provided by the framework and you will be a good school', reducing risk taking and innovation. In contrast, truly stand out schools:
- Challenge thinking to continuously evolve not comply to a framework
- Use evidence to inform practice not what they are told to do
- Ensure learning is relational not instructional
- Model the values and beliefs they want children to embody
- Develop agency between knowledge and its application in real life
A worthy inspection framework should value equally the process as well as the concept of curriculum design. This, of course, is much harder to measure! (The bullet points below are taken from the OECD position paper The Future of Education and Skills 2030).
Concept of curriculum design:
- Student agency. The curriculum should be designed around students to motivate them and recognise their prior knowledge, skills, attitudes and values.
- Rigour. Topics should be challenging and enable deep thinking and reflection
- Focus. A relatively small number of topics should be introduced in each grade to ensure the depth and quality of students’ learning. Topics may overlap in order to reinforce key concepts.
- Coherence. Topics should be sequenced to reflect the logic of the academic discipline or disciplines on which they draw, enabling progression from basic to more advanced concepts through stages and age levels.
- Alignment. The curriculum should be well-aligned with teaching and assessment practices. While the technologies to assess many of the desired outcomes do not yet exist, different assessment practices might be needed for different purposes. New assessment methods should be developed that value student outcomes and actions that cannot always be measured.
- Transferability. Higher priority should be given to knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that can be learned in one context and transferred to others.
- Choice. Students should be offered a diverse range of topic and project options, and the opportunity to suggest their own topics and projects, with the support to make well-informed choices.
- Teacher agency. Teachers should be empowered to use their professional knowledge, skills and expertise to deliver the curriculum effectively.
- Authenticity. Learners should be able to link their learning experiences to the real world and have a sense of purpose in their learning. This requires interdisciplinary and collaborative learning alongside mastery of discipline-based knowledge.
- Inter-relation. Learners should be given opportunities to discover how a topic or concept can link and connect to other topics or concepts within and across disciplines, and with real life outside of school.
- Flexibility. Schools and teachers should be able to update and align the curriculum to reflect evolving societal requirements as well as individual learning needs.
- Engagement. Teachers, students and other relevant stakeholders should be involved early in the development of the curriculum, to ensure their ownership for implementation.
The second big challenge with the new framework is its failure to provide allowance to the multitude of factors and context unique to each school and community. To think that a small, rural school or a complex needs special school can be inspected in the same way as a large secondary school is ludicrous. Schools are expected to have the same level of curriculum resources, including expertise, subject specialists and capacity to meet the demands now placed upon them. When priority is given to remembering stuff in a set way and logical sequencing, it favours one kind of school and one kind of curriculum model. There is a locked in bias. It is easier to evidence how planning for subjects is arranged logically in a secondary school where teachers deliver discrete subject bound lessons than, for example, a special school which takes a thematic, topic based approach to curriculum design. The selection of comments from recent inspections below, highlight this bias:
- “Long-term plans for English and mathematics are well sequenced to build upon what pupils already know and can do.”
- "Pupils can develop their knowledge and skills in a logical order.”
- "Knowledge is sequenced so that pupils’ understanding builds steadily.”
- "Plans for subjects have been arranged in a logical way.”
- "Teachers check that pupils gain skills and knowledge in a logical order, which helps them to remember more.”
Challenge three is, despite all of the briefing sessions, webinars and powerpoint presentations, interpretation judgements remain incredibly subjective to the whims and preferences of individual inspectors. Ofsted tries to make inspection an objective, scientific process but the reality is, just as with the last framework, it all depends on who you get. They inevitably esteem what resonates with their own representation of a good school. In our case, one was a geography specialist, who spent most of the discussion lecturing about rivers of the world and how poorly geography was being taught in schools inspected. What he saw was a reflection of his own schema and values base for learning. (Interestingly, a peak at his school website highlights he has just introduced a shiny new geography text book scheme - but lets not go there!)
And finally, a point of principle: high stakes, (distinct from the low stakes inspection, more typical of trusting education systems), actually reduces innovation in schools. As with previous frameworks, whatever Ofsted measures inevitably defines practice in classrooms. We devise strategies to meet the framework expectations. Just check out the increase in published schemes for foundation subjects or the new obsession with ‘knowledge organisers’ - both quick fixes to evidence knowledge has been sequenced in a way Ofsted wants to see it. Just as we saw in the last framework, where schools grouped Pupil Premium children on ‘special’ tables or placed stickers on exercise books so that they could testify to ‘knowing’ their Pupil Premium children really well, schools quickly learn to value what they think Ofsted wants to see rather than what our own evidence suggests works best.
The best education systems - future orientated schools - recognise the need to experiment. They ask the big questions which cannot be easily measured including:
- What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values will today's students need to thrive and shape their world?
- How can we develop these knowledge, skills, attitudes and values effectively?
Until we have a school inspection system designed to build trust and value innovation, we will continue to make the same mistakes, which sadly will continue to fail pupils. Since the inception of Ofsted, standards in English schools still compare moderately to those internationally; the discrepancy between schools’ performance in neighbouring regions is still as wide as it ever was and, critically, achievement gaps between our poorest and most affluent students have not narrowed. Added to that, the 2019 Good Childhood Report claims young people care less about school now, are unhappier in school and have worryingly low levels of mental well-being - all signs that schools place greater emphasis on serving an inspection framework than they do students’ needs.
We have a long way to go in ensuring the evaluation of schools places students' at the heart of inspection.