Wear the damn earrings

My wife doesn’t wear earrings. She stopped wearing them 25 years ago when she met me. I was an opinionated young man (as opposed to the opinionated older man I am now) and made it clear that I had no time for jewelry and piercing. She should have just carried on wearing them anyway, but when you are 18 and meet a new guy, perhaps feminism isn’t at the top of your agenda. It was quite sweet really. I’m sure I did lots of things to accommodate her irrational prejudices too. We all have a desire to impress people, to receive positive feedback or simply fall in to line with what they expect. It isn’t necessarily that we do things for people, just that if what we’re doing isn’t going to get a positive reaction, why bother?

Ofsted don’t want us to do things to impress them. Sean Harford keeps saying as much, and most school leaders with any integrity would maintain that they do things for the students, not for Ofsted. And I believe they do… mostly. However, we are all aware of what is expected of us and what we will receive positive feedback for doing. We are also painfully aware (whilst Ofsted grades continue to exist) of what happens when we fall short of the inspectorate’s expectations. There are powerful incentives and disincentives at play which inevitably influence our behaviour, and sometimes subvert our better judgement.

I believe that Ofsted are very aware of the power they wield, although only partially accept the negative effects of this. Despite telling us not to do anything ‘for Ofsted’, they do expect that their actions will affect what schools do. There is proof of this in the public utterings of Amanda Spielman regarding the rationale for a new inspection framework, and in the briefing materials made public recently.

Take this slide as an example:

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There is an acceptance here that too much attention has been paid to exam outcomes at the expense of the ‘real substance of education’. The implication is that performance tables are to blame. Amanda Spielman has argued that it is Ofsted’s role to ‘counter-balance’ this by paying attention to how school’s achieve their league table position. I have yet to see an explicit acknowledgement that Ofsted’s actions have contributed to a narrow focus on exam outcomes*, but there is at least an acceptance that Ofsted need to remove the judgement specifically focused on outcomes to help address this going forwards.

By casting itself as an agent for change in tackling schools pursuing a narrow exam focus, Ofsted acknowledge their powerful influence over the profession. It may repeatedly state that schools should not do things for Ofsted, but it clearly expects the school system to adjust its priorities in response to the change in emphasis in the new framework. Is there a meaningful difference between doing things ‘for’ Ofsted and ‘because of’ Ofsted? Both mean schools readjusting what they do. If you accept the argument that schools should focus more on the ‘substance of education’ than they currently do (which I do agree with) then this adjustment is positive, but it will require schools to change what they do none the less.

Let’s look at what we know so far about the change in emphasis in the 2019 Ofsted framework and speculate about how this will alter schools’ behaviour. The more I have thought about this, the more I have come to believe that we are about to see a tidal wave of change in schools as they come to realise what Ofsted will be looking for.

Perhaps the most significant change in the inspection framework is the merging and separating of judgement categories, shown here:

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In line with the rationale presented earlier, outcomes will be considered ‘as part of a larger conversation about the quality of education’ (more about this in a moment). ‘Personal development’ and ‘Behaviour and attitudes’ will have their own judgements.

At the risk of being accused of an over-simplification, this re-categorisation will signal to schools a change in emphasis in itself. Schools look at the Ofsted framework to give a steer on what they should be monitoring (in terms of standards) and, therefore, what they might spend their time trying to improve. This is in essence what senior leaders in schools do; they think about the quality of education being provided and set about trying to improve it. To do this rigorously, schools need a framework which sets out what aspects of the school’s work warrant attention and what constitutes ‘quality’ in each of these areas. This framework underpins what has become known as ‘self-evaluation’. Self evaluation has been encouraged by Ofsted for many years and is taken as an indicator of good leadership. Although there is no longer a requirement to use the Ofsted framework as a basis for self-evaluation, most schools will at the very least ensure that their quality framework mirrors Ofsted’s, for obvious reasons.

The question that occurred to me as I considered the above slide was whether we should adjust our self-evaluation framework in our school to ‘fit’ with the new Ofsted framework in 2019. We currently use the categories (e.g. Teaching, Learning and Assessment (TLA)) defined by Ofsted and draw on their framework to inform our quality criteria. We tailor aspects of the Ofsted framework to suit our context, values and priorities, but the key questions we come back to (like whether standards of Teaching, Learning and Assessment are good) are steered by Ofsted. How these categories are defined matters. We analyse exam results and progress data to inform our judgement about ‘Outcomes’. We evaluate classroom practice and assessment to inform a separate judgement. Of course the two aspects link, but what we monitor, what we look for, what we spend time considering, how we judge ourselves, is influenced by how we define standards. Even something as simple as changing the categories could cause a significant shift in the things leaders do.

To illustrate this more fully, let us consider the next slide which provides more detail about what is to be included in each section:

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What is immediately noticeable is the apparent re-weighting of the judgements. It is not clear whether the dominance of the Quality of Education box is meant to imply an equivalence in weighting to all three of the other judgements, or whether this is a presentational convenience. However, it appears that the ‘combined’ judgements of Outcomes and TLA are intended to be considered as having more weight than other judgements, which would make sense as this category now includes everything we would consider as the ‘core business’ of schools.

What is also noticeable is the way in which the old categories are placed in the new judgement. Both are recast as aspects of curriculum. TLA sits alongside ‘curriculum delivery’ and is defined as the enactment of the planned curriculum. Outcomes are cast alongside ‘destinations’ (and reading?) as the impact of the planned and delivered curriculum. Added to the mix is ‘curriculum intent’ (which used to be included, in a less defined way, under the leadership and management judgement). The quality of education is therefore defined as:

  • what we teach
  • how we teach it
  • the benefits this brings students

How might this re-framing change leadership behaviours in schools?

Firstly, senior leaders are probably going to pay considerably more attention to the planned curriculum. They will ask ‘why are we teaching this?’ and ‘what is the thinking behind how this subject is sequenced?’. It will be likely that this questioning leads to changes in the curriculum as the rationale is interrogated more fully. There may well be moves to document the ‘thinking’ behind the curriculum more explicitly; a re-writing of the Curriculum Policy, a ‘curriculum intent’ statement for the website, new sections in the scheme of work and knowledge organisers which set out curriculum content in increasing levels of detail.

Scrutiny of classroom practice will likely change. Lesson observations and book-looks may begin to focus less on generic pedagogy and more on how the intended curriculum is enacted. Leaders will look to see that practice reflects curriculum intent. How is the required content delivered? What links are made between the current topic and previous learning? Are students made aware of the links between past, present and future topics? One might expect all observers to equip themselves with curriculum documentation before entering the classroom, and for feedback to teachers to emphasise the extent to which the planned curriculum was well-executed.

Leaders may begin to take more interest in whether assessment is fit for the purpose of judging if students have mastered the curriculum content, rather than showing ‘flight paths’ of progress. There may be more questions raised about the validity of the inferences drawn about ‘progress’ (defined as the extent to which students are remembering what they have been taught).

This is all speculation, and one thing we know about Ofsted is that there will be many unexpected and unintended consequences resulting from the new framework. But what schools do will change. If Ofsted achieve their aim, schools will pay more attention to the ‘substance of education’. Whether or not we believe this is a good thing, none of us expect schools to just carry on doing what they are doing, unless they by-chance happen to be ticking all of the right boxes already. And this is what Ofsted want; change. To claim that the new framework will not cause workload is disingenuous; change takes work. To repeat that schools need not do things ‘for Ofsted’ whilst changing the framework by which schools are judged to be successful or failing is to hide behind a false pretense that schools are somehow free to ignore Ofsted’s definition of quality. We won’t change what we do for Ofsted, but we will have to change because of Ofsted.

The school I lead was judged as Requires Improvement a year ago. I once had the luxury of being fiercely independent (I would wear the damn earrings just to spite them). Nowadays, the threat of Ofsted is harder to ignore. We have to care about what they expect of us; if they don’t like earrings…

Luckily, what Ofsted expect is moving towards what I believe to be right (broadly speaking). Ironically, we were already moving in this direction when we were inspected by a team that wanted to see flight paths and particular types of pedagogy. No doubt we’ll be accused of doing what we are doing for Ofsted. Maybe to some extent we are. Maybe we all are. That doesn’t mean we don’t turn up for work every day and try to do the best for our students. We’re just finding new ways of reconciling what we know to be right with what we know is expected of us. After all, I can always put the earrings on when they are not looking.

* I stand corrected on this. Amanda Spielman has acknowledged Ofsted’s over-emphasis on outcomes. Thanks @chris_ofsted

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One thought on “Wear the damn earrings

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