Something has been bothering me recently about the messages coming out from Ofsted about the new inspection framework. I think the source of my concern is something to do with the external standard schools are being measured against.
An expected standard is an attempt to set criteria against which an estimate of quality can be made. The criteria must therefore be based on a theory of quality i.e. a conception of what it means to provide a quality education. There are, of course, many differing views as to what constitutes a quality school experience, so Ofsted have to take a position on this question and construct a quality framework accordingly. Whatever position they take, many people will disagree with the criteria and emphasis. We can also take issue with the validity of a criterion-based system, prone as they are to subjective interpretation and inconsistency. But none of this is what has been bothering me. We all know that the best Ofsted can do is give an approximation of quality against any particular set of standards.
The question I have is whether the new Ofsted inspection framework is:
(i) An attempt to make a more accurate and valid judgement of school quality, but against the same philosophical conception of what a quality education is, or;
(ii) A new expected standard based on a different philosophical conception of what a quality education is.
The distinction is very important. If the former, then the framework is intended as a better version of the last one; we need do nothing different, knowing that the judgement of our schools will be fairer and sharper. If the latter, then it is an attempt to judge schools against a different set of criteria, underpinned by a reformed view of what schools should be doing; we need to change!
Everything I have heard coming from Ofsted suggests that they have changed their minds about what good schools do. Amanda Spielman has critiqued the last framework, suggesting that they were looking at the wrong things in the wrong way; worrying too much about exam results and data, and not enough about the ‘substance’ of education, workload and student behaviour. You only have to read the framework to see that Ofsted have fundamentally shifted their position on what constitutes a quality education.
And yet they also say (on repeat) that schools should not do anything ‘for Ofsted’. Sean Harford keeps saying that schools should not change anything they are doing, and should be confident that, if they are doing the right things, the inspection will take care of itself. But what are the ‘right things’? It really feels like the right things are different right things to the right things in the current framework.
To add to this confusion, we now learn that we will have a year’s grace to get our curriculum sorted and that, as long as we can prove that a review is underway, we will not be hung out to dry. So, we should be changing what we do after all? Is that ‘for Ofsted’ or because we have all been getting it wrong all along? A collective insanity that we are all just waking up from.
The period of grace blatantly contradicts the public message not to chase the latest version of Ofsted criteria.
The truth here is that Ofsted have radically altered their view of what quality education is. By adopting a new framework which reflects the beliefs of the current leadership, they hope to improve the standard of education across the system. The only way this will be achieved is if schools do change what they do as a result of how they will be inspected. Why are we pretending otherwise? The point of Ofsted is that they hold a mirror up to the education system and provoke us in to doing something about our acne. If we carry on eating junk food and avoiding moisturising then they have failed.
I happen to far prefer the new framework to the old one. I am much more confident that our next inspection will be looking for the things that I look for when evaluating the school. As a result, I am more likely to use the Ofsted criteria as a guide to what we should be aiming for. I won’t use them because they are the Ofsted criteria, but because they are a fairly good descriptor of what a quality school delivers.
What really irks me is that Ofsted won’t admit that they want us to change to meet these new expectations. If they are the Office for Standards in Education then they should unashamedly set the standard and tell schools to meet it.
The reason they won’t is because they would have to admit that they believe the present framework looks for the wrong things in the wrong way. And it does. Our last inspection was based on the (mistaken) belief that you could tell whether students had learnt something by looking in their books, and that flight-paths were evidence of progress. There was no concern about matters of ‘substance’; no discussion about the curriculum or our educational values. We were running a school on the principles of the new inspection framework, but judged under the flaws of the present one.
If Ofsted were to admit that the new framework is a truly radical departure, they would have to declare null and void all past grades. Instead, they have to stick to the story that this is an evolution, not a revolution, and that we should all carry on as normal.