It’s one of the most iconic scenes in the Walt Disney canon – the kindly old lady offers Snow White a shiny red apple. Children everywhere scream at the screen ‘Don’t take it, it’s really the wicked Queen! Don’t trust her!’ Snow White hesitates, but the lady seems so kind and… well, you know the rest.
In a nutshell, that has been the reaction of many people in schools to the new Ofsted framework. It might look tasty but experience tells us that if we take a bite, it could be poisonous. Three cheers for no pre-judgement based on data, school autonomy to decide the appropriate curriculum for their pupils and promotion of teacher wellbeing – but don’t forget that this is all coming from the organization held responsible by so many in the profession for causing untold stress, distorting teaching and learning, and creating a climate of fear and mistrust.
And yet…. even for those colleagues who have genuine doubts about the new direction of Ofsted, isn’t there a part of you that hopes that this is different, and that there is the possibility of a more productive relationship between schools and the body that holds them to account?
I’m the Executive Principal in a small MAT of two secondary schools, and have been the Head of Primary schools and a Middle School – my first Headship began in 1997, when inspections lasted a week and were conducted by a huge team, some of whom had never worked in a school. As a SIP and LA adviser, I’ve worked with schools in every Ofsted grade to help them improve and be ready for their next inspection. I’ve written a Doctoral study on the emotional impact of Ofsted failure on Head Teachers. I’ve led schools in Special Measure, as well as Requires Improvement and Good. I’m also an Ofsted Lead inspector. Over the last 20 years, my relationship with Ofsted has been longer lasting and more volatile than with anyone outside my immediate family.
There are some things that I wish were different. Grading, first and foremost – I still can’t see how the difference between good and outstanding is one that helps the schools in either group. The exemption for outstanding schools has no logical justification when the limitations of data are so clearly recognized – how can a desktop analysis establish that a school is still outstanding? I worry that the 2-day Section 8 falls between two stools, and its purpose will not be understood. My biggest concern is that it will be difficult to establish consistency, particularly at first, when so many inspectors have to unlearn some deeply-ingrained habits.
There are risks and challenges all over this new framework, many of them for Ofsted itself. However, in my view there are far more things that seem to be a major step forward. There’s a consistency within the document that hardly wavers. A consistent vision of the purpose of education and the role of Ofsted in holding schools to account. It puts a lot of responsibility on to schools, expecting them to be able to justify their curriculum choices, but it also allows for schools to make their own decisions. Maybe we’ve been fortunate that it’s not been drawn up under the reign of a headline-grabbing education secretary, and so Ofsted seem to be talking to the profession first and foremost, rather than the Daily Mail.
Undoubtedly, Ofsted has tried to make the case for change. Through social media, through the presence of HMI at conferences and events, through the mass of research and source material posted on their website, there has been a conscious and comprehensive attempt to persuade us that this will be beneficial change. It’s a valid argument that most of this communication has flowed in one direction, but unless I missed it, this didn’t happen with previous frameworks. Michael Wilshaw never struck me as someone who felt the need to explain his thinking or justify his actions.
In the schools in our Trust over the last year or so, we have been looking at curriculum, and using the language of intent and implementation. We’ve used a range of materials, including some of the Ofsted ones to discuss what we want our students to learn, how we can structure the curriculum to help them, and the implications for teaching and learning. It’s been really valuable and interesting work and we’ve benefitted as a result. We haven’t planned an Ofsted curriculum, or done this because we’ve felt pressured or obliged to do, but the agenda set by Ofsted has played a part in bringing this work forward.
Let me give you an example. I was at a meeting earlier this week discussing how we could promote languages, specifically Chinese, in KS4. One suggestion is that it could be studied as a non-examined subject, focusing on spoken language and cultural understanding (and fun). In the past this would have been a hard sell – taking valuable curriculum time away from the big hitters that will deliver results. Chances are Ofsted would not have been that interested. If Ofsted is true to the framework, the situation would be different. A school might identify the ability to speak a foreign language, to understand another culture, to develop a global outlook, to develop confidence, verbal fluency and an understanding of the patterns and rules of language, as an important part of their curriculum intent, implemented through a non-examined route. If I’ve read the handbook correctly, this could be real evidence of a clear curriculum vision, implemented in a way that benefits students.
Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that a benevolent effect of Ofsted? If the same effect happens to off-rolling or staff wellbeing, then I would be delighted. I don’t want someone who doesn’t know our schools to tell us what to do, but knowing I’m going to have to account for practice in these areas sets a background that makes it more likely we’ll do the right thing and do it well.
Will it deliver on these promises? Time will tell. As far as I can see the most convincing criticism comes from those who say that Ofsted won’t, or can’t, actually carry this out in practice. It’s a very fair point, borne out of sometimes bitter experience. It will have far more chance of doing so if it has the support of the profession. It’s not our job to be cheerleaders for Ofsted, but we do have a responsibility to judge the framework on its merits. The test of this framework is not in what’s written but how it’s implemented. There is a role for professional associations, social media and formal communication channels to maintain the dialogue with Ofsted so that implementation lives up to the stated intention.
I realise that some colleagues have a view that the only Ofsted change that they would support is its abolition. Even these colleagues would probably accept that this is extremely unlikely to happen. There are still a small number of schools (currently about 15%) that are not judged Good or Outstanding, with just over 3% inadequate. The relationship between these schools and Ofsted is unlikely to feel like a partnership, and undoubtedly it remains a key function of Ofsted to identify schools not meeting expected minimum standards (my personal suggestion would be to give these schools six months to address issues with no published report before a re-inspection).
I’m sometimes accused of being a glass half full sort of person (when it comes to Ofsted, I’m more likely to need a completely full glass, preferably with something strong). I actually think that optimism and the determination to bend contextual factors to our advantage is an important part of leadership. When it comes to a simple choice, I would rather that my schools are judged under the new framework than its predecessors. Michael Fullan tells us that the purpose of effective school leadership is that ‘more good things happen and fewer bad things happen’ – the new framework has a chance of meeting that test.