Ofsted in the news

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School leaders talking

It’s been a busy start to 2020 for Ofsted, with more updates and media coverage than an Ofsted-nerd like myself can keep up with - so I thought it might be useful to pull together some of what’s been going on.  

Ofsted have no preference on the duration of KS3 (right?)

Firstly, we have Sean Harford’s piece on the role and purpose of KS3 and whether or not Ofsted has a set view on how long KS3 should last. Sean writes at length to try and debunk what he considers to be a myth around the Ofsted framework - ‘there is no preferred length of KS3’ and the length of KS3 ‘is not a limiting judgement in our handbook’. As has been the case since the inception and launch of the new framework, Sean asserts how a major focus of the EIF is around monitoring whether students have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects to a meaningful level of depth and that this can be achieved in a variety of ways. This all sounds crystal clear to me - so carry on as you are, three-year-KS4 schools, right? 

The gap between what Ofsted say and what Ofsted do

But wait… against this assertion, we have the actual statistics showing a strong correlation between a shortened KS3 and a rating that is less-than-Good. In our own analysis of the first wave of inspections, we found: of schools offering a 2 year KS3 and 3 year KS4 (38% of the sample), 88% were judged as Requiring Improvement for quality of education and for their overall rating. And the reverse applies – of the schools offering a full, 3-year KS3 and a 2-year KS4 (40% of the sample), 76% were judged as Good. The narrative of many of the reports of RI schools singled out the narrowness of KS3 as a specific area needing to be addressed.  This apparent bias hasn’t gone unnoticed by schools who, just like us, have been keeping a hawkish eye out for the results of the first inspections to form a view of what the framework means for them.  

So throw out your curriculum plans, 3-year-KS4 schools - right?  

Alas, it is not quite so simple. There are some schools (not many, but still some) that are shortening KS3 but still being rated Good or Outstanding. Sean Harford outlines some of these in his article and I’ve certainly come across them when looking across the latest Ofsted reports. They tend not to be starting GCSE early simply to ensure they are getting through the specification content in time or leaving enough time for a substantial revision period. Instead they tend to: use the time to offer more breadth and/or depth - this might be in terms of allowing students to study a greater range of GCSE subjects or to go beyond the content in the GCSE specificationhave some sort of transition approach in Year 9, where they subtly introduce GCSE skills and task types support the core curriculum with brilliant extra-curricular provision - think debating societies, choirs, coding clubs and the like - delivered by teachers for the love of the subject rather than any link to an assessed outcome.  

The MAT backlash

Influential MAT leaders have also waded into the debate. Sir Dan Moynihan and Martyn Oliver - leaders of Harris and Outwood Grange Trusts respectively - have laid into the new framework, criticising its bias towards a three year KS3 as detrimental to the outcomes of the most disadvantaged students in our society. The Harris CEO went as far as labelling the framework as ‘a middle class framework for middle-class kids’ and how for ‘many of our children, qualifications are all they have in their hands at a job interview or college application and beyond. They have no networks, no contacts, no professional people in their family to help them on in life. Their GCSEs are crucial. Ofsted is valuing curriculum over qualifications.’ Dame Rachel de Souza - leader of Inspiration Trust - added her support to this to further ramp the pressure up on the inspectorate. 

Against this there are strong voices in support of the new framework - most recently Sir Jon Coles, Chief Executive of the United Learning Trust, who feels that Ofsted’s challenge of the three-year key stage 4 is long overdue. Picking up on Sir Dan Moynihan’s characterisation of the EIF as a ‘middle-class framework’, Sir Jon states that the 3-year KS4 should be challenged ‘not in the interests of the middle classes, but most importantly for the poor and the dispossessed.’ He goes on, comparing our system to other jurisdictions and noting that ‘No similar country allows young people to opt out as early as we do from learning about the nature of our planet, how human, social and political structures came to be as they are, or how to communicate in another language.’ 

Such is the discontent amongst leaders of some of the country’s largest Trusts that we now have the prospect of the Minister of State for Education feeling the need to step in and act as peacemaker, to broker a deal between MATs and Ofsted.  

Mistrust of Ofsted

All this has lead to re-surfacing of concerns about the ability of Ofsted to inspect against this framework fairly and consistently - something first voiced during the consultation period and which promises to recur through the life of the framework itself.  The outgoing framework, with its predominant focus on hard data and outcomes, felt objectively assessable in a way that this new framework - with its scrutiny of curriculum and whether a school has chosen and sequenced the most powerful knowledge and skills and retained breadth and balance - does not.

Examples are being shared - particularly at Secondary level - of subjects being inspected against the quality of their curriculum by an inspector with no experience or specialism in that subject. And whilst much of this blog has focused on KS3 and the Secondary sector, just this week we have seen the story of a number of primary schools preparing to launch appeals against their Ofsted gradings, over concerns inspectors have the expertise and time to make fair judgements.  

A number of figures have added their voice to the view that it is not possible to reduce complex matters of breadth, balance and curriculum to a single, graded judgement - and with them, the familiar calls for Ofsted to review the grading system in its entirety.  Nick Brook of the NAHT captures this sentiment best, saying ‘Inspectors are being asked to do too much, in too short a time, and with too great a degree of subjectivity. All of which is leading to rushed and ill thought-out judgements — with sadly career defining consequences for headteachers.’ 

Lynne Fox is one such example - by all accounts an inspiring, well-respected Headteacher and who indeed was a silver award winner at Pearson’s Teaching Awards last year - the feeling of being unfairly and harshly judged under the new framework has been too much.  

Big questions

What has struck me in reading across the different opinions on the new framework is how, at the heart of this debate and angst, are some fundamental questions about the purpose of education. Sir Dan Moynihan touches on this when he writes that ’Ofsted is valuing curriculum over qualifications’ - there is a kind of ethical quandary here for all involved in education that asks questions around: What is in the best interest of students? Is it right to sacrifice the breadth of curriculum for strong pupil outcomes in qualifications?  (if indeed the two are mutually exclusive, which is another point of contention!)

Which is more important and who is best placed to decide this?  We will all have our own views on these questions - and to complex questions there are rarely simple answers. For my part, I think it is schools themselves who are best-placed to answer the above questions for their students and their particular context - and that the framework needs to be applied with a degree of nuance that looks beyond the narrow question of whether KS3 is delivered over two or three years.  

Need help? 

We’re already working with many schools, trusts and partners to understand their needs and provide solutions. If you’d like to discuss your school curriculum and how we can support you to choose and implement courses that work for your school in context, please request a call-back from our curriculum team.   


Written by Danny Cuttell, Head of English, MFL and Extended Curriculum Services at Pearson.