A quick review
Before I get into what we can glean from these reports, I think it is worth revisiting some of the hopes and fears I had about the new Education Inspection Framework when it was first announced. I have summarised these briefly below.
- i) The quality of the schools’ curricular provision would be more central to the overall judgement
- ii) There would be a greater focus on curricular breadth in upper primary and secondary, and that two-year Key Stage 3 would be challenged
- iii) Ofsted would rely less on on school data and consider the ways in which assessment is used by teachers on the ground
- iv) Ofsted would shift their focus onto the learning of students rather than the performances of teachers
- v) The new framework would shift the focus onto subject specific training for teachers
- vi) Ofsted would begin to challenge schools who focused on exam technique over actual subject content
- vii) The new inspection system would lead to meaningful discussions around subject specific issues in schools and help inform school-level, and indeed system-wide, improvements in curricular provision.
I was worried that:
- a) The language of memory, sequencing and knowledge checking would become a smoke screen for schools to cover up bad practice with non-specialist inspectors
- b) Inspectors would throw out the baby with the bath water and see anything framed in terms of pupil motivation as a negative
In many ways I am pleased to say that many of my hopes in relation to the assessment of school curriculum have come to pass. I will explore this in more detail in a moment, but there is good evidence that items i-v (above) are prominent in the new reports. There is also some evidence that student motivation is not being ignored in favour of input-recall paradigms (item b in my worries). However, there is much less evidence relating to items vi and vii above, as well as item a. I will deal with these in a separate blog.
On a broader note, I also think Ofsted have done a fairly good job of keeping closely to their stated aims in the new assessment regime. There are of course other issues, but I plan to deal with those in a separate blog.
What did we find out?
So, with a guardedly positive review so far, what else can we glean from the new Ofsted reports?
- 1) The new reports are much shorter than the old ones. The summary of the school is fairly high level, but does focus on the “atmosphere” of the school as well as the curricular provision. As such they offer a broad picture of the schools as a place, but don’t offer much beyond this. The example below gives a good sense of this.
- 2) Curriculum gets a major focus. This is not a surprise, but it is good to see that Ofsted have followed through here. Curriculum comments comprise over half of all the substantive content of all the reports read, with the remainder being to do with school atmosphere, behaviour or leadership. Even with these, there are often strong links to curricular provision. Comments on leadership for example were often framed in terms of the school’s curricular ambition e.g. “Leaders have designed an ambitious curriculum,” or “The headteacher has raised teachers’ expectations. This has encouraged teachers to increase the sophistication of the work pupils are given.”
- 3) Curricular breadth and ambition get a lot of attention and form the backbone of the curriculum comments. Secondaries in particular seem to come in for heavy criticism where they have a two-year Key Stage 3 and little clear justification. Curricular construction is also a major theme. The examples below illustrate this well.
- 4) Comments on teaching methods focus largely on the learning of pupils and the things which impact student development of knowledge. Again, this is not a surprise, but it is good to see that some of the old problems of fetishizing particular “innovative” approaches to teaching are downplayed in favour of focusing on what is seen to be effective. The comments below suggest the importance of teachers focusing on clear instruction giving, building on existing knowledge, developing knowledge clearly, checking knowledge clearly, and using assessment information to inform teaching. All of this to me is just good teaching. There is also a sense in which pupils' enjoyment of school is still present. This is especially notable in the primary school reports. For example, one report notes that "The history curriculum has been designed to interest and motivate pupils. Pupils particularly love the occasions where they take part in special subject days and weeks where they dress up and experience life in, for example, the time of the Romans or the Stone Age." I have to say I am not sure what a "dress up like the stone age" day would look like, but it is encouraging that subject specific approaches are not being squashed. Another report says "teachers have good relationships with pupils. They plan activities that spark pupils’ imagination and creativity. For example, younger pupils told me all about the local legend of the ‘Knucker Dragon’."
- 5) Comments related to subject specific issues are connected mainly to sequencing and subject leads (and teachers) having clarity on core content. This suggests a major role being played by middle as well as senior leaders. Sadly, there is little depth beyond these broad issues and so questions about high quality curricular substance remain unanswered. This is especially interesting as reports from schools suggest that Ofsted inspectors are posing some interesting questions. Why the responses to these are glossed over in the report is a little unclear.
- 6) For the first time there is a real focus on the responsibility of middle and senior leadership to develop teachers in subject and phase specific ways. This is a real positive and I hope that schools are taking note! It is notable however that the comments on the training of staff were related more to primary inspections than secondary ones. I wonder if this is a function of the confidence of inspector to identify training issues at a secondary level when they may be non-specialists themselves?
- 7) Although this cannot be seen in the reports, there is a range of interesting questions being asked by inspectors during their Deep Dives. I think it is worth flagging these as I think that these questions are quite helpful as a means for subject leads to consider their own preparedness for inspection. None of these questions are inherently unfair but they do require a good knowledge of the curriculum to be taught and place a real emphasis on leadership teams to train their subject leads in subject specific ways. Examples include people being asked how curriculum is sequenced and what progression looks like. Other prompts have included: How do you ensure a pupil in Year x is ready for the next stage of learning?; Tell me about an assessment in your subject: when is it? How is it marked? What is its purpose?; What support/training have you received to help with your curriculum planning?; Comment on curriculum time allocation; and: How do you support your team to deliver the curriculum effectively?
So all in all there is a lot to like about the new Ofsted reports. What is particularly notable is that I think it would be hard for schools to infer too many odd things about "what Ofsted want" from these. Anything which is in the reports is, by and large, already in the inspection framework and has been made very clear. However, the focus on making the reports clear has come at the expense of detail. In my next blog I will be exploring some of the worries I still have about the new EIF.
As ever I hope this is useful and would be very interested in comments and feedback.