Ofsted: Schools have to justify decisions to shorten KS3 (and show EBacc 'ambition')

Schools must justify decisions to shorten key stage 3 and show “ambition” to meet the English Baccalaureate target in the new Ofsted era.

Schools Week analysis of the first wave of new inspection reports published by the watchdog reveal schools have been criticised for running three-year GCSEs and having “too few” pupils studying the government’s EBacc.

Headteachers say the watchdog’s focus on a broad key stage 3, but prescriptive key stage 4, is “deeply ironic” – warning the framework must not become “prescriptive”.

The findings also challenge assurances by Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, that new inspections would not push an “Ofsted-approved curriculum”.

Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said Ofsted should not be criticising schools “who decide their pupils need more time to cover the demands of new GCSEs while upgrading others within a strong EBacc take-up”.

The new framework must not end up becoming prescriptive by default

“This is inappropriate and goes way beyond the remit of a schools’ inspectorate.”

The new framework came into force on September 1. Eight of the 55 inspections published so far (as of Thursday morning) were for secondary schools. None has yet been rated “outstanding” or “inadequate”.

Two secondaries, Boldon School in Tyne and Wear and Beckfoot Thornton school in Bradford, were criticised for their approach to three-year GCSEs.

Inspectors said teachers at Beckfoot Thornton spent two years on the key stage 3 curriculum. They taught a “broad range of topics, but they do not explore subject content in depth. This leads to gaps in pupils’ understanding.” The school was rated “requires improvement”.

Boldon School, rated “good”, was criticised for its “vague” rationale for a year 9 transition year that inspectors said meant pupils did not study all of the national curriculum in subjects such as history and geography.

“This denies them their entitlement to important areas of knowledge. The school should review its curriculum and ensure that the model implemented next year fully delivers the national curriculum for key stage 3.”

In January, Spielman said the watchdog planned to “tackle” narrow curriculums and teaching to the test.

The new “quality of education” judgment focuses on the “intent” of a school’s curriculum, rather than just outcomes. However, it is being phased in to allow schools time to review curriculums; they will not be downgraded during the year-long transition if leaders can show they are taking action to update the curriculum.

Stephen Rollett, a curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the association had been assured Ofsted would not treat a shortened key stage 3 as an “automatic negative mark”.

“Many schools run a shortened key stage 3 and longer key stage 4 programme very effectively; the new framework must not end up becoming prescriptive by default.”

A survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research in April found more than half of secondaries began teaching GCSE content in year 9. And the Department for Education’s school snapshot survey last year found that in 35 per cent of schools the pupils were expected to start studying for key stage 4 in all subjects.

Jules White, a headteacher who leads the Worthless school funding campaign, said an extended key stage 4 could be beneficial as it let schools “promote and deliver a wide-ranging and in-depth curricular offer” and let pupils “develop the skills and knowledge to gain success in their final exams, as well as a stepping stone to future learning and working opportunities”.

We will be particularly alert to signs of narrowing in key stage 2 and 3

A spokesperson for Ofsted said inspectors would expect a “broad, rich curriculum” and be “particularly alert to signs of narrowing” in key stages 2 and 3.

He said if a school had a shortened key stage 3, inspectors would check “pupils still have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects in sufficient depth across their time at school”, which should be “at least as ambitious” as the national curriculum.

However, others query how Ofsted’s demands fit in with the freedoms granted to academies that no longer have to follow the national curriculum.

Schools Week can also reveal that inspectors will check if schools are working towards the government’s target of 75 per cent of year 10 pupils studying EBacc subjects by 2022, rising to 90 per cent by 2025.

Ofsted says this is “an ambition and not a target for any individual school” and inspectors would not make judgments on the quality of education based “solely or primarily” on progress towards it.

“Nevertheless, it is an important factor in understanding a school’s level of ambition for its pupils. It is, therefore, important that inspectors understand what schools are doing to prepare for this to be achieved, and they should take those preparations into consideration when evaluating the intent of the school’s curriculum.”

Boldon School faced criticism for “too few pupils” taking EBacc subjects, and was told to ensure plans to increase this were “fully implemented” over the next two years.

The latest performance league table data, for 2017-18, shows the school entered 5 per cent (one in 20) pupils into the full EBacc. The local authority average was 26.1 per cent, with the national average 38.4 per cent.

It’s just adding to the stress, workload and fear

Other schools were praised for their EBacc focus. Leaders at The Corsham School in Wiltshire were commended for wanting “as many pupils as possible to succeed” in the EBacc. Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar in Blackburn was noted as making a foreign language and humanities subject compulsory at key stage 4, which “reflects the school’s commitment to entering almost all pupils for the English Baccalaureate”.

But Stephen Tierney, chair of the Headteacher’s Roundtable, said the government’s Ebacc aspirations “are not attainable” because of issues outside of a school’s control such as recruiting teachers in shortage subjects such as modern foreign languages.

“It’s just adding to the stress, workload and fear. The danger is we are being ideologically driven.”

James Pope, a former headteacher and director of the Inspired Educate network, said there was a “deep irony” in Ofsted wanting to see pupils take the EBacc, while criticising schools for extending key stage 4.

“Ultimately it comes back to what Ofsted’s role is in inspecting a school. Is it there to look at the quality of what they’re doing, given the freedoms schools are supposed to have around those things, or is it there to check the agenda?

“It’s like the same old problems within a new framework.”