Ofsted

Ofsted’s autocratic curriculum experiment has failed

3 Aug 2022, 5:00

Over the years, Ofsted’s role has shifted from ‘aiming to improve lives by raising standards in education and children’s social care’ to a high-stakes, low-trust culture of school judgment. Worse: the framework itself is driven by an ideology of knowledge-rich curriculum, an obsession with cognitive science and reductive government targets for ‘academic Ebacc subjects’. In short, the inspectorate is no longer a collective of professional experts, but an autocracy.

The engine room for the implementation of this policy is Ofsted’s ‘curriculum unit’ – a small group of mostly externally recruited HMI with minimal inspection or senior leadership experience. Their chief tool is the ‘subject deep dive’, said to ‘provide evidence of curriculum quality, which informs ‘our quality of education judgement’. And the result is that in almost every school, learning is organised through subjects, with leaders attempting to ensure their curriculum fits this methodology rather than developing alternative strategies that may be more appropriate for their pupils.

But it was not always thus. From 2005, we led subject and thematic surveys within Ofsted’s then-‘curriculum and dissemination division’. Together with inspection outcomes, these surveys were used to inform Ofsted and government policy. Inspectors were not permitted a preferred approach to curriculum or teaching, we simply identified and disseminated good practice that was valued within the sector.

Today’s approach is the deliberate opposite. Ofsted very definitely has preferred approaches, set out in the subject research reviews. For instance, the English Review omits reference to reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, focusing instead on ‘knowledge of language, (vocabulary and grammar), and knowledge of the world for comprehension’. And because schools fear being penalised, their curriculum policies, development plans and schemes of work deploy the same terminology.

In two schools recently graded ‘Requires Improvement’ (one primary and one secondary), inspectors highlighted as a weakness that reading books did not ‘conform with pupils’ phonics levels’. In other words, pupils were decoding using other strategies, but inspectors’ expectations that reading be entirely driven through synthetic phonics meant the schools were downgraded. This is in spite of a national backdrop of around one-quarter of primary pupils regularly not attaining the government’s expected standards in SATs.

Leaders can neither be autonomous nor unleash their potential

Furthermore, this reductive approach from Ofsted top-down, means schools receive little more than anodyne, bland reports that do not capture the essence of their individual contexts. Prescribed stock phrases mean reports could be about any school, anywhere. It’s dispiriting for school leaders, and the absence of any sense of local character means headteachers simply focus on the grade.

On the other hand, the interchangeability of reports exposes the unreliability of the inspectorate’s judgments. Many headteachers inspected under this framework have spotted

inconsistencies. More than once, we have heard that ‘X school had this and were judged good while we had the same and are judged RI’.

Under previous HMCIs, report writing was a practised skill that required capturing the school’s narrative, a snapshot of its pupils’ learning and a sense of the uniqueness of its setting. Honestly, that’s what inspection should be about: how leaders set the school’s vision, values and curriculum for their pupils, not how faithfully they implement central commands.

What we have instead is a prescriptive tick-box culture of what and how schools should teach. And a framework that was supposed to do away with expensive and ‘unevidenced’ consultants is instead driving compliance-led ‘improvement’ activity. Senior and middle leaders desperately seek advice on how to respond to inspectors, how to conduct a ‘deep dive’, and how to talk the language of cognitive science whilst sequencing their curriculum, in order to ‘pass’ the inspection.

Under this inspection framework, leaders can neither be autonomous, nor unleash theirs, their pupils’, their staff’s or their communities’ full potential. More than that, having inspectors apply their own policies and prescriptions to the process of inspection undermines the organisation’s very purpose – to inspect ‘without fear or favour’.

There can be no doubt that curriculum is at the heart of education. But on intent, implementation and impact, Ofsted’s narrow curriculum for schools has failed. Implementation is inconsistent and the impact of reports does not capture learning. It is all about the intent; a school’s ability to jump through Ofsted’s curriculum hoops! It’s time to place learners at the heart of the curriculum; to remove expectations of what schools should teach and how, and to confer professionalism back to the sector.

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13 Comments

  1. Henry Wiggins

    As an ex HMI, there are some aspects of the article that do ring true. The curriculum unit does not seem staffed with people with the breadth of knowledge and experience to command respect but instead by those who came to prominence on Edutwitter and involvement in ‘Conservative’ teachers’ associations. They have been selected because they have a certain view.

    However, the article seems to hark back to some kind of golden age when OFSTED was staffed with respected curriculum experts and there was no ‘tick box culture’. I think many in the teaching profession would not agree with this view. OFSTED has always led to a culture of jumping through whatever hoops school leaders think inspectors will look for. This has been true for the thirty years of its existence.

    It has a detrimental effect on the whole system, distorting priorities and school leaders ability to focus on what matters. I am glad that the two authors have spoken out and I commend them for doing so, but they do not tell the whole story. The whole system of accountability needs to be reviewed and the hostile, wasteful system of school inspection changed so that schools are supported not punished. The current approach damages staff and pupils and the system as a whole.

  2. Kim Cowie

    A brilliant article by Wood and Lyons, which mirrors my experince across several schools. School iniative, creatve, imagination and joy and sheer exuberance are being drowned out by a rigid, dictatorial Ofsted/DFE approach.

  3. Giles Vigar

    The reason why I left the maintained sector and now teach in the independent is that the management at my previous school, a high performing comprehensive were scared whitless of OFSTED. As a staff we had to follow the matra of what ever fad was prevalent, performance management was punative and there was no room for professional discussions. This is a pity as my physics groups generally did well.

    • I don’t mind inspections as all the teachers I have met over many years have done such a wonderful job. I think my main issue is do any inspectors still teach in a classroom in an inner city school with 40 children … many of whom who are a mix of refugees with traumatic experiences, English a second language, UK children on the ‘at risk’ register with social services. It goes on. Not a complaint. Just interested.

  4. Classic example of ‘when I was part of it it was a good thing, now I am not everything is bad’.

    I think very very few school teachers or leaders would agree that Ofsted has ever done anything other than increase work load and stress for the profession. Inspectors actively fed it too, by selling themselves as consultants to schools on top.

    Until Ofsted actively audit the well being of teachers and pupils as a separate category in their overall grading it will not be adding to the benefits of education.

  5. Terry Pearson

    What’s more, the organisation that Ofsted has so often peddled as the provider of robust cognitive science research evidence, and whose material is typical of that which has been used extensively to support the inspection framework and research reviews, has recently issued the following warnings to the education sector:

    • “Where cognitive science has been translated and applied within classroom interventions and techniques, it cannot safely be assumed that this will have the expected impact on pupils’ learning, however strong the basic science evidence-base.”
    • “Without a systematic review of the applied evidence, the current and potential impact on pupil outcomes of various cognitive science informed interventions and techniques remains uncertain.”

    And goes on to draw the following conclusions:

    • “In our view, the implication of this is that caution, nuance, and reflection are needed rather than prescription, simplification, and the blanket imposition of the prevailing conceptions of best practice across subjects, age ranges, and contexts.”
    • “We suggest that the education community SHOULD NOT change its practices substantially without further applied evidence and more thorough and rigorous investigation into how practice might best be adapted.” (emphasis added).

    Taken from: Education Endowment Fund publication ‘Cognitive Science in the Classroom: Evidence and Practice Review July 2021’

  6. Dennis O’Sullivan

    I have been done 6 or 7 times by Ofsted, mainly as a headteacher. There was no golden age of consistency- girls schools seemed to do well most of the time and there was a link between Ofsted grades and prior attainment (an excellent analysis by Eating Elephants)
    However, when the lead inspector looked for achievement, student involvement, a safe, happy value-adding whole school with a determined, happy staff, it was a joy. The motivation to do even better has carried us even further.
    I probably have one more inspection in me and, looking at the new regime, and the article above, I’m getting ready to complain in advance.

  7. Great article which gets to the root of a lot of issues in education today.
    The fact that policies are decided by “Ofsted’s ‘curriculum unit’ – a small group of mostly externally recruited HMI with minimal inspection or senior leadership experience” is a serious problem which will continue to negatively affect pupils and staff in schools across the country for years to come, unless addressed.
    Those who have minimal experience of challenges faced by teachers and school leaders should not be advising schools, inspecting them or forming policies that have to be followed to the letter by everyone. This is where unrealistic standards come from.
    Furthermore, expecting schools across the country to teach the national curriculum in the same way as if they have the exact same demographic/community is ludicrous. Good schools where the needs of students are met are being let down in favour of schools which do a great job at passing Ofsted inspections but in reality are not prioritising the children they educate (not every school that does well in an Ofsted inspection falls into this category but there are many who do). I have sat through many meetings in which the thinly-disguised aim was to look good for Ofsted in one way or another. The resulting superficial ‘improvements’ seldom helped pupils and generally created extra work for overworked staff.
    As mentioned in the article, this also contributes to the lack of consistency on Ofsted’s behalf – some schools will be penalised more than others simply because they are not doing all they can to superficially ‘look good’ for Ofsted. This would be less of an issue if inspections were more open-minded and schools were given the chance of showing how they teach the national curriculum and how their pupils are making progress. This would encourage creativity, from both leaders and classroom teachers. It may even make teaching a more attractive profession in the long term, and reduce the significant number who leave each year.

  8. Liannah Barnes

    Don’t understand the sudden urge to diss ofsted in the media??? From experience and what I’ve seen from just being a normal person there’s alot of corruptions within the system and media normally gets taken to court for bans or simply ditated to to write a story ? 1 thing I am sure of the only thing that matters is the children not the workings the safety and wellbeing of everyone’s future the way alot of the systems are working is on profit leaving them working understaffed and against regulations there shouldn’t be profit in children not what can you get for special needs kids worth more money or how can the local authority steal the next child and the worst situations are the ones no one gets involved with unless its to abuse in some way ? Adults working in systems are more like children Grow up all authorities are ment to be working together that means protecting each other ? Who’s protecting kids not jobs whos done what I mean wouldn’t it be more rewarding to watch a child grow not label, speaking from experience I met my stepson 5 years ago I got told he will never read he will not be able to do this or that within 6 weeks I had the child reading the most rewarding part was showing his mummy and being so proud, although did tell him off yesterday as he said he had a brain that didn’t work thats adults behaviour that kids are listening to stop it please

  9. With the heavy implementation of government overtake in our tender childrens lives had me driven to create community-dictated schools as they once were.
    Our government have introduced the schools bill and now we see reports such as this.

    There is intentional and harmful interruptions and poor systems so to set children against their potential. It’s so obvious. We teachers sit idol while we pretend that “those in charge” have ultimate knowledge and dictate”. Come on Teachers. We are all the children have for the future of humanity.
    local community schools run at a county level would work wonders and would only take a few systems to uptake. I tried and OFSTED came to my setting to see if I was suitable and not threatening.

  10. E Vine

    Ofsted has been off track for decades. It was bound to fail and has failed to make all schools the best they could be. Basically, OFSTED just provided governments with a distraction, a means of blaming teachers for a lack of investment in buildings, teachers and innovation. Despite the ability using IT and new integrated learning project based strategies to provide bespoke and individualised approaches to learning we still have a model of education that is built on that of a Victorian factory batch production system. OFSTED, since inception and something known by most teachers, is a monstrous bureaucracy created by politicians who were educated in the private sector, informed by an already failing Targets business model from the USA and staffed by those who had long got themselves promoted out of the classroom. OFSTED changed a collaborative state education system with schools and teachers working together to innovate and develop with support via Teachers Centres into a highly competitive and regressive terminal and silo’d subject based rigid myopic rat race, not helped by a beliefs that a ‘drill’ high pressure approach from Singapore combined with stuffing more into harder exam syllabuses would improve learning. OFSTED fails in many other ways: eg prep panic or management leveraging “in case OFSTED arrives ” wastes thousands of hours that would have previously been spent teaching children or running after school activities. OFSTED wasn’t value for money: a PRU where I once worked was put into special measures. The same inspectors came to put matters right, for enormous fees, and apart from updating the admin filing system changed nothing at the chalkface, they simply couldn’t because it was working perfectly. An excellent Headteacher was put under such stress she left the profession.
    In the late 1960s we laughed at the French for having a straight jacketed centrally regimented high controlled education system, after a decade of innovation and highly successful and exciting development here in the 1970s, especially in the STEM subjects, it was decided “teachers could not be trusted” and literally the government threw all we had away and gleefully legislating we should all don straight jackets.
    Now 40 years on, we find the uk has more than a gap in skills and postgraduates but a chasm.
    We have made up for this by sucking in talent from around the world whilst not investing sufficiently here. A look at the recent report about the labour workforce shortfalls in the nhs shows where we have failed, the same applies elsewhere.
    The tragedy is that closing uk manufacturing and de skilling the uk in favour of boosting financial services has left the uk under performing with low productivity and nowhere near the high skills high salaries country our politicians say they wanted to create.
    We lost 40 years and OFSTED was a backwards looking distraction that was partly to blame.