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.
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.