Following the publication of Ofsted’s plans for the future of education inspection in England, Ian Hartwright shares his thoughts on the new arrangements
1. Curriculum focus
Schools can expect a big shift in emphasis from inspectors in school, ending an obsession with the scrutiny of pupil data and moving to a greater professional discussion on curriculum structure, coherence and sequencing. In the grand scheme of things, it is preferable and welcome that Ofsted should encourage schools to focus on what actually makes a difference to pupil experiences, rather than incentivise schools to waste time interrogating unreliable tracking data, creating flightpaths or attempting to predict outcomes, as has been the case in recent years. The devil, of course, will be in the detail.
2. Test and exam performance remain just as important
Those who have watched the drip feed of information from Ofsted over recent months may be forgiven for thinking that published pupil performance data would figure much less in future inspections. Not necessarily so – they are all still there, and more besides, under ‘Curriculum Impact’. The handbook gives nothing away as to how much weight will be given to them in forming an overall judgement. In a surprisingly large number of areas, the handbook is vague and open to interpretation. With so much that is subjective, I suspect ‘hard evidence’ of published outcomes may continue to dominate judgements.
3. Pause on full implementation
Ofsted has bowed to pressure to give schools more time to respond to the new emphasis on curriculum, given that there will be very little time between finalising these new arrangements and their implementation, in September 2019. A very significant caveat has been inserted to the inspection criteria for curriculum to ensure that ‘inspectors will evaluate ‘intent’ favourably’, where this is still a work in progress. This is welcome, though also vague and will need more precise language around it, to avoid it becoming far too open to interpretation between different inspectors.
If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck
4. Near no-notice inspection
Ofsted is proposing that the lead inspector will arrive on site within a few hours of notification that the school is to be inspected. Following a deeply negative reaction when this was first mooted, the scope of activities to be covered on this first half-day has been dramatically reduced, to the point at which you must ask why a phone call would not suffice. It would be misleading or naïve to suggest that on-site preparation (as Ofsted call it) would not inevitably turn into inspection activity. If an inspector is on-site then an inspection has begun. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.
5. ‘Short’ inspection will get longer
Section 8 inspection of good schools will double in length to two days – the same length as full inspections, in order to cover more ground within an expanded framework. Given the very limited resources at Ofsted’s disposal, it’s disappointing that they have decided to increase the amount of inspector time visiting schools that are good, when there is broad consensus that time would be much better spent providing stronger diagnostic insight and support to improve those schools that are struggling. It’s a real shame the original intent of short inspection – as a light touch health-check with conversion to full inspection where problems emerge – seems somehow to have been lost.
6. This is a genuine consultation
To their credit, Ofsted has committed to a 12-week consultation period and has published a full range of documentation (including a very early draft of the inspection handbook) to support review, debate and feedback. There is much to welcome and much to express concern about, but that, after all, is the whole purpose of consultation. It is vital that as many people in the profession engage in the detail in coming months. We must make our voices heard.