The problem isn’t the framework, it’s high-stakes accountability

19 Jan 2019, 5:00

Ros McMullen gives ‘a big thumbs-up’ to the emphasis on curriculum – although, she says, she struggles with how inspectors will judge its impact

I have a confession – I really like Amanda Spielman, our HMCI, and I really like her intentions. I am also one of those who believe schools should be all about curriculum. I remember when I was an inner-city SENCO, seeing all the children queuing with their reports outside the head of years’ offices and thinking to myself, “these aren’t pastoral problems; these are curriculum problems”.

When I was deputy head at a boys’ secondary modern I worked to remove a curriculum that I dubbed as “hammering, nailing and failing” to one that enabled the pupils to have the same choice of destinations as their peers who had “passed for the grammar”. And then in my various headship roles (always in challenging schools) I have been very clear that we move away from “cuddle and muddle” into aspirational curriculum territory. So I should be delighted at this new emphasis on curriculum, shouldn’t I?

Unfortunately each Ofsted framework has the same problem: because of the high stakes nature of the accountability system where what is seen as a poor Ofsted can finish a head’s career, damage the financial sustainability of the school, further exacerbate the problem in recruiting staff, etc, etc, schools treat the framework as a school self-evaluation form and as an improvement plan. Just as in Brexit (“The problem isn’t Theresa’s deal; the problem is Brexit”), we don’t need to tinker about with frameworks, we need to rethink the whole nature of our judgment-based accountability system.

The problem really wasn’t the framework guys

But, hey ho, that wasn’t within the brief they were given and they have clearly had to do some truly unfortunate things such as EBacc. (Is there anyone other than Nick Gibb who believes putting 90 per cent of kids through EBacc is a sensible target? Or even that EBacc is “a thing”?) I’ll be generous, however, to the spirit of the new framework and give a big thumbs up to the emphasis on the curriculum intent and delivery; although I am struggling a little with how they will judge curriculum impact.

Here’s the thing: you build curriculum up over a coherent five-year journey and when schools have had poor quality in the past and are being “turned around” those first few cohort results are unlikely to demonstrate incredible impact (unless, of course, you have thrown everything at Year 11 to the detriment of getting curriculum and pedagogy excellent from Year 7 onwards). So I have looked particularly closely at how this curriculum impact will be evaluated. Oh dear . . . We have two main problems. First, the reliance on “nationally generated performance information about pupil progress and attainment”. I have seen so many inspections where we have been told “everything you are doing is right, but it is too early to judge impact so everything is requires improvement”. In rapidly improving schools this can lead to heads going and the whole improvement journey being undermined. Second, and this one is the real killer, “work scrutinies and documentary review”. These five little words will crucify the agenda in many schools to reduce workload.

It seems to me that the story of frameworks is that after each one Ofsted has to correct the behaviour that the high-stakes nature of the system has drawn from that framework: preferred styles of teaching, triple marking etc. I’m willing to bet that within a short period the same will be true of this framework. It saddens me. The problem really wasn’t the framework guys, and it is only too easy to predict the stifling and ridiculous processes and systems and additional workload this one will produce.

I would have liked them to look at the real problem and get rid of the high-stakes nature by removing the ridiculous four-point scale for judgments, because that is the real problem.

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