With the DfE and Ofsted making clashing requirements, Liam Collins is forced to wonder which accountability measures and diktats schools should be prioritising
Let us all understand this correctly: the new key stage 4 accountability measure will be the lever that gets schools to enter every pupil into the now infamous five (effectively seven) Ebacc GCSEs.
We already have to work out how to deliver a third as much content again in these new exams, then in the same summer, Ofsted announced it would take a dim view of schools that narrow their curriculum to score well on league tables.
This leaves school leaders stuck between a rock and a hard place. Here’s the dilemma: should a school aim for great outcomes on the Ebacc by focusing on a narrow curriculum that is suited to the intake, and risk a poor Ofsted report? Or opt for a wider curriculum and poorer outcomes, and face the RSC breathing down its neck instead?
Poor accountability measures mean people lose their jobs, but so does a poor Ofsted
According to Ofqual, the Ebacc curriculum has already been narrowed away from creative subjects. There is only so much time in a curriculum and forcing schools to deliver the EBacc’s seven GCSEs (English language, literature, Maths, core and additional science (at least), history or geography, and a language) leave very little time to study anything else: especially when most schools want to offer eight subjects due to the size of the new exams.
Many of us discussed the reaction schools would have to the EBacc when it was introduced, and it was why we formed the Headteacher’s Roundtable. No matter how many ministers or experts (i.e. those not working in schools) lecture us on the importance of the EBacc, accountability is how school leaders are lauded or sacked.
Without coursework to take up so much time, the new expanded GCSEs are achievable – in a school with an above-average intake, whose students will cope with more exams and content. However, schools with more mixed intakes will see results suffer, risking an academy order, the removal of governors or even the headteacher losing their job. So it is understandable these types of schools are increasing their key stage 4 by a third, by starting GCSEs in year 9.
Then we have no lesser figure than Ofsted’s boss Amanda Spielman criticising schools for narrowing their curriculum, and doing exactly that to game the system.
Our own recent inspection was all about the school’s SEF, action plan and pupil outcomes. If accountability measures are weak, you run the risk of your one-day inspection changing to a two-day, and even a worse grade. I know that Sean Harford would say that an inspection is more than the data, but in my experience if the data isn’t there, an inspection is never straightforward.
Poor accountability measures mean people lose their jobs, but so does a poor Ofsted, which brings the additional worry of balancing on the knife-edge.
It is the outcomes for each child that are the most important
The government needs to understand that changes to the accountability system need a five-year lead-in time. The majority of schools cannot hit the EBacc without far more MFL teachers in the system. We can’t have more students taking languages unless we teach more languages lower down the school. These changes take five years to work their way through. As for Ofsted, yet again we have an HMI who wants us to decide between her view of a ‘good’ curriculum and the reality of the accountability system.
School leaders need some space to adjust to all the changes. They need reassurance from the powers that be – whether Ofsted or the Department for Education – that no drastic decisions will be made on the basis of this year’s results.
As a school balancing these unachievable and contradictory targets, we have tried to take the decisions that are best for our pupils. Ultimately, a curriculum that allows them to be happy, confident and successful, and to push onto the next stage in their life, no matter what that is, is what our school is all about. It is the outcomes for each child that are the most important; the rest of the artificial aggregates are for no-one but the government and Ofsted.
No parent yet has asked me about my EBacc attainment, and no child here strives for one, but they are interested in sport, technology and the creative arts – and we will keep working towards their wishes and dreams and not towards whims and diktats. However, we will keep hoping in secret that by changing nothing we will balance on that knife edge. If not, I’ll await my P45.
Liam Collins is headteacher of Uplands Community College in East Sussex