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Amanda Spielman wants to take Ofsted in a new direction – but while we still have performance tables and parental choice, how far will she really be able to go?
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Imagine there’s no Ofsted. Easy if you try. Or is it?
Naturally many of today’s teachers and school leaders would view the demise of inspection with joy.
And that would be partly justified. For all the claims by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate in recent years that they no longer grade lessons and judge individual teachers, Ofsted is feared, often not trusted and certainly not loved.
However, many of today’s professionals probably can’t remember the era before such high stakes school accountability was introduced; my age means I can personally vouch for the fact that it wasn’t so great back then, either.
My own children’s primary school was one of the first to be inspected in the mid 1990s and shown to be miserably failing, which makes me realistic about the need for a framework within which we guarantee a basic decent standard to all young people.
And that is without the ramifications of parent choice. Some may say get rid of that concept as well, but it would be impossible to put this particular genie back in the bottle. While the right to choose exists, then, parents will want and deserve information about how their local schools are doing.
So, is there a middle way? Well Ofsted appears to think so, or rather the relatively recent Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman does. She is proposing a new approach to the current (four) Ofsted judgements in an imminent consultation about the next Ofsted framework.
Under her plan the ‘outcomes’ judgement would merge into a single ‘quality of education’ judgement to embrace curriculum alongside teaching, learning and assessment, and outcomes.
Meanwhile personal development, behaviour and welfare would be separated into two judgements: one for behaviour and attitudes and the other for personal development.
Sounds good? The underlying implication is that Ofsted wants to move away from the ‘tyranny of data’ that I wrote about recently, in order to discourage behaviour like excessive exam prep, gaming the curriculum and also some more unethical practices like off-rolling pupils.
But how realistic is this? As Spielman said in her speech to the Schools Northeast Summit last month: “I don’t know a single teacher who went into teaching to get the perfect Progress 8 score”.
That is almost certainly true, but most will have pupil progress and outcomes lurking around in their school’s development plans and personal appraisal targets.
School performance measures will still be published annually, and pored over by parents – while inspections might be years apart, possibly obliging parents to try and reconcile fluctuating results with an Ofsted based on a range of factors, such as breadth of curriculum and school culture, that are sadly lacking in the headline data measures.
I am sure many parents, governors, teachers and heads will be rooting for Spielman when she says that her changes should reward bold and ambitious leaders who run their schools with integrity rather than gaming or teaching to the test to achieve the best exam results
But it remains to be seen if Ofsted can function as a complementary force to the Department for Education’s cruder performance measures (and if so, how); or whether the government, which ultimately oversees changes to the Ofsted framework, will be dragged along in the wake of this new, more generous vision of education.
Thirty years after the idea of Ofsted was conceived, the latest HMCI could be leading us off in a bold and transformative direction that is different from the one to which we have become familiar. It is too early to say whether this will work or not, but I certainly know which of the two I would prefer.
Fiona Millar is a columnist for The Guardian and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network; for more information, visit fionamillar.com or follow @schooltruth.
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