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Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman Wants To Stop Schools Gaming The System, But Don’t Forget Who Started The Competition

Amanda Spielman says much with which school leaders can agree – but Ofsted needs to acknowledge its part in creating some of the problems we face

  • Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman Wants To Stop Schools Gaming The System, But Don’t Forget Who Started The Competition

Earlier this year I was really privileged to be at the Festival of Education, hosted by Wellington College (thanks to Carl Hendrick, for inviting me).

A real highlight for me was being able to hear our HMCI, Amanda Spielman, speak about her vision for Ofsted and education generally – do read what she had to say if you haven’t already.

As is natural when the topic is something as important as education there was much that I thought was good to hear; but also there were a few things that made me wonder whether educators’ experience of Ofsted matches Ms Spielman’s understanding of it.

A curriculum with substance

There was very little to disagree with directly. I was delighted to hear that the mounds of information gleaned from inspections would be used for system improvement in an even greater way than before, for example. And it was great to hear these words uttered by our HMCI:

“One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum…. Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it.”

Who could possibly disagree with these sentiments?

However, the whole of Ms Spielman’s speech kept bringing me back to the thought: what, exactly, do the government and Ofsted think is actually driving choices in schools around curriculum and assessment at the moment?

I often talk generically about the ‘school down the road’ that impacts on the choices made in our own establishments. As heads we all have at least one that we point to; the school doing things differently, that we cite as ‘playing games’, or not being inclusive. We have to face up to the fact that there will always be competition in a system that places so much importance on two days of inspection and, as much as we all wish it were otherwise, it’s hard not to play up/down to it.

Cause and effect

So how do we, as leaders, make sure that we are true to what our whole community needs regardless of what anyone else is doing? It isn’t easy. I think I am a reasonably strong person and professional, but I have lost many hours sleep over decisions I’ve had to make (I really regret that I haven’t always made the right choices, too – but that is a whole different article!).

I think the key thing as an 11-16 secondary head is to have a really strong understanding of the routes likely to be taken by our young people when they leave us; but also, what knowledge and experiences they are going to miss out on because of where they happen to live.

That is not a criticism of our, or any, town – but the fact is, if you live in Stratford upon Avon you may well grow up with a greater knowledge of the life and wonderful works of Shakespeare than if you don’t. It is our job to ensure that our young people do not lose because of this – which comes back to a focus on curriculum content, not purely outcomes; as Amanda Spielman quoted, from Professor Michael Young: “Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.”

I try really hard to make sure that no decision we make is ever for the benefit of the school if that’s to the detriment of our young people; however, our HMCI must also very clearly recognise the principle of causation, and Ofsted’s role in some of the poor decisions that have undoubtedly been made over recent years.

...and about the funding?

I cannot finish without highlighting one particular line from Ms Spielman that reinforces what I have been banging on about on Twitter for months:

“At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most.”

Scarce! I should say so. Once again, it’s a question of ‘cause and effect’: scarce funding and workload challenges go hand in hand.

Vic Goddard is headteacher at Passmores Academy, as seen on Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and is the author of The Best Job in the World; you can follow him at @vicgoddard

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