Better inspection for all?

A critical evaluation of the proposed new Ofsted inspection framework

The current Ofsted consultation “Better inspection for all” proposes a new common inspection framework for schools, academies, colleges, training providers and Early Years settings to provide greater coherence in our inspection system. School sixth forms will be inspected and graded in the same way as colleges, using comparable performance measures. The new framework will place greater emphasis on safeguarding, the suitability of the curriculum and ‘preparation for life and work in Britain today’ includes a new cross-cutting theme of ‘personal development’ and more frequent inspections for providers previously judged as ‘good’.

Good schools or colleges

For good schools or colleges there will be more frequent but shorter inspections as 5 years or more is regarded as too long a gap between inspections. These inspections will be roughly every 3 years and focus on ensuring that good standards have been maintained. Inspectors will be looking to see that headteachers and leadership teams have identified key areas of concern and have the capability to address them. For those who can show this there will be no need for a full inspection and there will not be a full set of graded judgements.

Personal development, behaviour and welfare

The 3 current cross cutting themes are joined by a fourth: ‘personal development, behaviour and welfare’ and inevitably we will have many questions about what inspectors will assess and how judgements will be reached. For attendance and punctuality for instance, it would be helpful to have national averages available together with a sense of what sort of levels would be judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ in any particular area of provision.

Inspectors will be judging to what extent the provision is promoting young people’s ‘self-confidence, self-assurance and knowledge of their potential to be a successful learner’. The second half of that statement (‘knowledge of potential…’) sounds at least 2 steps removed from anything which can actually be observed or measured. Skills development and growing confidence are vitally important processes but they take place over time and are difficult to demonstrate in a snapshot inspection. We will need to see very clear descriptors of the kind of student confidence and independent learning which inspectors will be looking for.

The ‘personal, social, moral, cultural and spiritual development’ section suggests that provision should ‘provide access to cultural experiences’. This is very welcome following a cycle where inspectors seemed singularly uninterested in the breadth and educational benefits of extra-curricular enrichment seeing it something students ‘enjoy’ but essentially a footnote to the real learning. We strongly believe in a cultural entitlement for all students. But it needs to be said that when funding for tutorial and enrichment was cut by 85% this massively reduced the resources available for such activity and following further rounds of cuts, many colleges have had no choice but to discontinue much of their enrichment offer. This is another area where specific and unambiguous descriptors will be needed.

Breadth, depth and relevance

Ofsted want ‘to ensure a high level of scrutiny of the curriculum or range of courses’ and are consulting about whether this should be graded separately. At the moment this appears in the ‘effectiveness of leadership and management’ theme where, amongst other things, there is a requirement to ‘provide a curriculum that has suitable breadth, depth and relevance so that it meets…the needs and interests of learners…’

This is difficult in post-16 settings where providers are trying to respond to learner demand while operating in very competitive markets, facing selective or niche competition. Under such circumstances it is not easy for any single provider to demonstrate ‘breadth, depth and relevance’ of its curriculum to the full cohort of young people in its area.

For example, what are inspectors to make of the 11-18 comprehensive school which is all-ability from 11-16 but has a very selective sixth form and tells over half of its year 11 students that they cannot meet the entry requirements of their own school’s sixth form and should go elsewhere post-16? Would this fail the test of breath and relevance?

We should certainly be concerned about the sum total of post-16 provision in an area and its breadth, depth and relevance to all young people in the area. Later in the same section, the framework suggests that providers should ‘influence improvement in other…providers’. But at the moment, in a highly marketized system there are no mechanisms or incentives for providers to work together to plan or develop a coherent local offer. Perhaps there should be a requirement to collaborate and if Ofsted wishes to take a view on the overall curriculum on offer in an area it should consider reintroducing some kind of area or ‘system’ inspection with the resulting recommendations applying to all providers. Any judgements on the breadth, depth and relevance of what any single provider offers risks being constrained by that provider’s self-proclaimed mission, which at post-16 can be as selective as they wish it to be. Unless there is a clear commitment to inclusivity and breadth in the curriculum offer, to meeting the needs of the least successful school leavers and to promoting community cohesion, we will not be able to address the gaps in provision or the damage done by highly selective and exclusive practices in many areas.

Given the patchy quality of schools’ careers advice and information, it is also not appropriate to hold individual post-16 providers to account for the aggregate consequences of poor decisions by young people they have not been able to give advice to. These decisions may have been influenced by factors other than their educational best interests and may distort the curriculum offer in an area.

Those ‘British values’

Providers are now to be judged on how well they promote ‘equality, diversity and fundamental British values’. Schools and colleges are generally values-driven and those values will be made explicit and will be evident in everything the institution does. We advocate, promote and try to exemplify such values as respect, equality, democracy, freedom of speech and critical engagement. We have yet to be told what is uniquely British about any of this.

The problem with placing the word ‘British’ in front of the word ‘values’ is that it suggests some exceptionally British national consensus which we all recognise but cannot express. In reality, ‘Britishness’ is a contested idea and interpretations will range from the nationalistic to the universal.

Lack of quantitative evidence in inspection reports

Inspection reports have not included high level achievement or tables for some time now. This makes it very difficult for readers to evaluate the performance of a provider objectively or to compare providers. A table of up-to-date nationally benchmarked data in each inspection report would be very helpful. Such data could be drawn from existing sources, for example Ofsted’s own data dashboard. This might also be an opportunity to report on achievement in different curriculum areas or course types which might compensate for the lack of curriculum area grades in the new system.

More guidance needed

OfSTED will produce inspection handbooks specific to each remit and set out in detail how each of the judgements will be reached and describe how the distinctive needs and expectations in different phases will be reflected. We certainly look forward to these particularly where there are new expectations.

logo (1)The consultation remains open until 5th December, so please consider responding.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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