Accountability, Ofsted and all that

Reading time: 3 minutes.

Colin Logan, SSAT senior education lead, explores the implications of the NAHT commission report on how the school accountability framework can be strengthened and improved

The NAHT has unveiled the report of its commission tasked with proposing improvements to current school accountability arrangements. Its nine recommendations were revealed at a meeting in London on 14 September before a panel of experts that included Professor Becky Allen from the Institute of Education and Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

The proposals are grouped into the themes of pupil performance data, inspection and school improvement. Perhaps surprisingly, apart from the floor standard and coasting thresholds (which have been axed by the DfE in any case), the commission has nothing to say about specific accountability measures such as Progress 8 and the key stage 2 attainment and progress indicators. Instead it focuses on the idea of using three-year averages of comparative data drawn from existing measures. This would discourage knee-jerk reactions to a single year’s set of results and would also, particularly in smaller schools, reduce the impact of ’noise’ – those accidental and incidental factors that can skew a single dataset. The concept of comparative data would mean that schools in similar circumstances would make up families of schools and their performance would then be compared with each other’s rather than with all schools.

Comparative data would be used to compare the performance of schools in similar circumstances rather than with all schools

Becky Allen suggested that this could be a powerful way of identifying the weaker performers in each family so that support could be given to bring them up to the standard of the best. This would be both fairer and more effective than current practice.

As far as inspection is concerned, the commission proposes that Ofsted should focus on “identifying failure and providing stronger diagnostic insight for schools that are struggling”. This would sit alongside the removal of the exemption from inspection for outstanding schools so that all schools were inspected “on a transparent cycle of inspection”.

There is surely some tension here between this proposal and the group’s assertion that “Ofsted cannot provide the level of assurance of school effectiveness expected of it within the resources at its disposal”. It is difficult to see how inspection could be extended to all schools (with more time possibly being spent in order to improve the quality of advice and judgements) without a significant injection of additional resources from the DfE.

Interestingly, when Amanda Spielman was questioned about the outstanding judgement and exemption, she was non-committal to say the least about any proposals Ofsted might have for pressing the government to remove statutory exemption. This is in contrast to earlier suggestions made by senior Ofsted figures both at SSAT meetings and elsewhere that it was “most likely” that the outstanding judgement would remain but exemption would go. Has the Treasury, via the DfE, made it clear privately that there is no chance of any additional funding for Ofsted?

Has the Treasury, via the DfE, made it clear privately that there is no chance of any additional funding for Ofsted?

Another proposal, of particular interest to SSAT given our existing peer review offer, is the support for peer review programmes. NAHT adds the proviso that these should be evaluated to identify the characteristics of effective practice, with a view to developing national accreditation arrangements. The danger here could be that peer review might lose one of its most valued characteristics: the adaptability to suit individual schools’ needs and contexts.

SSAT broadly welcomes all the proposals in the report. On the whole, they envisage how the current accountability framework can be strengthened and improved – rather than starting again from scratch, with all the additional pressure that would place on schools. Perhaps more surprising, however, was the consensus across the panel which also included representation from NFER and the Headteachers’ Roundtable. Amanda Spielman rightly pointed out that much of what was suggested was already part of Ofsted’s current work with inspectors: a move away from total reliance on data, proportional and focused inspections and a focus on learning over time and the quality of the curriculum and assessment. And DfE has already announced that three-year trends will be prominent in this year’s performance tables and ASP (Analyse School Performance) as well as in Ofsted’s IDSR.

All Ofsted inspectors briefed

The proof of the pudding, of course, will be in the inspecting. During the week before the NAHT report’s launch, all Ofsted’s inspectors had a day’s training intended to ensure that they were all fully briefed about what is expected of them.

During the day inspectors explored how memory works and how it leads to deep-seated learning. They considered what makes a well-planned curriculum and the role of assessment for learning as well as the idea of assessment as learning. The latter describes the impact of regularly asking students to recall their learning to help embed it in their longer-term memory. Lesson observation then becomes a case of asking “How does what I’m seeing fit into the planned sequence of learning?” rather than being a one-off snapshot of activity.

The afternoon even included a session entitled ’Going beyond the data’, drawing on the work of, among others, Dylan Wiliam and Daisy Christodoulou. Inspectors were told that they must not allow themselves to be “bogged down in masses of paperwork” provided by schools allegedly to show their tracking of progress. Instead they need to discuss with school leaders and teachers how they assess students, what it tells them about their learning and, most importantly, what they then do with that information. (And the answer to that question shouldn’t be “I pass it on to my line manager…”)

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director, tirelessly publicises what he calls the “Ofsted myths” that have grown up for a variety of reasons. With the changes in approach already in place – and particularly with the new Ofsted framework due to be released in the new year for implementation next September – we should be heading for an inspection régime that isn’t a million miles away from the NAHT proposals.

As stated above, the proof of the pudding…

Read on the SSAT blog: Putting creativity at the heart of the curriculum

Colin Logan, SSAT

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