One cheer for Ofsted’s new standards

The education watchdog has finally recognised the importance of knowledge. But it’s still too target-obsessed.

Tom Finn-Kelcey

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In January, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) – the government body responsible for inspecting schools in the UK – published its new framework for judging standards. Since the 2010 election, the UK government has been making noises about higher standards and a more traditional and rigorous approach to education; this new framework is supposed to begin delivering on this vision.

Some interesting changes do stand out, most notably the return of the words ‘subject knowledge’ as part of how standards of teaching are assessed, plus the introduction of no-notice inspections and a more streamlined, no-nonsense approach to inspection. But far from being a significant shift, the reforms are a mere tiptoe towards a more robust defence of quality education, and are highly unlikely to improve the much-maligned status of knowledge, rigour and true innovation in British schooling.

First, let’s look at the long awaited return of ‘knowledge’ as a factor in assessing teaching standards. The new framework states that inspectors should focus on ‘how well teachers use their expertise, including their subject knowledge, to develop pupils’ knowledge, skills and understanding’. The very absence of this phrase from previous guidelines should be of deep embarrassment to all within Ofsted, although the fact that the word ‘including’ is used implies those who drew up the new guidance consider the expectation of high-quality subject knowledge to be vaguely controversial. This tells you a lot about the state of the educational establishment. As David Perks and others have recently argued, this Ofsted view of ‘teachers remoulded as facilitators’ has been deeply damaging to the profession and to the children in its care. Any move, however tentative, in the opposite direction is to be welcomed.

However, much of the Ofsted inspection regime continues to foster the notion of schools as being the cure to all societal ills rather than places of outstanding and rigorous acquisition of knowledge. Within the section on pupil attainment, for example, we discover that schools are to be judged primarily on ‘how well gaps are narrowing between the performances of different groups of pupils in the school’, and ‘how well pupils make progress relative to their starting points’. Making such wider societal goals the responsibility of teachers and the focus of those who manage teachers is to further compartmentalise the issue of social equality to the domain of education, and absolve government and wider society of its responsibilities.

This further distances teachers and schools from their central and pivotal function of teaching a high-quality curriculum. As Frank Furedi has argued, a subject-based, knowledge-driven approach is vital to provide students with ‘the cultural and intellectual capital necessary for assuming their role as active citizens’.

A central focus in the slimmed-down Ofsted framework is to be ‘the standards attained by pupils by the time they leave the school, including their standards in reading, writing and mathematics’. Again, to a degree, this is some kind of an improvement. It is at least an attempt to return the focus of school leaders upon academia, rather than many of the superfluous issues deemed to require attention under the old knowledge-light, health-and-safety-obsessed regime. However, what has been downplayed in terms of focus is the quality of the curriculum. The focus, while better, is still not where it should be: on what is being taught. Instead, the obsession with outcomes – in other words, exam results – remains.

The problem with this should be obvious: schools remain highly incentivised to lower academic standards in order to produce improved results. Schools often respond to poor exam results by either changing from a more rigorous exam board to an easier one, or by lowering the standard of qualifications offered to create the illusion of progress. This is a real issue in British schools, and one that has a disproportionate effect on working-class children, far too many of whom will remain subject to a weak and uninspiring curriculum because educational elites have a low regard for these pupils’ potential. The naïve belief remains that offering a range of mediocre qualifications at which working-class pupils can perform highly will raise their life chances.

This brings us to what is likely to prove the most short-sighted move of all – the exemption of the ‘outstanding’ schools from inspection. On the surface, this may appear wise, allowing focus to be put on the weakest schools and giving freedom to the best. However, the policy is more likely to prove damaging to innovation and good practice. The word ‘outstanding’ is bandied around, especially in schools, without a great deal of thought as to what it really means, which is ‘standing out among others of its kind, or superior to others of its kind’. The outstanding individual or school is not necessarily, if ever, somebody who has simply achieved a top grading within a framework. It is somebody who has stepped out of the existing framework altogether, and done something completely different that may shape the future direction of the way things are done. This makes it difficult to put our finger on exactly what we mean by the term ‘outstanding’ – but we certainly know it when we see it. Everybody who has learnt or taught in a classroom has already conjured up the image of a pupil or teacher who fits the description. These individuals are not simply the top percentage of some artificially constructed group, they lead innovation and push up standards.

And here’s the rub: inspectors need to see them in action in order to know what ‘outstanding’ looks like, to sustain the vibrancy of our education system. The sociologist Emile Durkheim talked of the need for people on occasion to step outside of social norms and to challenge the view of how we do things. He saw this as vital to the health of a society, and highlighted the immense dangers of stagnation if such an innovatory attitude was lost.

The danger is that if inspectors aren’t exposed to cutting-edge methods, they will simply move to an ever-increased reliance on government and educational orthodoxies of what ‘good practice’ looks like. The thing you notice about schools and teachers who truly merit the term ‘outstanding’ is how far they actually stray from the orthodox framework and how much they innovate. If we remove the need for our already-flawed inspection regime from having to confront this reality, we will be putting inspectors in a bubble where no one can seriously challenge those current orthodoxies.

The government and Ofsted have begun to edge in the right direction, but they are far from creating an inspection system that is likely significantly to improve British educational standards. The removal of the best schools from the inspection regime could indeed prove to be a retrograde step.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics, PSHE and citizenship at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School.

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