Ofsted's new draft inspection framework

A remedy for 'teaching to the test?'

Pupils putting their hand up in class

Ofsted’s new inspection framework: OCR’s Paul Steer assesses how a shift in focus from exams to curriculum quality will guard against a ‘pub quiz’ education. This article first appeared in OCR's Policy Briefing.

Ofsted’s new draft inspection framework has been welcomed by many in the education community with positive comments about an apparent shift away from prioritising test and exam results towards a greater emphasis on the quality of a school’s curriculum. Could this be the antidote to what many feel has become a high stakes, low trust accountability system?

This shift of emphasis is characterised by a number of things Ofsted says it wants to put a stop to, including:

  • The burdensome collection of low value data on pupil performance.
  • Teaching to the test (‘the curriculum is not a pub quiz’ as Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman recently said).
  • The tracking back of assessment objectives for GCSE as far as Year 7 with the consequence that pupils drop some other subjects aged 12 or 13.
  • The ‘off-rolling’ of low achieving pupils.
  • Gaming in which pupils are put in for qualifications against their best interest in order to rack up performance points for the school.

The new framework describes what it sees as the features of a good curriculum and how these will be judged during an inspection. At the same time, Ofsted is at pains to point out that it will not mandate curricular and pedagogical approaches - it is interested only in what works for a given school.

The Headlines

Ofsted expects a curriculum to be ambitious, to provide young people with ‘the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life’, and to be ‘coherently planned and sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills’. A quality curriculum should enable pupils ‘to grow as active, healthy and engaged citizens’ and should provide equitable access to a wide range of subjects.

In its commentary, Ofsted denounces the long-standing debate about whether a curriculum should be skills or knowledge-based, arguing that it is never a matter of one or the other. Nevertheless, whilst it sets much store on acquisition of skills, there is an undeniable emphasis on knowledge.

The curriculum should provide for the recall of ‘baked in’ knowledge, securing a memory of key concepts and building on those. Much of the emphasis is at subject level and there are future plans to develop subject level indicators so elements of the curriculum can be judged at subject level. Overall, the curriculum will be judged by its intent, implementation, and impact.

This interest in subject-based knowledge is brought out in statements about the importance of the role of subject teachers. A key indicator looks at how schools manage ‘the alignment of continuing professional development for teachers and staff with the curriculum, and the extent to which it develops teachers’ content knowledge over time’.

Will the New Proposed Framework Succeed in its Aims?

Some have argued that plans to introduce the framework from September 2019 are rushed. Others have questioned whether, given resource and time constraints, Ofsted will have the capacity to judge schools effectively or frequently enough.

As for schools, given the on-going challenges of teacher workload and funding, are they in a position to respond to a new framework? Developing, maintaining and evaluating a broad, inclusive and coherent curriculum is no mean feat and although many schools are already in that place, others will struggle to get there.

Ofsted admits that there will be a requirement for more CPD for teachers. ‘Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it’. And during a pilot of the new framework, Ofsted found that nine schools judged outstanding under the current framework were judged to have weak or poor curricula under the new.

Perhaps the most crucial question is whether the framework can really create a meaningful shift away from a focus on outcomes. As Amanda Spielman said recently: ‘Try telling any teenager that their GCSEs don‘t matter’. Nor are parents or politicians likely to give up the habit of judging by results. She went on to acknowledge that inspection reports will complement what is shown on performance tables and that pupil attainment and qualifications will always be important.

Through its consultation, Ofsted has called for an open and healthy debate, with a commitment to consult and listen. The volume of speeches, reports, blogs and events which have accompanied the consultation so far demonstrate its commitment to being a transparent and available body. This augurs well, but the new framework is intended to bring new challenges and opportunities and it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Paul Steer 
Head of Policy, OCR

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