Is it time to shake off the shackles of Ofsted?

Written by: Nick Bannister | Published:
Photo: iStock

Headteachers complain about a stifling accountability culture that quells risk-taking and doesn’t truly measure what schools do for their pupils. But is there anything schools can do to change things? Nick Bannister takes a look at a growing grass-roots movement

The debate about school accountability rages as loud as ever.

Many heads agree that the current inspection framework is too narrow and doesn’t focus enough on the other aspects of a school’s performance. The league tables hem schools in further, with the sense that schools can live or die by their English and maths results.

In its school inspection framework Ofsted says that its inspectors focus sharply on those aspects of schools’ work that have the greatest impact on raising achievement – pupil achievement, teaching quality, behaviour, and leadership and management. Inspectors are also required to report on the “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” of pupils at the school and the extent to which the school meets the educational needs of the range of pupils at the school, and in particular, disabled pupils and those who have SEN.

On paper it looks nuanced and wide-ranging, but when league tables are factored in school leaders perceive that school performance is reduced to a simple tick-list of judgements.

As a result of this frustration there is a growing appetite among school leadership associations to make the case for school performance to be assessed on a much broader basis, with schools given more freedom to robustly measure their performance against their own priority areas as well as statutory measures.

Last summer, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) joined forces with United Learning and PiXL to launch alternative school performance tables, stating their belief “that parents and teachers want information about schools that communicates the whole school experience – not just exam results”.

The tables are still in their infancy and currently show pupils’ best GCSE results rather than first attempts but more measures will be added that will compare schools on areas such as sport, music, and extra-curricular clubs as well as academic attainment.

ASCL has also unveiled its Blueprint for a Self-Improving System, a document which proposes change in a range of areas including accountability. It suggests that school leaders, governors, ASCL and government can take steps to effect change in accountability and that school leaders take ownership of accountability.

There are also signs that some school leaders are trying to broaden out the meaning of a successful school through their own initiatives to measure a range of their priority areas.
At Streetly Academy in Sutton Coldfield, headteacher Billy Downie and colleagues have developed “Project Streetly”, an initiative to give pupils a rich variety of extra-curricular, sporting and leadership opportunities.

The pupils’ involvement in these activities is tracked and measured so that the school has data which can indicate whether success in these areas correlates with academic achievement.

“Irrespective of socio-economic backgrounds we know through our data that when pupils engage in these activities, particularly sport, the better they do academically,” explained Mr Downie. “We also know that when they do not engage in these activities they make average or poor progress.”

For Mr Downie, success in the current “narrow” accountability climate gives the school permission to expand what it measures beyond the core metrics demanded by Ofsted.
“I think it’s easier for schools that are successful in that narrow agenda. Headteachers who work in schools in very challenging circumstances have a huge task and would find it very hard to focus on anything but the key areas they need to hit to get a good inspection judgement,” he continued.

“When we got our outstanding judgement in 2012/13 that released us. It was confirmation that we are getting that agenda right and gave us permission really to concentrate on being genuinely outstanding, rather than Ofsted outstanding.”

The focus on extra-curricular activities is part of Streetly’s belief in the whole student and desire to produce rounded young people. It’s a philosophy that also motivates Phil Crompton, executive headteacher of the Trent Academies Group in Nottingham.

He says that current school accountability approaches jar with the demands of the modern jobs market, which wants aptitude and attitude as well as academic achievement. This has spurred him and his team to develop initiatives that incentivise students to participate in activities that develop their experience, character and social confidence.

“Examination results give students the chance to shine brighter, but is it enough?” Mr Crompton asks.

“Given the number of privately educated youngsters who go on to influence politics, business, the arts and, increasingly, sport, it would appear that we need to develop another dimension which can lead to more young people emerging from our academies feeling equipped to contribute fully to society.

“In order to do this we need to maintain the emphasis upon examination results but also look to provide other opportunities which enable young people to develop fully.

“At the moment we are judged by the examination results our students achieve. We monitor and intervene to ensure these are maximised. We need to approach the development of character, social confidence and experience in a similarly rigorous way. Indeed in the near future schools will need to be able to show how they are contributing to the development of ‘character’.”

The school is developing a new initiative called the Trent Academies Group Employability Medal. Trent’s three academies will encourage students to opt-in to the programme. They will have to collect evidence of experience and ability in areas such as volunteering and school experiences and they would then be assessed in areas such as articulacy, determination, social awareness and entrepreneurialism, as well as more traditional areas such as qualifications.

“Our view is that of course achievement matters but the thing that gives students a leg up is social confidence that comes from opening yourself up to a range of experiences,” Mr Crompton explained.

“When students are feeling confident about themselves and are feeling a sense of purpose they are more inclined to throw themselves into exams. They see the point of effort because it translates into achievement and they try harder at their GCSEs.”

Student performance in the initiative would be recorded and plotted against academic achievement and these figures would be presented to Ofsted as supplementary evidence when they next call, says Mr Crompton, although he suggests that Ofsted currently does not give this sort of information enough emphasis in inspection reports.

He added: “The debate is how does Ofsted record that in a report? They will usually give additional information like this a couple of lines. This area could be graded and developed. It would give schools an extra incentive about making a difference to lives.”

While the limitations of the current Ofsted framework can debilitate schools, Mr Downie admits that if the school is in a good place already then these additional measures can put the school in an even better light with inspectors.

“If the data is good and at the top end of good that shows that the school understands itself well and has a high standard of self-evaluation,” he said. “Once the inspectors have that sort of information that will tip a school over into outstanding. It’s this extra information that makes you really stand out.”

Duncan Baldwin, deputy policy director at ASCL, says that an Ofsted-driven accountability culture “partly emasculates” school leaders and that the government needs to do less and schools do more if the school system is to go from “good to great”.

“Schools do have a lot of autonomy but not a lot of genuine independence to do things,” he said. “Their perception of the pressures of the accountability system often stifle this independence. Many leaders say they have no choice on what they should focus on and that Ofsted’s measures on progress drive everything.”

ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System, launched in February, suggests that in addition to the government’s accountability measures, schools should define performance measures that demonstrate whether the school is achieving its own vision and aims and asks school governors to develop intelligent measures for each of the school’s strategic priorities and hold leaders to account for them.

“Our blueprint looks at what needs to happen in the inspectorate and the government but also places some expectations on school leaders to raise their game and to focus on the things that they think are important,” Mr Baldwin continued. “For example, this could be literacy for year 7 boys or progression of a certain group through to Apprenticeships. School leaders should feel safe to focus on what they think is important, but this is very difficult given the current extent of the inspection regime.”

Ofsted says that it has been clear about its expectation that schools should focus on pupil outcomes and providing a good standard of education, rather than what they think they should be doing to satisfy Ofsted. “We have also said that good effective school-led improvement or evaluation is to be supported and encouraged,” a spokesperson said.

“By bringing more serving practitioners on board, Ofsted has an important part to play in developing the skills, knowledge and experience in this system.”

  • Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.

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