It is symptomatic of the state of educational flux in England’s education system that the recently updated Ofsted handbook was heralded for its apparently minor revisions. While it is true that the 2016 version reflected more continuity in the framework than occurred this time last year, there are some important changes of emphasis which are worth paying due attention to.
To a large extent, these changes illustrate the direction of government policy already announced, including, for example, the Education and Adoption Act 2016.
However, dig beneath the relatively minor changes in the handbook and you throw light on the shifting sands below the surface. In this way, the handbook’s utility is not confined to schools facing imminent inspection; it is a window into the challenges and opportunities facing all schools.
In particular, school leaders should consider the following questions:
Q: How robust is our internal assessment at key stage 3?
The 2016 handbook has removed all references to “expected progress”, in line with the changes to measuring school performance. The removal of levels gave schools freedom to devise their own assessment systems and Ofsted recognised that 2014/15 in particular would see a period of transition. The 2015 handbook underlined this by stating that “inspectors will recognise that schools are at different points in their move towards adopting a system of assessment without national curriculum levels”, and this statement has been retained in the 2016 update.
However, given the handbook also states “they will give most weight to the progress of pupils currently in the school”, it is vital that schools ensure their internal data at key stage 3 is robust and leaders must know how it compares to the national standard, in relation to their age and starting point.
Senior and middle leaders should develop strategies to explore the validity of assessments at key stage 3 and ask themselves how their assessment judgements and datasets compare with national benchmarks.
Q: How well do we understand the differences in progress and attainment between our disadvantaged students and the national picture?
This is, to some extent, an extension of the point above. References to “in-school” gaps have been removed from the 2016 handbook, in favour of a sharper focus on comparisons with the national.
In particular, it is important to know how well disadvantaged pupils progress when compared to “other (non-disadvantaged) pupils nationally, from each starting point. This has implications both in terms of considering the rigour of internal data (see above), as well as how schools gather and interrogate data.
Do your data systems and practices allow your school to develop an informed and well-evidenced understanding of the performance of your disadvantaged pupils?
Q: How secure is our governance?
As a result of the ever-increasing complexity in how schools are led and governed, the 2016 handbook has clarified just who Ofsted will expect to meet with during an inspection.
Of particular concern for Ofsted has been ensuring that they meet with the “right” people in terms of school governance and accountability.
The updated handbook states: “Inspectors will always seek to meet those responsible for governance during the inspection. This will usually include maintained school governors or academy trustees and sponsors (including sponsor representatives, where they exist).
“However, in a multi-academy trust, the board of trustees may have established a local governing body to which it may have delegated certain governance functions. In some other cases, there may be a local governing body that is wholly advisory, with no formal governance responsibilities delegated to it. Inspectors should ensure that meetings are with those who are directly responsible (emphasis added) for exercising governance of the school and for overseeing its performance.”
Reference is also made to inspectors considering how committed governors are to “their own development as governors in order to improve their performance”.
Furthermore, governors are expected to evaluate the school’s use of year 7 literacy and numeracy catch-up funding in the way they already evaluate the use of Pupil Premium.
School leaders would be well-advised to review the evidence-base in relation to these points as well as the impact of governors’ development on how well the school is supported and challenged.
Q: How well do we understand the views of stakeholders?
A further addition to the 2016 handbook is the reference to Ofsted’s use of online questionnaires to gauge the views of stakeholders. Parents will be encouraged to use Parent View, while students and staff will be asked to complete an online questionnaire. In the case of Section 8 inspections, these questionnaires will need to be completed by 11am on the day of inspection.
Given the short turnaround time on this (less than 24 hours) and the potential for people to be missed from the sample, schools should consider how they use other methods to gauge the views of stakeholders, as Ofsted “will consider findings from these consultations/surveys where available”.
Q: How well do we understand the changes around the Section 8 framework?
Last year, 2015, saw the introduction of short inspections every three years for schools judged to be good. Between September 2015 and March 2016 there were 978 short inspections, of which 47 per cent and 37 per cent converted to full inspections in the autumn and spring terms respectively.
Of those that converted in the spring term, 52 per cent of schools retained or improved their overall effectiveness judgement.
Clearly, instances of conversion from Section 8 to Section 5 are not uncommon. The goal for many school leaders is to retain their good judgement and avoid conversion to a Section 5 inspection. It is, therefore, important to know that one of the grounds on which inspectors may choose to convert from Section 8 to Section 5 is if they feel they have insufficient evidence.
Schools would be well-advised to consider how they can provide compelling evidence during a one-day inspection.
The changes for maintained schools are arguably greatest, even if this merely serves to enshrine established government policy. Maintained schools that fall into a category of concern will automatically become the subject of an academy order. Academies which do likewise face the possibility of being rebrokered to a different trust.
The 2016 handbook also puts into practice the White Paper’s notion of “improvement periods” for schools that are judged to require improvement and have a new headteacher join the school. In this situation, the deadline for re-inspection is extended to 30 months after the publication of the previous report.
As always, the best way to ensure a positive outcome from an Ofsted inspection is to ensure that provision and outcomes are of a high standard; the best way to be a good school is to be a good school.
Nevertheless, understanding the Ofsted handbook is a good way of reading the educational tea leaves, revealing the odd glimpse of the bigger picture and helping us to take an informed route down the path to inspection.
- Stephen Rollett is an inspections and accountability specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.