Suspicions raised over DfE’s ‘lead-in time’ protocol for new education policy

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The Department for Education promises schools one year’s lead-in time for ‘significant changes’ to accountability, curriculum and qualifications – but doubts linger over the inclusion of an 'override' clause. Pete Henshaw explains

The Department for Education (DfE) has published a protocol that requires a “lead-in time” of “at least a year” for any significant changes to accountability, curriculum and qualifications.

The two-page protocol document forms part of the government’s response to education secretary Nick Morgan’s Workload Challenge, which saw 44,000 teachers and school staff responding to a consultation on workload.

However, school leaders, while welcoming the new protocol, said it did not go far enough on issues such as Ofsted, a key driver of workload. They also questioned a clause in the document which allows the DfE to “override” the protocol “in cases where a change is urgently required”.

The protocol pledges that new DfE policies related to accountability, curriculum and qualifications which will have “a significant workload impact on schools” should be brought in at the beginning of a school year. 

This might include curriculum changes, new qualifications or changes to Ofsted frameworks or handbooks, the DfE says.

Furthermore, the protocol adds: “There should be a lead-in time of at least a year for any accountability, curriculum or qualifications initiative coming from the Department which requires schools to make significant changes which will have an impact on staff workload.”

The document also states that significant changes “should avoid having an impact on pupils in the middle of a course resulting in a qualification”. 

This clause is to ensure that pupils start a course knowing that the content or assessment criteria will not change during the course, as has happened in the past, most notably with GCSE English and the controversial changes to speaking and listening assessment.

When it comes to Ofsted – one of the clear drivers of workload according to the teachers and school leaders who responded to the Workload Challenge consultation – the protocol states: “The Department will not ask Ofsted to make changes to the handbook or framework for inspectors during the school year, unless these are minor changes, such as points of clarification, requested by schools themselves. 

“Changes to the Ofsted handbook or framework for inspectors will be accompanied by clear guidelines (where appropriate) about what will be expected of schools.”

However, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the protocol “does not go far enough on Ofsted”.

He continued: “(It merely says) that the DfE will not ask Ofsted to make changes to the framework for inspectors during the school year. This does not address the problem that inspections have changed so frequently that it is impossible to make valid comparisons between them from year to year. A consistent framework needs to be in place for the whole of the inspection cycle so that this can happen, and inspections should focus on outcomes rather than processes.”

However, it is in the final clauses of the protocol, detailing possible situations when the document could be overridden, where suspicions have been aroused.

The protocol states: “This protocol may be subject to an override in cases where a change is urgently required, such as where there is clear evidence of abuse in the system which needs addressing, for example on the advice of the exam regulator Ofqual. Reasons for any overrides will be communicated when the change is announced.

“Instances where the override is exercised should be published annually, with reasons why this was the case.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is not convinced. He said: “While we welcome the moves to provide greater notice of changes we fear that these measures are insufficient. It needs to be harder to override the notice period and we need some independent scrutiny of whether the system has the capacity to implement the changes.”

Mr Lightman added: “We would expect that this (override) provision is only used in the rarest of circumstances.”

These concerns aside, Mr Lightman said that the protocol represents “a more managed approach to the introduction of new initiatives in the future”. 

However, he added: “The amount of change to accountability, curriculum and qualifications has been too great, and we need to move away from a culture of incessant tinkering.”

More widely, the teaching sector has been less than impressed with the government’s response to the Workload Challenge. Hopes were high after 43,832 teachers responded to the initial call for evidence, with 53 per cent citing accountability and Ofsted pressures as a key driver of workload.

However, unions said that the DfE’s response, published last month, lacked any “tangible action” on workload, with the new protocol being one of just a handful of solutions put forward by ministers.

Speaking at the time, Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “Teachers will feel ignored and bitterly disappointed that the government is doing nothing tangible to cut their workload after 44,000 of them contacted Nicky Morgan to tell her about the amount of work they do.”

The DfE protocol can be read at http://bit.ly/1BnAsMD

 


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