Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, spoke to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
A force for improvement
I want to start by paying particular tribute to Malcolm Trobe and his stewardship of ASCL in recent months. And I’d also like to congratulate Geoff on his election as General Secretary.
And some other thank yous. One is to my predecessor Sir Michael Wilshaw who, we can all agree, has been a tireless and outspoken advocate for higher standards and improving young people’s life chances. And having seen the number of new challenges he has set himself since stepping down, we can be sure that that zeal will continue for many years to come.
I also want to thank the wider Ofsted team for all it has done in recent years to make an inspectorate so much improved from even just 5 years ago.
The Ofsted I have inherited is far more focused on what works, far more self-critical and reflective, and far more outward facing and engaged with the sectors it inspects, than at any point in its history. It is a privilege to work with this team to carry that forward.
It may be hackneyed, but it still merits repeating, that our education system is only ever be as good as the people who work in it. We know there are very real challenges: funding pressures, changing structures, curriculum and qualification reforms.
But we are lucky enough to have the most talented generation of school and college leaders in our history. Which, by the way, means that we can have, and should aim to have, the best outcomes for pupils in the world.
And I’m delighted that my first major speech as Chief Inspector is to ASCL. For me, ASCL embodies the very best in our education system – self-confident, engaged school leaders, representing a profession determined to control its own destiny. I am looking forward to working with Geoff and your council to continue the good work that ASCL and Ofsted have done together in recent years.
I would particularly like to commend your blueprint, which is a hugely impressive piece of work. It sets out an ambitious vision for the future of education, as well as a challenge for you as school leaders to step forward and take ownership. And I very much hope that vision remains for the foreseeable future.
Getting it right
When it comes to Ofsted, your blueprint highlights the important responsibility that school inspection has to parents and young people in determining the effectiveness of a school. That responsibility means that Ofsted inspections have immense power.
Spending the past 6 months, as I have done, travelling round the country, meeting inspectors, heads, teachers, pupils and parents, I have come to see what that power really means.
One of the most gratifying moments was visiting Skinners’ Academy in Tunbridge Wells, led of course by your President Sian Carr.
By pure chance, I was in the school just as they received their outstanding judgement, and I saw first-hand the pride that all the staff felt in seeing their achievements for young people recognised. That experience brought home to me just how much our findings matter to those we inspect and how we must never lose sight of that when we make our judgements.
So Ofsted’s power is one that I will use responsibly and intelligently.
Inspection should not be making your job unnecessarily difficult or laborious. Or, worse still, actually diverting you from the real task at hand – our children’s education.
I have no interest in using this role to impose my personal prejudices about how you should run your schools, nor will Ofsted on my watch become a vehicle for promoting the latest educational fashion or fad. And I won’t be pushing you to jump through increasingly convoluted hoops, only to change direction a couple of years down the line.
My interest is solely in ensuring that every child receives what is their fundamental right: a good education. And not only a good education but the right education for that child.
Let me be absolutely clear. My commitment to responsible and intelligent inspection does not mean that I will hold back from exposing places where children are not receiving the proper standard of education or care.
Whether it is pupils struggling to learn in schools where behaviour just isn’t good enough, young people being exposed to extremist views in illegal schools or children left vulnerable in our care system, I will be frank about these failings and, what’s more, I will demand action to tackle them.
Anyone who assumes that the high value I place on evidence and data means that I am reluctant to speak truth to power will find themselves mistaken. In fact, it is the use of robust evidence and data that gives Ofsted the authority to challenge, on behalf of the minority of children who are being let down.
Inspection will never be painless, and a regulator will never be loved by those it regulates – nor should it be. We must, though, make sure we are respected and use evidence responsibly and intelligently in everything we do.
But, much as we focus on rigour and evidence, inspection will always be to some degree an art as well as a science. It won’t ever be flawless.
At Ofsted, we are lucky to have a terrific team of inspectors: Her Majesty’s Inspectors and also many Ofsted Inspectors drawn from your own ranks.
But that doesn’t mean that inspection is a perfect tool.
That is why we are doing more work to refine our processes, to get better, to use research and evidence so that our inspections are as valid and reliable as they can be.
The reliability study we published earlier this week is an encouraging start. As you may well have read, it found that inspectors, working independently but in parallel, agreed on the outcome of a short inspection in 22 cases out of 24.
This is about as good as we could have hoped for. It was pleasing to see this recognised by a number of influential figures, including Professor Rob Coe.
But it is only the first step, and I want to go further in exploring inspection reliability, what we should be aiming for, and how we can improve it.
At the same time, we will look at the validity of inspection. By that, I mean whether inspection is measuring what it is intended to measure, and coming to the right conclusions.
But I need to set expectations here: this is the basis of a continuing programme of work; not one quick hit.
One of the most important questions for us is how we make sure we at Ofsted add value. We all know that we live in a world of almost limitless school data and extensive performance measures.
By and large, I think that data is a good thing, not just in providing information about a school’s performance, but also in helping us all to evaluate what works and what doesn’t – and, more broadly, to improve the practice of education.
But as powerful a tool as data is, it also has its limitations. And they are limitations that we do recognise. That is why our inspections are informed by data, but not driven by them.
It is dispiriting to see some commentators still insisting that data is all we care about.
Just a few weeks ago, one headteacher made that very claim in the Observer, despite the fact we recently judged his school to be outstanding when, as yet, it has no results at all!
I cannot stress enough that data is the starting point for our inspections, not the destination.
In fact, it is mostly by looking beyond the data that Ofsted can and should add value, providing a rounded picture of how well a school is doing.
It is that human and, dare I say it, subjective element of our inspections that makes them useful. And for that reason, I am pleased to say that our inspectors are, for now at least, one group who have nothing to fear from automation!
But on a more serious note, we are well aware that the challenge of interpreting data wisely, and placing it in context, is even more important when the main external exams are changing.
For example, we know that it is impossible for schools to predict this year’s student outcomes in the new English and maths GCSEs with any accuracy. That is why Sean Harford, our National Director of Education, has written to inspectors to ask that they do not request predictions from schools: in fact he described it as ‘a mug’s game’.
Instead, inspectors should be looking at whether schools know if pupils are making the progress they should, and taking action where they are not.
At the same time, we said that we would provide both general and school-specific guidance to inspectors from September, about what can and cannot be inferred from this summer’s results. I hope this will provide reassurance that your schools are being fairly judged in the context of a changing qualification system.
A quality curriculum
One of the areas where data can only tell us so much is in assessing the quality of a school’s curriculum.
I suspect no one here will disagree with the vital importance of a curriculum which is broad, rich and deep. It matters so much for children, and particularly for disadvantaged children, who are less likely to have the gaps filled in at home.
As recent research from Dr Cristina Iannelli has shown, differences in the secondary school curriculum contribute significantly more in reproducing social inequalities than does school type. Or, as she puts it:
In the British education systems subject choices were and are still crucial for gaining access to prestigious universities and for entering professional jobs… We should not overlook the importance of subject choices in secondary school for creating opportunities for social mobility.
And our inspectors understand this. Only this week I spoke to an HMI who explained how he’d recently come to judge outcomes in a school to be outstanding. Published progress data was broadly average. But he recognised that the leadership had stuck to its guns, continued to insist on modern foreign languages for all pupils, including in its sixth form, and provided an exceptional curriculum. Those ‘average progress points’ were hard won by a courageous leadership team, who, by the way, were also judged outstanding as a result.
Given the importance of the curriculum, it’s surprising just how little attention is paid by our accountability system to exactly what it is pupils are learning in schools, particularly as we have been through a period of significant curriculum upheaval.
Certainly, we have good measures of pupil attainment at 16 and 18. And new measures, such as Progress 8, go much further than their predecessors in painting a fuller picture of pupils’ learning. But even they take us only so far.
The same is true of Ofsted inspections. While assessment forms a large part of the teaching and learning judgement, the curriculum does not.
The taught curriculum is in fact just one among 18 matters for consideration in reaching the leadership and management judgement, making it somewhat of a needle in a haystack.
I believe that lack of focus has had very real consequences.
I have heard from many of you about the conflict between your desire to give children the right education and the pressure to maintain your league table position.
And we all know how the corrosive pattern can emerge. However much you want to resist narrowing your curriculum or teaching to the test, when you see the school down the road doing it, and getting the league table pay off, you may feel you have no choice but to follow suit.
One of the more dispiriting moments in my 15 years of visiting schools was a particular Year 11 history lesson. First, pupils did a practice exam question, then they had to compare their own work to the model answer for their target grade, to see what they should be adding in. So if you had a C grade target, you were actively discouraged from aiming any higher. For me, the whole lesson was a clear example of where the exam had come to replace the education, rather than merely measuring it.
More generally, there’s a telling contrast in the schools I visit. In some, people want to talk purely about the result numbers and how they achieve them, whereas in others, they want to talk about the actual substance of the education they are giving.
And we all know that the wrong kind of focus on results can be damaging.
As Sean wrote in his inspection update, we know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results. That is nothing short of a scandal where it happens. Childhood isn’t deferrable: young people get one opportunity to learn in school and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep.
As I have said many times before, there is more to a good education than league tables. Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by SATs, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.
So I am determined to make sure that the curriculum receives the proper focus it deserves.
And that is why I’m announcing today that I have chosen the curriculum to be the focus of the first big thematic Ofsted review of my tenure. From early years, through to primary, secondary, sixth form and FE colleges, this will explore the real substance of education.
We will look at how schools are interpreting the national curriculum or using their academy freedoms to build new curricula of their own and what this means for children’s school experience. We will look at what makes a really good curriculum. And we will also look at the problems, such as curriculum narrowing, and what we can do to tackle them.
What we will not be doing is trying to unpick the national curriculum. Indeed, I suspect I would be jeered off the stage if I were to suggest yet more upheaval.
But I do want this review to provide key insights into some of the most important policy debates of the day. How do we best promote social mobility? How do we make sure that every child has the best possible start in life? And can the accountability system play a part in encouraging the development of a rich curriculum, rather than incentivising gaming?
I do hope that many of you will be able to play a part in this review and share your experiences so that others can learn from your example. You are the experts and you understand these issues better than anyone. Everything we know is informed by the work that you do, and that’s the way that it should be.
And there is another thing I’d like to talk about today, and that’s workload. I spoke earlier about the importance of Ofsted acting responsibly. We are not naïve about the impact that our inspections have on workload. So we will do our bit to make sure your time is spent where it matters most.
Ofsted does have a track record of listening and acting on the feedback we receive from the profession. That’s why we have brought all school inspection in-house and ended the third-party contracts.
We’ve brought many more serving leaders – including people in this room – onto our inspection teams. Almost half of inspections include serving practitioners, and over a third of inspector days on the ground are from practitioners, not HMI. So we are already much closer to a peer review system than many people realise.
We’ve also introduced a more proportionate inspection model for good schools, so as to focus more sharply on schools that are struggling.
Just as importantly, we have worked hard, especially over the past 2 years, to dispel many of the common staffroom myths about what Ofsted requires or expects when it comes to things like teaching styles, lesson planning, and marking.
Although this is strictly anecdotal, we are seeing more school leaders on social media and elsewhere reflecting positively on their recent inspection experience and how it felt like a marked departure from the past.
Of course there is more to do: more myth-busting work, more inspector training and more critical self-evaluation.
But when it comes to workload, Ofsted can only go so far in mitigating the impact of inspection. As my predecessor pointed out, you as school leaders need to justify your policies on marking, lesson planning and teacher evaluation on their own merits, rather than erroneously citing Ofsted ‘expectations’.
This has to be a 2-way relationship. When we bust myths, we need you, as school leaders, to consign them to history.
Ofsted inspections should not be a performance that schools spend hours rehearsing. Our inspectors are getting better at evaluating whether what we see on inspection is a true reflection of the everyday life of a school.
And no matter what so-called ‘consultants’ are selling, when school finances are under pressure and workloads are high, running mocksteds is an unacceptable waste of staff time and scarce pupil funding.
All of us have a role to play in tackling that destructive cycle which means the teaching profession is bleeding talent, and losing the brightest and the best.
We know from a DfE study released last month that teachers are working unsustainable hours, and we also know from the international TALIS surveys that it isn’t because they’re spending more time teaching than their peers abroad.
At 20 hours a week, teaching time is close to the international average. Instead, teachers in England spend significantly more time on planning, marking and administration, where I know unnecessary preparation for inspection plays a major part.
So Ofsted is committed to supporting the DfE in its workload challenge, and I do hope that you will all be displaying the workload poster and pamphlet released last month. Among other things, this clarifies what Ofsted does and does not want to see.
I am not naïve enough to believe that a poster alone will solve the problem, but it should certainly help.
Another thing we know will help with workload is greater clarity between different actors in the system. As Malcolm Trobe put it in a letter to me earlier this week,
schools would benefit from greater clarity around the roles, responsibilities and relationships between Ofsted and RSCs in particular.
There is nothing inevitable about rising teacher workload, and working together we can tackle it.
So I’d like to leave you with these parting thoughts.
My ambition as Chief Inspector is to make sure Ofsted is regarded as a force for good. I want us to highlight outstanding practice, recognise where leadership and management is performing well in challenging circumstances, and provide the feedback that schools which are less than good need to improve.
But Ofsted judgements aren’t ends in themselves. Despite many years in education regulation, I still believe the old adage that weighing the pig isn’t what makes it fatter.
When I was at Ofqual, I consistently said that qualifications were the mirror of education, not the education itself. And exactly the same applies to Ofsted judgements: they are a reflection of school quality, but they should never become the definition of quality.
All too often Ofsted Chief Inspectors are portrayed as the champions of rigour, standards and quality in schools. But the truth is I’m not a medieval knight in armour, and nor do I aspire to be one.
That’s because it is you and your staff who are the real champions of standards. You are the ones who work tirelessly day in, day out, at evenings and weekends, so that your pupils get an excellent education. Yes, it’s my job to say how well schools are performing, but the far harder job of delivering for young people is yours.
And we need to attract even more talented people into the profession, grow them into successful leaders and support them to take on new challenges.
I want Ofsted to play its part in what your blueprint so perfectly describes as
a move away from prescription to a profession-led system that is evidence-informed, innovative and ethical.
Within such a system, inspection can have a powerful role as a force for improvement and a judge of education quality. Realising that potential is the challenge I have set myself, and I look forward to working with all of you to make it a reality.