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Ofsted and the arts: Glass half-full or half-empty?

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Earlier this month I was invited to attend a consultation session with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s Director of Education, on behalf of Arts Council England. In this post I explain why – for now – I’m prepared to give Ofsted the benefit of the doubt.

About 20 of us attended the session from across the education, arts and culture sector, held at the Museum of London. I was invited primarily in my role as chair of a local bridge organisation (Arts Connect) responsible for delivering the arts and culture offer in the west midlands region. Our trust schools have also recently all been awarded Artsmark and I joined a number of other heads in a similar position.

In the past, I’ve not always found Ofsted consultations to be particularly edifying. You tend to leave feeling that it was a done deal and that minds had already been made up, regardless of what was said. This time however, it felt different. Ofsted genuinely appeared to be listening, so much so that we ran out of time because Harford only managed to get through a handful of the slides.

Not to worry though, as most of us that were there had seen the slide deck before and so welcomed the opportunity to use the time instead to ask questions. Harford was very willing to answer them, even though at times it was difficult to discern whether his responses were the official party line or his own. (I took the view that whilst on duty, all views expressed are those of your employer.)

Yes, at times, it got heated. Frustrations were shared from both sides of the camp. Us, regarding the accountability pressures and the inevitable ‘what gets measured gets taught’. Them, regarding schools narrowing the curriculum and teaching to tests.

The usual suspects all raised their ugly heads:  Ebacc, grading, hothousing, off-rolling, exempt schools and inspector quality assurance. At one point – when unpacking the rationale behind the proposed PD and behaviour judgement – Harford conceded with a wry smile that, ‘We’ll probably end up having an argument about it but don’t worry, we’ve got time.’

A number of other concerns were raised as well, several of which are summarised below. You may find them useful when completing your response to the #EIF2019 consultation that closes on 5th April.

Workload: It seems that the DfE have at last realised that the single biggest risk to the profession is not funding but workload. There is a real fear from government that the issue is driving teachers away and so the inspection framework needs to be mindful of this. The irony wasn’t lost on the group that the single biggest drain on workload and retention is of course Ofsted.

Outcomes: Ofsted are determined to ensure that only schools with a broad and full curriculum can be judged outstanding. In essence it becomes a limiting judgement and will mean that high-performing schools that don’t provide for this (as opposed to ‘offer’) may no longer be outstanding, even though their outcomes remain stellar.

Arts pupil premium: There was a strong view that an arts pupil premium grant should be introduced so that schools could use it to remove barriers e.g. music provision etc. Some of those around the table were understandably keen to see this happen (as providers of arts/cultural services). With this in mind, the much-maligned definition of ‘cultural capital’ was also discussed and why it has any place at all in an inspection framework.

More outstanding schools: There is a possibility that the current 20% of schools graded outstanding may actually increase. Schools that previously were penalised because outcomes weren’t where they needed to be can now attain the highest grade if their curriculum has sufficient depth and impact. The new challenge for school leaders, is how best to go about proving this. Harford confirmed that there are no quotas in place or desire to maintain the normal distribution curve.

Exempt schools: Outstanding schools will continue to remain exempt from inspection unless there is a change in the law. There is currently no political will to remove the top grade and so the status quo remains. It was clear that Harford (and the heads, to be fair) remains frustrated by this but that his hands are tied.

Double-edged sword: Ofsted are convinced that their inspectors will not be influenced by data and that headteachers need to be encouraged ‘to tell their story’ and to trust inspectors to talk to pupils, see the school in action and come to the right conclusion. This is the trade-off: That by ditching data (and workload), inspectors instead will go with their gut. I feel like I’m a turkey voting for Christmas on this one and so we must be careful what we wish for. According to Harford (and nobody disagreed with this), ‘If the curriculum is right, the school will do okay.’ The issue here of course is the extent to which we can be convinced that we can trust inspectors to get this right in a few hours. At least with data, we knew where we stood.

Narrowing the curriculum: There was lots of discussion around curriculum narrowing. Quite what this means is difficult to determine as each individual school context (and improvement journey) is different. Narrowing compared to what? A hosepipe or the channel tunnel? Both are fit-for-purpose. Is it to do with core knowledge, skills or breadth of coverage? Academies are not required to teach the national curriculum, and so by choosing not to do so, does that make the curriculum narrower? What was made clear was that primary schools that only teach art, music and PE etc. once the SATs are over will have to think again, even if across the course of the year the pupils receive a broad and rich curriculum.

The three-legged stool: Inspectors will look at your school as if it were a stool with three legs, typically made up of curriculum, teaching and outcomes. If all three are broadly of similar length the stool won’t fall over. But if one of them is too short (the curriculum for example), the stool is likely to topple when sat on. Ofsted accept that too many schools with wobbly stools are being judged outstanding due to the over-reliance of only one or two legs.

Since attending the session, the existence of Ofsted’s subject curriculum groups have emerged. In a recent blog post by Sean Harford himself, he refers to the five groups – history, MFL, English, mathematics and science. The aim of the groups are to help Ofsted ‘think through the issues at hand’.

Despite my reservations around Ofsted’s need to do such a thing, for the sake of balance and fairness, I can’t help but feel that an opportunity was lost to incorporate a sixth when we attended the session. This can either mean that Ofsted already has a strong grasp of the concepts related to the arts and that they don’t need help to think them through. Or, that they simply have no plans to think them through at all. Either is a rock or a hard place.

Despite this oversight, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future direction of travel. (Or is it optimistically cautious? Probably a bit of both). Don’t get me wrong, there’s still much to dislike about the proposals. There are a number of ‘deals on the table’ that need to be removed before we can even begin to take it seriously: Ditch the grading, get rid of EBacc, don’t extend to two days, scrap the ridiculous ‘on-site no-notice’ notion, to name but a few. Then we can talk.

That said, for now at this very early stage, I am willing to let Ofsted continue to kick the can down the road. Spring has sprung, the weather is warm and today I’m feeling good. I am prepared to give the inspectorate the benefit of the doubt, especially if they really are genuine about the consultation and that we see real and tangible improvements to the final version.

If we don’t, and the status quo prevails, Ofsted will have lost all credibility and we may as well all pack up and go home.

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