Supporting English-related teaching and learning at all levels

Launch of HMCI Annual Report, December 4th 2018 – Jane Davies

A report and commentary on the content of this event which Jane attended on behalf of NAAE. Her Ofsted curriculum summary will follow in the next newsletter.

Although the annual report launch speech always gives us an idea of Ofsted’s focus in the coming year, this year’s also reiterated themes we are familiar with and have seen in previous reports and presentations. What was interesting was the strength with which Amanda Spielman made certain statements and the responses to some of the questions after the formal presentation, which were unscripted and added additional insights. If I’d had to make a word cloud after the speech, the key ideas that I think would have stood out would have been equity, substance and curriculum.

Once again HMCI highlighted the way in which she views Ofsted as a ‘force for improvement’, emphasizing her view that the report should trigger a system level response to challenges that can’t be tackled by just one local authority or college.

After the usual ‘good news’ about the percentage of Early Years providers, schools, general FE colleges and the children’s homes that are at least good,
HMCI then went on to outline what she saw as the challenges in the system:

• Children who lag behind their peers and never catch up
• Wealth still seen as a predictor of success
• FE still seen as a poor relation to schools
• Attainment, progress and aspiration still too low in coastal areas and White working class communities
• Those stuck schools that haven’t improved in a over a decade

Her observation that ‘a mentality of what’s measured is what gets done trumps the true purpose of education and curriculum thinking… has been eroded’, signalled again the shift to thinking more closely about the curriculum on offer and its impact on learners, although teachers in the audience would not have been unaware of the irony of high stakes data being so instrumental in Ofsted inspections and the judgements that are awarded to schools. The importance of a focus on the curriculum was picked up again in the four themes she wanted to highlight in the report, which were:

• Getting the basics in education and care right
• The impact of a lack of capacity in certain areas and its effect on standards on rates of improvement
• The danger of schools being expected to be a panacea for all society’s ills
• Focusing on the substance of education and care.

When talking about ‘getting the basics right’, HMCI was refreshingly blunt about avoiding ‘snake oil, white elephants and fashionable gimmicks’, emphasising that there was no ‘silver bullet’ in education and it was more important to ‘get the basics right’.

Continuing the theme of ‘the importance of the basics in closing the gap and equity in education’, Amanda Spielman focused on early reading, as a ‘moral imperative and central plank of social justice.’ She also highlighted that Ofsted would be continuing to focus on literacy in the early years and beyond (as well as improving maths throughout the school). Her advice to policy makers would be to encourage all young people to continue to improve their literacy beyond 16, whether they need to achieve a grade 4 at GCSE through re-sits or ‘other means’ or not. It was heartening to hear her say very clearly that she feels that FE is very much the ‘poor relation’ to schools in spite of promises from policy makers, and as she says, ‘viewed by some policy makers as somewhere for other people’s children’. Whether this might result in policy makers taking notice is another matter entirely.

There has been a great deal of coverage in the press about HMCI’s concerns about stuck schools, off rolling and the provision for children with SEND. Again, it was striking to see how critical she was of the disjointed and inconsistent provision for SEND children, highlighting the need for ‘adequate support for our most vulnerable children with SEND, which is a basic expectation of a decent, developed society’ and that ‘we need to do better.’

Also interesting was the way in which funding was highlighted, both in her discussion of councils who have had to cut budgets and on the incentives for academies to sponsor failing schools. Cuts to budgets in councils have had an impact on both preventative and youth services, which only ‘serves to push demand downstream’ and a lack of sponsor capacity has meant that some schools have been left in limbo for over 18 months. In the speech, she talked about the ‘case to reinstate some of the incentives’ – and in the panel questions when asked about incentives for academies to become sponsors, she commented that there were cash incentives originally, now there are none – and that this was a problem.

You could almost hear the cheer from teachers as Spielman highlighted the danger of schools being expected to be a panacea for all society’s ills and being expected to deal with a variety of issues from toilet training to childhood obesity and knife crime. Spielman was clear that the fundamental purpose of schools is to ‘educate and inspire children, not to parent them’. She also made her commitment to the increased focus on the ‘substance of education’ clear when she highlighted the need to recognise teachers as ‘professional subject experts, not simply data managers’. In the panel questions, in response to the question about advice that could be given to those leading the DfE’s recruitment and retention strategy, Sean Harford replied, ‘Return teachers to teaching.’ , which again, seems to highlight the focus on returning to what they refer to as the ‘substance of education’.

HMCI was clear that, although there was an expectation that the curriculum in key stages 2 and 3 should be ‘broad and deep’, they would support the government’s commitment to make EBacc subjects the foundation of the KS4 curriculum. There has been some concern that Ofsted would favour a knowledge based curriculum, after the phase 2 report on the curriculum was published but I think schools might be hopeful to hear that she was very clear that there would be no ‘Ofsted curriculum’ and that schools should not leap for quick fixes or superficial solutions just to please Ofsted.

I was pleased to hear her comments in the panel session about how she felt Ofsted had neglected the triennial subject reports and that they were looking to reintroduce them, albeit not in the same way, as they do not have the resources to research and write them in the way they used to do. Still, it would be good to have a re focus on specific subjects, both in terms of curriculum and pedagogy.

At the end of the session, she highlighted what is coming next: Phase 3 of the curriculum review (which was published on 14th December) and the consultation on the revised framework, which begins in January 2019. Inspectors are already receiving training and this will continue in the New Year.

I’m hoping that when we see the draft framework, it will embody the shift that was suggested by ‘From September, we’ll be just as interested in where you are going and how you intend to get there, not just whether you’ve arrived there yet.’