Through the looking glass...
The new Ofsted framework aims to raise expectations for students and schools alike. Keith Dennis outlines the changes, including more classroom observation, greater involvement of the senior team and a tougher stance on underachievement.
At its conferences to disseminate information about the new schools' inspection arrangements, held in June, Ofsted was clear: the new inspection framework for England raises the bar because it raises expectations. But at the same time, there was talk of the "broadly positive feedback" from schools and local authorities involved in pilot inspections.
Two of the key themes running through the new inspection are raising standards of attainment and narrowing the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. For Ofsted this means addressing 'inadequate' and 'mediocre' schools. (Ofsted pointed out that children from low income families or economically deprived areas are more likely to attend one of these schools and copies of Ofsted's publication Twelve Outstanding Secondary Schools - Excelling Against the Odds were made available.) The new expectations are, it was claimed, evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Ofsted is looking for a broad pattern of improvement in a school's attainment measures or, in schools which are high attaining, maintenance of these standards. Judgements will not be based on attainment in a single year and this broader sweep is, Ofsted asserts, fairer, because it contextualises any anomalous drop in standards by a particular cohort.
School leaders need to take steps to ensure that governors and parents know that the bar has been raised and that it is now harder to achieve a satisfactory, good or outstanding judgement than under previous frameworks. Failure to communicate this is likely to result in governors and parents wrongly believing that a school has plateaued or even regressed, when the reality is that the inspection framework is much more stringent.
At the conferences, Ofsted was keen to counter what it described as 'misleading' press reports about the new inspection being all about attainment data. However, what ASCL has argued is that the new emphasis on attainment will have a strong negative impact on the overall judgement for many schools - especially those with challenging intakes (for how this will happen, please see the article on inspection judgements).
Ofsted's response is: "This is not what has happened in the pilots."
Ofsted is clear: it will brook no excuses for underachievement ('achievement' being a judgement which uses attainment in combination with learning and progress). In special schools the only allowances will be for students whose need for special education is related to a cognitive disability. The same will apply to students in special units in mainstream schools. The message is clear: expectations should be high for all students.
It is difficult for anyone to argue with 'no excuse for underperformance'. The danger is when 'no excuses' is interpreted as 'no reasons' for underperformance.
On narrowing the gap, there will be a particular focus on students with special educational needs or disabilities, on vulnerable groups (such as looked-after children) and on any sections of the student body where there seems to be underperformance (gifted and talented students or those in the middle, for example).
Schools will receive one or two working days' notice of inspection unless the inspection has been triggered by a serious concern, such as a safeguarding issue. 'No notice' has been reserved for monitoring visits for schools in a category or for those judged satisfactory at their last inspection.
At the moment, Ofsted monitors the progress of about 5 per cent of satisfactory schools but under the new arrangements for proportionate inspection this will rise to about 40 per cent. The resource for this will come from increasing the interval between full inspections for schools rated good or outstanding. Special schools are exempted: because there are no publicly available national data sets they will continue to be inspected on a three-yearly cycle.
Every year, each school will be risk assessed using published data and, if the messages from this data seem inconclusive, the most recently submitted SEF will be used. In the third year following an inspection, the risk assessment of good or outstanding schools may lead Ofsted to publish an interim assessment and to put back the full inspection for another year or possibly two.
This coming year, because of the timescale of implementing new legislation, interim assessments will not be published until the spring term. In future years they may be expected in the second half of the autumn term, although no final decision has been made.
If Ofsted is uncertain about the messages from the data, and a school does not have a recently submitted SEF to which inspectors can refer, an inspection is unlikely to be put back. Inspection will not be put back in schools where the last three years' data seems to indicate that it is in decline, is coasting or is inconsistent.
Furthermore, some 10 per cent of good and outstanding schools with robust data will be inspected anyway, because, for the annual report, HMCI must ensure that schools of all types, phases and effectiveness are represented in a year's inspection activity.
The amount of time inspectors will spend in classrooms has been doubled, in response to feedback from classroom teachers. This move also recognises the centrality of teaching and learning and the need to base inspection judgements on first-hand evidence as well as data. The full range of observation strategies will be used - from learning walks, through pupil pursuits and short classroom visits for a particular purpose, to whole lesson observations.
As before, where the inspector spends 20 minutes or more in a classroom, the teacher is entitled to feedback. Many observations will respond to particular inspection trails and so will be focused on particular groups of students - especially perhaps, those who are particularly vulnerable or who may be underachieving.
The current parental questionnaire will continue to be used and Ofsted is working on ways of gathering parental views in the intervals between inspections. In addition, there is a student questionnaire and a questionnaire for staff.
Heads decide whether they want the staff questionnaire to be distributed and individual members of staff can choose whether or not to complete it. In any case, members of staff can ask to speak to inspectors in private and can expect their request to be granted. In time, both student and staff questionnaires are likely to be available online.
Dialogue with the head
A potentially positive aspect of the new inspection is the greater involvement of the head and other school leaders in the inspection process. In a long telephone conversation before the inspection begins, the head is likely to be involved in discussion of the inspection trails which the lead inspector will define in the pre-inspection briefing. If there are issues with staff relations (perhaps because of steps that senior managers are taking to address underperformance) the head may want to raise them with the lead inspector at this point.
The head is also likely to be involved in the inspection team meetings at the end of day one and at the end of inspection activity in the school. In the pilots, feedback to the head has been so thorough that the final feedback has been principally directed at governor and local authority representatives - staff have not needed it.
This greater involvement helps the head to discern whether, during the inspection, the school needs to draw inspectors' attention to particular areas of evidence. Judgements are made by inspectors but the ongoing dialogue with the head and other school leaders should mean that the evidence base for them is clear. Ofsted claims that, in the pilots, the greater involvement of school leaders enabled those leaders to see how the recommendations for further improvement flowed from the emerging inspection judgements. These recommendations are more precise than previously: they are sharper and signal the action that needs to be taken.
The pilots have also had a greater use of joint lesson observation. As well as enabling inspectors to assess the quality of school leaders' judgements of teaching and learning, it has also meant that leaders can identify pupils who are vulnerable or part of an apparently underachieving group.
ASCL has welcomed the emphasis given in conducting the inspection to gathering firsthand evidence as the basis for judgements on learning and progress. September 2009 sees the introduction of new data measures including, in particular, contextual value added (CVA) which includes English and maths.
ASCL continues to believe that CVA is the best data set available but has a number of concerns about this new measure, in particular that it has been inadequately modelled. We have yet to see how it will affect inspection.
Ofsted is proud of the extensive trialling of the new system that has taken place. It has sought feedback from schools, as well as from inspectors, parents and others involved in the pilot inspections. What it has not done is to compare how schools inspected under the pilot arrangements would have fared had they been inspected under the existing framework.
Preliminary work in schools using the new guidance has suggested to ASCL consultants that the new framework tends to depress a school's overall effectiveness, mainly because the revised evaluation schedule criteria are more specific and more demanding.
Whether this will be the general reality as all schools become subject to the new regime, we will just have to see.
Keith Dennis is a former headteacher and ASCL's inspection specialist.
Ofsted Inspects: A Framework for all Ofsted Inspection and Regulation (March 2009)
Go to www.ofsted.gov.uk and click on 'forms and guidance/general other', then search for 'Ofsted inspects'
Framework for School Inspection Conducting School Inspections Evaluation Schedule for Schools
Go to www.ofsted.gov.uk and click on 'news/news archive/2009/July'
New inspection framework for FE
Ofsted is also introducing a new inspection framework for post-16 providers in the learning and skills sector in England from September 2009, following consultations and pilot inspections.
Changes build on the current Common Inspection Framework (CIF) and providers will continue to receive a single grade for their overall effectiveness in meeting the needs of learners and other users.
Information below is derived from a useful summary of the changes in July's Issue 77 of Talisman which can be found at www.ofsted.gov.uk/talisman
Main revisions include:
strengthened approach to judging capacity to improve
continued strong focus on learners' achievement of qualifications and learning goals, with greater emphasis on the Every Child Matters aims
increased focus on progress made by different groups of learners
enhanced inspection of impact of teaching, learning and assessment on learning and development
enhanced inspection of safeguarding and equality and diversity, with the introduction of limiting judgements so that grades for these two aspects may limit grades awarded for overall effectiveness
The four-point grading system remains the same and inspection teams will continue to work with a college nominee. Self-assessment continues to form a key feature of all inspections, which will be led by HMI.
Inspections will be similar for different types of providers, lasting between three and five days, depending on the number of learners and complexity of provision. The inspection team will gather evidence from across a provider's governmentfunded provision, awarding grades for selected subject areas as well as those required by the inspection framework.
There are no changes to arrangements for re-inspection, with all providers receiving a monitoring visit if they have been judged as inadequate overall at the previous inspection, or if they have an inadequate grade for a major aspect of the CIF, such as leadership and management or a subject area.
These visits will take place six to eight months after the last full inspection and are followed either by a partial re-inspection or full re-inspection within 12 to 15 months of the last one. There will be survey inspection visits for selected colleges, including those judged outstanding or good, linked to specified themes or subject areas each year. These may be separately scheduled or organised as part of already planned visits.
Those providers judged to be good or outstanding at their previous inspection and not selected for inspection or a focused monitoring visit over three years will receive a letter containing the outcomes of their interim assessment. This will be based on a desk exercise using performance data and other indicators also used by commissioners and funding bodies.
There will be a risk-proportionate approach to inspection, which means that the best providers will receive less frequent inspections. A standard period of notice of inspection for providers is between two and three weeks.
Details of the features that influence inspection, what a new inspection will look like and a useful chart to indicate main and contributory grades and their limiting grades are available in the Talisman summary.
The Handbook for Inspection of Further Education and Skills from September 2009 can be accessed at www.ofsted.gov.uk under 'forms and guidance'.
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