Ofsted chooses its moment to move the educational goalposts and relay the pitch
Following the 2017 general election the grammar school programme, which would have soaked up a huge percentage of the schools budget for next year, has now been abandoned. There’s no direct news at the moment about Free Schools, but I suspect the number of new ones being approved will slow down, if not cease. Likewise given Labour’s opposition to Free Schools and the uncertainty about the government’s survival, I also suspect that the number of new schools that will move ahead and open is going to be smaller than before. Meanwhile the government has promised that in the reorganisation of school funding to remove historic anomalies no school will get less money than before, which is a new promise. Ofsted is also flexing its muscles, criticising schools that enter students for what it calls “meaningless exams.” Their view is that some schools are simply becoming “exam factories” and Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, went so far as to say some school leaders should be “ashamed” of the tactics used to bolster their league table standings. This, of course, is a direct challenge to the government’s performance tables fixation and the use of “exam floor targets” to label failing schools. Ms Spielman said, “At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most. This means concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops.” I think this move will be cautiously welcomed by most school managers. I also think the government will be too weak to challenge Ofsted over this change of direction. And in a statement that was music to the ears of many she said, “The idea that children will not, for example, hear or play the great works of classical musicians or learn about the intricacies of ancient civilisations – all because they are busy preparing for a different set of GCSEs – would be a terrible shame." Excuse the pun. The head of the inspectors in England continued, “All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage three means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again. “Rather than just intensifying the focus on data, Ofsted inspections must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. Inspections, then, are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education –one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.” Schools in England are to a large extent driven by inspectors' comments, and this change of emphasis can mean a boost for everyone offering products and services that do enhance the broader curriculum and wider learning. With the government in no position to fight anyone at the moment, and with all attention on the dual aims of dealing with Europe while maintaining a majority in Parliament, I suspect this is a moment that schools will absolutely grab with both (metaphorical) hands. Not to mention feet.