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I love this time of year. With SATs and GCSEs behind us, the sun shining (well, it was!), and the long summer break just about in sight, children and staff are throwing themselves into school journeys, performances and exhibitions, work experiences, sports days and celebrations – many of the things, dare I say it, that our most vivid school memories are made of.

For schools in the RSA Family of Academies there is an extra layer of events: the RSA Arts Day, Pupil Design Award finals, RSA Cup, and the culmination of our cross-Family Year 8 leadership programme will all take place in the next few weeks, bringing our schools together for collaboration, competition and celebration.

This summer brings some additional reasons for hope and optimism in the world of education. As other commentators have noted, the likely slowing in the pace of educational change as a result of the General Election result is a positive. Whatever one’s political views, we can also all welcome the significant increase in the proportion of young people who voted. Interesting too to read that, for many people, it was concern about school funding that prompted voters to change their view in the last few days of the campaign – a sign, perhaps, of a dawning realisation amongst parents and the wider public of just how tight finances have got in schools. Justine Greening’s confirmation that the government will not be pursuing the controversial grammar schools expansion, and her attempts to reassure with respect of the National Funding Formula give hopeful signals – although, on the latter, the detail, including the total amount of funding available, will be all important.

And into this encouraging mix we have perhaps the most significant addition of all: Amanda Spielman’s speech at last week’s Festival of Education, lamenting the way in which too many schools are sacrificing the breadth and balance of an enriching curriculum in pursuit of a narrow curriculum focused solely on SATs and GCSE performance. 

I am confident that nothing she described would have come as a surprise to anyone who has been even loosely connected to education in recent years. We all know about the pressures on primary schools to sacrifice much of Year 6, and increasingly Years 5 and 4, to SATs preparation and practice, with a monotonous focus on exam technique. And, at secondary school, myriad decisions are made at whole school and individual pupil level with at least one eye on how to improve the Progress 8 score: the decision on whether to teach GCSE courses over two or three years; money spent on data managers and training on the use of data; reducing the KS4 offer to 8 or 9 GCSEs, rather than 10 or more, because only the best 8 will ‘count’; the child encouraged to study history rather than music to maximise the EBacc score, or to struggle on with French to GCSE rather than pursue a vocational qualification because schools can’t afford to leave a ‘basket’ empty; and, of course, the most vulnerable pupils who are quietly off-rolled, or not admitted in the first place, because they would bring down the Progress 8 average.

So, in one sense, nothing that Amanda Spielman said was a surprise. The surprise was to hear this obvious truth stated by the new Chief Inspector.  

Some will note that it is a little disingenuous of Ms Spielman to say all of this without acknowledging the major role that Ofsted play in creating the conditions for all this madness. Think, for a moment, about your local schools.  How did they do, relative to each other, in SATs/GCSEs?  Not sure?  So which schools are sitting on an Ofsted ‘outstanding rating’?  Yes, I thought you might find that one easier!  In terms of a school’s standing in the community it is the school’s Ofsted rating rather than their league table position that really matters.  And the good news for all of us is that, as Ofsted are the major driver of this gamesmanship, Ofsted can also put a stop to it.  But they will need our help.

There are two ways in which Ofsted could respond to the right and proper concerns raised in the speech. One would be to change the Ofsted framework to give greater focus and depth on the curriculum, to introduce more subject specialists into the team and to seek to devise new metrics to measure time spent learning, for example, about ancient civilisations, or the proportion of children learning a musical instrument.  This would have resource implications.  At a time when 1200 schools in England have not had an Ofsted inspection for at least seven years, and 100 have been waiting for more than ten years, there would be questions about affordability. Perhaps more importantly we know that schools have, by necessity, become very adept at changing their behaviour to respond to the changing performance and inspection frameworks, and tend to tick the boxes that need to be ticked.

A better alternative would be to modify Ofsted’s headline grading to a binary judgement of ‘good’ and ‘not yet good’. As now, the reports would have detailed descriptions of the things that the schools do brilliantly and the areas for improvement. Unlike now, we would hope that more staff and parents would read and find this information useful, rather than reading only the outstanding/ good/ requires improvement/ inadequate label.

Removing the expectation that all schools should strive to achieve or maintain an ‘outstanding’ grade would remove, at a stroke, the enormous pressure on schools to shape all aspects of their curriculum and practice to maximise performance in the league tables and for Ofsted. Pupil progress that is broadly in line with national averages should be sufficient to secure the ‘good’ rating, freeing up schools to deliver a curriculum that meets the needs and aspirations of the pupils, the community, universities and employers. This doesn’t mean that the detailed data about pupil attainment and progress should be ignored – far from it. The particular strengths and areas of challenge should be identified in a way that supports the school’s further development. Some schools will do particularly well by high prior attaining pupils, others narrow the gap for disadvantaged pupils, some may do particularly well in STEM subjects but poorly in modern foreign languages, or vice versa. How much richer this performance data than the averaging of the averages that goes into creating a single overall measure!

Moving the focus away from a single overarching judgement would also create the opportunity for schools to highlight, and inspectors to comment on, the wide and diverse ways in which a school excel, and for great practice to be shared. How valuable it would be to acknowledge and comment on those schools that put the mental health and well-being of pupils and staff at the heart of all they do, or to identify schools which excel at the performing or visual arts, or perhaps to comment on a school’s excellent work to prepare pupils for the world of work.  

The call to remove the Ofsted ‘outstanding’ label is not new – Russell Hobby, for example, outgoing General Secretary of the NAHT, has argued consistently for this for a number of years. So why has this plea been ignored?  Partly, one imagines, due to Ofsted’s stance – a stance that Ms Spielman’s speech suggests may now change.  But also, no doubt, due to the views of schools that currently hold the coveted Ofsted outstanding badge, and would be reluctant to see this accolade lost. Those in charge of ‘good’ schools who argue against the ‘outstanding’ label are easily dismissed as having low expectations. To be really powerful, we need leaders and governors of the schools that hold the ‘outstanding’ badge to tell Ofsted and the public that this category should be removed.

We have learnt in recent weeks the power that the education community can have when it speaks with one voice. Let’s make our next call the move to ditch ‘outstanding’. 


Follow Alison on Twitter @Ali_Critchley

Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies.  Three of the seven schools in the RSA Family of Academies are currently judged by Ofsted to be outstanding.

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