A critique of Ofsted’s Annual Report 2020

A personal reflection on Ofsted’s 2020 annual report

Background

In a previous life I was responsible for writing important elements of the annual report relating to schools, initial teacher education and local authority inspections. This year’s report is a strange hybrid due to the epidemic and the suspension of much of Ofsted’s frontline inspection activity. It is disappointing in terms of its lack of attention to regional analysis. I am unsure whether Ofsted intends to publish regional reports. It would be odd if they did but….

The 2020 Annual Report

Every new chief inspector eventually wants to introduce their own inspection framework and Amanda Spiellman is no different to the rest. With a grand fanfare the new EIF offered increased focus on the curriculum and a strangely direct approach to its creation, implementation and delivery. To smooth through the changes a commitment was made by Ofsted that the approach would be managed sensitively and without a major jolt to the current grade profile. The outcomes for the first 6 months of the academic year suggest this was successful but this in itself hides some of the truth.

In the past, new Frameworks were used to ‘raise the bar’. This worked on the belief that schools had worked out how to provide the evidence Ofsted wanted and this saw a rise in outcomes. By instituting a new Framework it was possible to challenge schools further and this in turn led to an early drop in Good grades but this was corrected after a year or two. The current annual report suggests there has been no shock to the system and therefore little ’raising of the bar’. This is a concern because there is now little headroom for Ofsted to demonstrate that their new focus has improved school effectiveness outcomes. In fact, most of the decline in performance appears to have been borne by the move to inspect previously outstanding schools. So, I’m left wondering why did they introduce the new Framework? Curriculum was always an important part of every framework and certainly it had a focus for the previous one so wasn’t it possible to simply focus more on it without having to re-engineer the framework.

But, more important, the epidemic has highlighted the pitiful narrow nature of the current inspection framework. In its early days Ofsted provided significant time for inspectors to interrogate the role and impact of parents/carers, the local community, the local children’s services and the support the third sector offered. This has now gone from the Framework. I can’t recall when it was lost but I suspect my hands are on this issue somewhere, so I am sheepish to be honest. This makes me concerned that the significant and important role that schools and local authorities have played in recent months does not fit well within the existing Framework. I’m not convinced the current Framework is focused sufficiently on the right areas for it to be a reliable vehicle for assessing schools post-Covid.

It is striking how weaknesses in one area of Ofsted’s remit namely SEND and Safeguarding inspections of local authorities do not feed into areas for investigation in school inspections. And it is striking how the inspections of local authority services (which everyone has acknowledged have been devastated under austerity measures) have not been investigated thoroughly during school inspections. The current and previous Frameworks have well and truly seen schools as islands of children’s services and not connected with local authority children’s services.

The current annual report draws attention to the 11k deep dives undertaken on subjects during school inspections but makes no reference to specific investigations to discover how well schools have been able to connect with local services, parents/carers, business etc. This is why the epidemic has shown up the pitifully narrow nature of the existing school Framework. I have made clear publicly that it is not ‘fit for purpose’ as a tool for evaluating school effectiveness when inspections start again. Ofsted will be reluctant to admit this because it will undermine their work but this is at the heart of my unease with school inspections. While schools have been addressing significantly increased pressure often caused by issues that sit outside of their school gates the inspectorate has carried on as if it is all about the curriculum! There is headroom in the most prosperous of schools serving the most advantaged communities but where the greatest disadvantage is you continue to see school leaders focusing in on what matters to their children and families; and sometimes this is food, housing, special educational needs etc. There are within the annual report references to schools doing amazing things to support their children in dire circumstances but to be honest it is unrealistic for all schools in such circumstances to be able to rise to the challenges.

If ever there were two sentences in an annual report that sums up the obvious well here they are:

In the outstanding schools seen this year, pupils know more and remember more, and this is reflected in their attainment. There continues to be a strong correlation between inspection outcomes and Progress 8 scores, though this has never been as high as is commonly assumed.

The annual report makes clear that to be a Good school you generally need a positive Progress 8 score and to be outstanding it needed to be +0.6. This is why the Fairer Schools Index promoted by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership that draws on the award winning research undertaken by Dr George Leckie at University of Bristol is so important and why it gives some of the North’s schools a fighting chance of a better overall effectiveness grade. Despite the promise of a more rounded evaluation of effectiveness the new Framework is just as tied to the Progress measures as the previous one. If, as I and Leckie believe, it is too narrow a measure then clearly we will continue to see some schools being judged much lower than they deserve and on the other hand some receiving bloated grades. The link between poverty and Ofsted grades is not addressed in the annual report; a pity.

The annual report draws attention to relative weaknesses in apprenticeship programmes. To be honest this has been a regular weakness for the past 20 years or so. It is clear that Ofsted does perform a decent role in ensuring apprenticeship providers try to deliver a decent standard but once again this proves that inspection alone doesn’t change the landscape.

Early reading gets quite a mention in the annual report. It is interesting because ministers are quite balanced in their response to phonics namely that it needed to be woven into a structured reading programme that included other approaches. The annual report refers to ‘phonics and early reading’ (please note the ordering here, it is not by chance) and that there is ‘scientific evidence’ to support the current push for a systematic phonics approach. Few would argue that phonics is important as a means of sounding words but Ofsted will not grade initial teacher providers as Good if they don’t emphasise the preferred phonics’ teaching approach. The annual report is rather silent on what other features of a good reading approach are which is a pity because this is important if we want schools to see early reading as more than just phonics.

The next focus is on ‘stuck schools’, a term that is of Ofsted’s making. It is their Framework that makes some of our northern schools, principally secondaries, unable to move to a Good category. Bearing in mind the strong correlation between progress 8 and the overall effectiveness it is unsurprising to see as many schools improve to Good as it is for those schools to remain less than Good.

So far, 27% of the 415 original stuck schools have been inspected under the EIF (110 schools). Fifty-three schools had improved to good at their most recent inspection and 57 had not.

At the heart of this issue here is that most of these schools are serving some of the most disadvantaged communities and are in some respects managing a host of additional social issues to schools in more favourable areas. I am not making excuses here because sadly there will always be weak schools, but Ofsted doesn’t attempt to explain the demographic and location issues that underpin some long-term problems. In their chart explaining why schools are stuck it is bewildering not to see references to difficulties managing external factors such as high migration, vulture-like neighbouring schools creaming off the most aspiring families or even problems at a local authority level that spill over to the schools to manage. Sadly, Ofsted prefers not to mention these issues. It may well be that, as I have mentioned previously inspectors simply don’t interrogate those relationships and pressures. This is why understanding the context of a school is so important and why it is essential we have well rounded inspectors who can see through some of these issues.

The report references the impact of Covid on the most vulnerable. It acknowledges that there are ‘continuing systemic issues around our collective oversight of these (vulnerable) children, partnership working in their interests and the capacity of the ‘market’ to deliver what they need’. It doesn’t acknowledge that the vast majority of these children are located in some of the most disadvantaged communities and this is where the majority of Ofsted’s stuck schools are. So, isn’t it shocking that school inspections don’t interrogate the effectiveness of relationships and operational work at a local level?

The report then references the troubling quality of SEND provision. The report explains how evidence is gathered through a number of sources to gain oversight. These include school inspections and local authority inspections of SEND. Now bearing in mind how poor the quality of some local authority SEND inspections are judged it is staggering to see such high grades for overall provision for SEND in school inspections. A wise HMI told me when I joined the inspectorate that school inspections were easy cos you just had to chat to a few SEND pupils and their staff to find out how good the school was. As he said ‘How can a school be good if provision for those with special educational needs isn’t!?  This highlights what has been a perennial problem across Ofsted and that is the insular worlds in which inspection is conducted. Little evidence and insight are shared across inspection frameworks so there is always this underlying problem of issues not impacting across the various sectors.

The report is strikingly bold when it comes to the impact of Covid on children and young people especially the most disadvantaged. It makes the case that children will have lost out because learning was halted and a lack of consolidation in learning probably meant they have not got a secure grasp of the issues. Interesting how Ofsted uses external research to substantiate their assertions as they make clear they have not been able to undertake assessments of children so their approach is probably the best they can do. There are some tentative efforts to identify what might be good practice in supporting home learning but there is just a fleeting reference to the limitations in hardware and internet access for families. No specific reference is made to the problems most schools have faced in terms of track and trace and the cost of covering for staff absence and purchasing Covid items. Surely, these issues are at the heart of the current problems for schools and bearing in mind the significant flak Ofsted received for undertaking face to face and then virtual discussions with schools it is bewildering to see such a lack of detail here.

Any particular issues for the north?

As mentioned earlier it is disappointing (for someone working with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership) to see very little regional breakdown.

I appreciate the difficulties in producing the Annual Report and this is a critique (a rather over-critical one probably) and a rapidly produced one but I am left feeling disappointed that the messages remain the same and that over time not much has changed. What is clear is that schools have done an amazing job in managing through the pandemic. They have been pillars of their communities and have certainly gained the respect of many more parents and carers. They deserve to be brought into the fold more by Ofsted; they must help shape the future of inspection because we cannot just go back to what went before. Things have moved on and if Ofsted doesn’t it deserves to be forced to change.

Frank Norris

1 December 2020

1 Comment

  1. Caroline Vile

    Correct

    Reply

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