Is Ofsted now just a vehicle for an ideological, or even commercial, agenda?

27 September 2018

School cuts campaign cuts throughAmanda Spielman’s statement last week on the curriculum was peculiar, for all some good points which generated headlines.

First, the good bits. The chief inspector’s “commentary” on the curriculum won headlines for what looks a welcome, and long overdue, admission that Ofsted inspections have added pressure on schools to teach to the test.

This is part of a set of concerns HMCI has recently expressed about “exam factory” schools, including the over-focus on “outcomes” within inspections.

As I write in the current Teacher magazine, anyone concerned about the malign effects of league tables and the rest of the results-driven accountability apparatus must welcome Spielman’s intervention, though it will be interesting to see the detail of how this plays out in individual inspections.

Yet I found much of this text very curious. I wondered what is going on in the background of Ofsted’s pronouncements on the curriculum, and who and what might be shaping them.

Most of HMCI’s commentary discussed the findings of a study it carried out in only 23 schools, visited between January and March this year. The purpose was to find out the nature of curricula being taught and strengths and weaknesses in teaching.

The strangest aspect immediately noticeable was the almost complete lack of reference to the national curriculum. There is only one substantive mention of it in this 3,809-word text.

I found this bizarre. The current national curriculum in primary schools specifies in great detail, at least in English, maths and science, what should be taught, and when.

Some people watching education policy from a distance might assume that most primary schools, as academies, no longer have to follow the national curriculum. But most primary schools are not academies: many more than not still operate within the auspices of their local authorities so must follow the national document.

So how could Ofsted be publishing research findings on the nature of the curriculum as taught in schools with virtually no reference to what, surely, must be one of the largest influences on it in most schools?

“Knowledge”

If “national curriculum” barely got a mention, though, one word was very prominent. “Knowledge” featured 55 times. By contrast, “understanding” as it applies to pupils merited only eight mentions.

I am not “anti-knowledge” (how could anyone sensibly be?). And, although the text divided the schools visited into three camps: those with a “knowledge-led approach”; “knowledge-engaged approach”; and “skills-led curriculums”, Spielman was careful to say that all had strengths and weaknesses.

And yet, it seems to me as if this entire debate is being framed by the drive, most closely associated with Nick Gibb, the schools minister, to emphasise the merits of a “knowledge-rich” curriculum.

For a sense of how this debate has changed, I looked back at a curriculum document from the 1980s. “The Curriculum from 5 to 16” was published by “Her Majesty’s Inspectors” in 1985. The word “understanding” featured 47 times. This was virtually the same as the 48 mentions of “knowledge”. So the balance is very different now.

The schools visited

But the most revealing aspect of this document was the information on which schools Ofsted visited for its study.

This was not provided when it was first published. So I asked for it. Three days later, it was published.

I gasped as an often very familiar list of schools appeared.

On this itemisation of the 23 of England’s 22,000 state-funded institutions used to support this research were, for example, two run by the Inspiration Trust. This is a small chain of 13 academies set up by the academies minister Lord Agnew. It has a curriculum centre focusing on knowledge-rich curricula which is currently offering events including an “introduction to a knowledge-rich curriculum for primary staff,” with prices starting at £50 each.

Christine Counsell, director of education at the trust, reportedly sits on Ofsted’s curriculum advisory group and is said by those close to the inspectorate to be very influential. Last year, the TES reported  how Heather Fearn, a “self-described ‘conservative teacher’” had been appointed as Ofsted’s “new lead for inspector curriculum and professional development”.

Another institution on Ofsted’s list was the East London Science School. This is another “knowledge”-focused free school, this one with links to Inspiration through its former director of teaching and learning, Summer Turner, who is now Inspiration’s English subject specialist lead.

Also among the 23 was Elmhurst primary, in Newham, east London, whose former head was appointed by the Government to advise the national curriculum review itself and a separate one on assessment and which has featured on promotional materials for Read Write Inc, the phonics resources sold by Ruth Miskin, one of Gibb’s favourite advisers.

Another was Bennett Memorial Diocesan School, whose head is listed as a “supporter” of the controversial Inspiration-linked lobby group Parents and Teachers for Excellence and was appointed this year to the board of exams regulator Ofqual, on which Inspiration’s primary director, Hywel Jones, also sits.

The categorisation of schools Ofsted visited was also interesting. Whereas well over half of England’s primaries are in the local authority sector, in this group seven of the 12 visited were academies.

And staggeringly, five of the 10 secondaries visited were free schools, even though free schools make up a tiny proportion of secondaries nationally.

No doubt Ofsted would defend itself. It might say, for example: “we know that most schools are constrained greatly by the government’s national curriculum. So we wanted to focus most attention on ones which are freer to take a different approach. Because of this, our sample will be skewed to particular types of schools, and free schools in particular.”

But there was no such messaging in the commentary. Without it, it is difficult to know how to take HMCI’s observation that, for example, “in around a third of schools, the curriculum reflected leaders’ thinking about a knowledge-led approach”. How representative was this finding of the position across schools? I suspect the answer is “hardly at all”.

Sources close to Ofsted say that Gibb in particular does exert influence, although there is push-back from some senior inspectors against the perceived danger of a minister’s ideological agenda being adopted too readily, in an organisation which is said to pride itself in speaking without fear or favour.

But questions remain. Why is Ofsted focusing research effort on such a small group of schools, some of them in the “usual suspect” category?

Inspiration in particular has been assembling an impressively experienced team in and around its curriculum centre. What is the agenda, and will there be a wider commercial drive to sell this expertise, as some close to the trust suspect? Most worryingly of all, is the supposedly independent Ofsted being used to promote a particular approach, currently used in possibly only a tiny number of schools, more widely across the system? HMCI’s latest text invites many questions.

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