From Berwick to Bournemouth, from Blackpool to Bury St Edmunds much of the discourse in staff rooms and governing boards this term has inevitably focused on the 2019 OFSTED Inspection framework. From the consultation early in 2019 it was evident that the regulator was looking at a slightly different approach in how it judged the successful provision of education in schools and academies. Whilst there were minor tweaks as a result of that consultation with the sector, much of what was originally suggested remains in place. In a nutshell there was to be less of a focus on narrow attainment and progress data but much more emphasis on the overall quality of education. The general concern was that some schools may have been narrowing their curricular offer in pursuit of external examination success thereby restricting the knowledge base and educational experience of our children. By changing the focus the aim was to ensure all schools offered a wide curriculum and extra curricular activities that engaged all children, that knitted together in a logical and sequential way different core subjects, and that developed the “cultural capital” of pupils and students. Of course this concept is hugely popular with the traditional wing and their pin-up boy Nick Gibb, the Schools’ Minister since 1746. What constitutes cultural capital is highly subjective and worthy of a blog and certainly a debate of its own.
The new framework therefore introduced a new discrete heading of the Quality of Education. Now I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of schools have for many years offered children broad and balanced curricular provision that engaged children and developed both their knowledge but also the skills to apply and nurture that knowledge to their advantage. However this hasn’t stopped schools from undertaking huge revamps of the subjects and topics they teach. In fairness this has unleashed huge creativity in some areas and the innovative use of natural resources, people in the local community, and more traditional sources of information is very exciting.
The OFSTED grade descriptors are very interesting. Effectively to be “Outstanding” there is the assumption that the curriculum is already finely honed, stimulating, and challenges all children. This perhaps unrealistic expectation so early in the cycle may explain whey nationally so few schools have either achieved or maintained that grading during the September and October inspections. Inevitably most schools are still working up their curricula offer having consulted with staff, parents, and children to ensure that what is being taught meets the needs of the children in that unique setting. Staff rooms that were used to hearing discussion around the three “Rs” now reverberate to the sound of the three “Is.” What is the Intent of the curriculum. What is its purpose? How relevant is it to our children and the world in which they are growing up? Then there is the Implementation. How will the curriculum be delivered? Will it be accessible to all children? And what will be the Impact? Will it ensure children have a secure depth of knowledge across all subject areas thereby boosting their cultural capital and theoretically improving their prospects of social mobility and higher workplace achievement?
One would have hoped that with the pressure of success in external examinations being eased, schools would take a much more relaxed and collaborative approach to the new inspection framework. Sadly this is proving not to be so in too many cases. The competition to top a league table is now a competition to design a world-beating curriculum. The apparent need to reinvent the wheel is prevalent rather than a much more sensible approach of tweaking existing models to suit your local circumstances and context. In the process a huge amount of work has been carried out. Already one is hearing stories of teachers having spent much of their summer holiday creating new subject curricula and in the case of primary teachers their whole annual teaching plan. So instead of hours hothousing children for tests, we now have teachers hothousing themselves in order to create a magic curriculum that will bewitch any visiting inspector.
It is possible to point the finger here at senior leaders who have switched ridiculously high expectations from exam cramming to curriculum cramming. It is arguable one should ask teachers why in heaven’s name they are complicit in this rat race. But the most powerful force at work here is OFSTED itself. The new inspection framework is absolutely explicit in its expectation that teachers will develop a greater depth of subject knowledge. In the areas they lead it is expected they will cascade this knowledge to colleagues. In other subject areas they are expected to embrace additional training to upskill themselves right across the curriculum. There is a school of thought of course that if we are to deliver the enhanced cultural capital demanded in the framework then teachers must have developed their own mastery of each subject. However, three months into the new framework a significant and glaring challenge is presenting itself.
In many schools, especially primary, the time allocated for subject development is scant. Anecdotally around half a day per term appears to be commonplace. And often of course those precious hours are eroded by behaviour management issues, and other urgent non-teaching considerations. Which then begs the question when are we expecting our hard working teachers to find the significant number of hours required to attend training, read up on their subject, and map and design a challenging and stimulating curriculum across all age groups? Most teachers spend literally every minute of the day teaching other than their PPA designated time, which again is often lost or moved at short notice. Which means we are inevitably expecting our teachers to develop their knowledge either in the evening or at weekend. Which hurtles us headlong into a real conundrum. Elsewhere in the new framework there are clear references to the duty of employers and senior leaders to consider carefully the workload of their staff. There is an explicit threat that in Good schools where workload is onerous and staff feel bullied or intimidated the Section 8 inspection will be immediately converted to a deeper Section 5 analysis with the potential for a requires improvement or even inadequate outcome.
Already this term subject leaders at schools who have been inspected are reporting a forensic examination of their subject knowledge and curriculum implementation and impact. The so-called “Deep Dives.” OFSTED will doubtless justify this on the grounds of it being essential to ensure the quality of education is high. However it is, superficially at least, simply incompatible with the responsibilities to manage workload and well-being sensitively. All of which clearly gives a huge challenge to senior leadership and governors. This needs to be on the agenda of all governance meetings. Governors need to ensure that any requirement by the school for teachers to deepen their knowledge can be wholly accommodated within the school day. If not work-life balance is inevitably compromised. But then of course we meet another problem. Under the continued shameless underfunding of state education, few schools have the luxury of idle staff who can be parachuted into classrooms to cover for teachers busy on subject development. Some schools have virtually no teaching assistants left and we know supply cover can be extremely expensive and increasingly impossible to sanction under deficit budgets.
So my friends we have to make some tough choices here. If we are obsessed with receiving an Outstanding inspection judgement we will probably turn a blind eye as leadership turns the screw inexorably on staff already working up to sixty hours per week. However there are other choices. And in most cases they can be traced back to culture. The “why” you exist rather than the “what” or “how.” If your culture is robust, empathetic, and compassionate you can make different choices. You can draw your line in the sand on well-being and refuse to demand any extra hours or even minutes from staff. You can instead accept that the curriculum development and subject depth is a journey but not one that can be completed in hours. It may take months. Even years. Yes, the school down the road may publish an all-singing, all-dancing curriculum statement boasting of teachers with great subject expertise. But when those staff are exhausted and go off sick who will teach their children? And what will their governors say to them?
No, this isn’t easy. It takes courage. It takes a united board to stand up at the inspection and say we put whole school well-being before ANY other considerations. Look the inspector in the eye and say you cannot achieve instant depth of subject knowledge whilst protecting workload at a time of financial crisis. Tell them that your culture and ethos is clear. We value people before paper. Prosperity before progress. And tell them your firm belief that actually, if we do treat people properly then success will inevitably follow. Happy, contented staff deliver high standards. Stressed, overworked and undervalued staff deliver absences. So we have questions to ask of our leadership at our meetings. How do we expect staff to enhance their subject appreciation? How can this be arranged without an impact on workload? What are the resource implications for the school? Ultimately these and other related questions lead to a final and fundamental question. What sort of school are we?