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Teaching (and assessing) fast and slow : Ofsted, Ofqual and the coming transformation

Who recently wrote the following?

“Without a curriculum, a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school. Without receiving knowledge, pupils have learned nothing and no progress has been made – whatever the [performance] measures might indicate.”

“…good examination results in and of themselves don’t always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum. In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding.”

“…the regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child’s ability to comprehend. A much better use of time is to teach and help children to read and read more.”

“We see Mocksteds as a complete waste of time, money and effort.”

Mary Bousted? A leftish commentator like Fiona Millar? The Chair of NATE? In fact, it was Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector, in her commentary on the first phase of Ofsted’s review of the school curriculum following reform of the National Curriculum – – and a subsequent speech to the Ark Conference.

What she writes is very different from any previous HMCI since the creation of Ofsted in 1992. She repeatedly asserts the importance of teaching and learning rather than testing and accountability, drawing on Ofsted evidence of lack of discussion of the curriculum in schools. In her view this leads to three serious weaknesses: a narrowing of the primary curriculum, a weakening of the KS3 curriculum as schools start GCSE earlier (she is particularly critical of schools assessing KS3 students’ work against GCSE assessment criteria) and continuing impoverishment of the curriculum for the least able.

This is a remarkable change of direction – and Ms Spielman is aware that Ofsted bears a good deal of responsibility for schools’ focus on tests and accountability. Ofsted is carrying out further research and a full report will appear in late Spring.

Will this matter? I think it will because prioritising teaching and learning over test scores and exam grades fits with two other pieces of evidence. These relate to improving England’s productivity and social mobility and to Ofqual’s policy on raising the demand of GCSE. Individually each would be interesting but unpersuasive. Taking all three together, a transformation in the relationship between teaching, learning and assessment is evidently coming. I’ll outline them with their political background.

Ofsted and improving England’s productivity/social mobility

Since at least 2010 Governments have been increasingly worried about England’s productivity – the amount produced per hour of work. This is lower than most other OECD countries and is stubbornly refusing to rise, a fact headlined in the recent Budget as a major cause of the UK economy’s current difficulties – see Office of Budgetary Responsibility Economic Forecast 2017, Executive Summary page 9 – Governments have accepted that this has largely been initiated by poor education of the moderately and less able with only GCSE grades A* to C counting and continued by the virtual demise of good quality vocational training. As a result, social mobility has actually declined.

The Coalition Government made a start, declaring in its 2010 White Paper the priorities of raising attainment in England’s schools towards that of the highest-attaining education systems and improving the education of those who leave school with poor qualifications or none – This was supported by four practical policies: the pupil premium; investing £125 million on research on improving teaching through the Education Endowment Foundation; requiring Ofsted to report on how schools are ‘closing the gap’; and establishing a secondary school accountability system in which all GCSE grades count (Progress 8).

There is cross-party support for these policies which is why they were unmentioned in the 2015 and 2017 General Election campaigns.

Changes have been introduced at Ofsted to make it more effective in promoting these developments. As a first stage, Sir Michael Wilshaw was brought in to deal with the pernicious problem of inconsistent inspection standards which was undermining Government and professional confidence in inspections. Wilshaw removed the private inspection providers and brought inspection back into HMI’s control. At the same time inspections were slimmed down and Ofsted made sustained efforts to dispel the beliefs about irrelevant requirements, long discontinued, that some SLTs still use to frighten their staff – see Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, paragraph 29 – The first stage was therefore to professionalise Ofsted’s inspection processes; the second is to enable it to refocus teaching and learning to support raising attainment, especially of the moderately and less able.

Amanda Spielman’s background is in corporate finance and management consultancy, but she has been closely associated with Ark Schools as a member of their management board from 2005. Ark was founded by a group of very wealthy people for, it seems, wholly philanthropic reasons. Its prime mover and continuing Chair is Paul Marshall, a long-term Liberal Democrat who co-edited The Orange Book with David Laws in 2004. Laws was subsequently Coalition Schools Minister 2012–15 and, having previously promoted the pupil premium, initiated Progress 8. Marshall subsequently founded and chairs the Education Policy Institute, an independent education research institute of which Laws is Executive Chair.

Ark originally adopted KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program used in many USA charter schools. KIPP’s main features are an extended school day, week, and year; an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy often at the expense of other areas of the curriculum; a standardised teaching method based on direct instruction and drilling rather than interaction between students; a highly standardised curriculum with ‘scripted’ lessons that are tightly focused on specific test and exam content; and micromanagement of students’ behaviour, using rigidly-applied systems of positive and negative reinforcement.  Overall KIPP is geared towards a single aim – maximizing test scores while controlling costs – but there have been persistent doubts whether this approach actually raises attainment. 

Amanda Spielman’s Ofsted commentary has a wholly different emphasis, away from a focus on test results towards depth and richness of curriculum. It isn’t clear whether she was opposed to KIPP from the start or has gradually seen its limitations, but in a sense this doesn’t matter as she is strongly opposed now. There may have been a power struggle at Ark in which Spielman and those who think like her have won, though it will take time for the KIPP mindset to be phased out entirely in Ark schools.

Ark’s rejection of the KIPP approach is shown most clearly by Lessons Learned: putting experience to work – the report Ark developed with King’s College London and published in 2015. The King’s team was led by Becky Francis, now Director of the Institute of Education and a long-term advocate of mixed-ability grouping as a way of raising attainment by all pupils. The report consists of a series of thoughtful essays on teaching and learning which are strongly opposed to the KIPP approach. Amanda Spielman was a member of the editorial board that commissioned, oversaw and published the report.

From 2011 to 2016 Spielman was Chair of Ofqual as it established itself and implemented the GCSE reforms. This will have given her first-hand experience of the complexities of implementing the most far-reaching reform of school public examinations ever undertaken. She will know both the importance and the limitations of assessment in detail.

Spielman therefore comes to Ofsted in a very strong position to achieve her aims. She has greater relevant management experience than Wilshaw or any of his predecessors: of initiating change and refocussing policy within a large organisation and implementing major changes in assessment policy. She is likely to understand the role of education in improving the nation’s productivity and social mobility very clearly and to have the ear of ministers at the Treasury and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as well as the DfE. From a Conservative perspective she has an unimpeachable business and academy background.

Additionally her long-term Deputy Chair at Ofqual, Julius Weinberg, has recently been appointed Chair of Ofsted and is no doubt a close ally. She is also unassailable constitutionally: HMCIs are independent of Government being appointed by the Queen by Order-in-Council and removable only by a vote of Parliament. Perhaps most important, through her work at Ark Spielman has herself been through the process of moving from KIPP (quick fix) to effective teaching and learning (slow transformation) and this informs the passion, unusual in an HMCI, with which she writes.

Ofqual and raising GCSE standards

This shows a similar approach of slow change based on evidence. 2017’s results in the new GCSEs were similar overall to those in 2016 owing to Ofqual’s policy of “comparable outcomes”. This is to ensure equity and prevent parents complaining about their children being used as guinea-pigs. However, there are rumours that, when the new specs have bedded in, Ofqual intends to increase the difficulty of GCSE incrementally year by year until attainment in England matches that of the highest performing countries. 

We have consulted Ofqual about this and have had a detailed response that this is NOT their intention.  Standards of GCSE will be changed only when there is independent evidence that attainment is rising as shown by the new National Reference Tests (NRTs) and this will take several years. Ofqual writes:

“There are no plans to raise the level of demand [i.e. make GCSEs harder] year by year. Government does indeed wish GCSE to raise attainment (increase the proportion of students attaining higher grades), but Ofqual’s primary function is to secure standards over time. Simply allowing more students to attain higher grades would not have any impact on England’s position in international rankings unless they were actually performing better (showing better knowledge, skills and understanding). In any case, raising grade boundaries would not raise attainment unless assessments were made easier – there would simply be fewer higher grades. On the other hand, allowing Exam Boards to lower their grade boundaries would cause grade inflation.”

Ofqual states that it will not raise the demands of GCSE until there is sufficient objective evidence that students’ performance is rising. This is the purpose of the National Reference Tests (NRTs) in English and Maths which began in 2017. These are:

  • taken by a statistical sample of 10 per cent of Year 11 students in the Spring Term, usually 30 students in each school chosen
  • consist of one-hour papers in Reading/Writing and Maths modelled on the new GCSEs
  • are the same or very similar each year
  • students take only 25 per cent of the whole test; schools don’t see whole test which is administered by NFER and can’t copy any papers
  • after marking, the marks are aggregated nationally; no school receives any results.

Unlike GCSEs, the NRTs are ‘low stakes’ tests because no student’s future depends on them and they are unrelated to the school’s accountability. Ofqual sees this as a positive – students cannot be coached for the NRTs so they will give a more accurate indication of national standards over time. GCSE standards will only be raised when there is clear evidence from the NRTs that national standards are rising.

This is a rational position. Instead of trying to change GCSE standards or grade boundaries as a ‘quick fix’, Ofqual has persuaded Government (with Spielman as Chair) that they can only reasonably be changed when there is sufficient independent evidence. This means the standards (demand in relation to grades) of GCSE will remain unchanged for several years and schools will be notified when, and if, standards are to be raised. It also means that specifications will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future to allow comparability over time because to alter the specs would disrupt comparison with the NRTs.

The NRTs and Ofqual’s policy on GCSE show that Government accepts that significant improvements in education can only be achieved gradually and on the basis of clear evidence – the same policy that the Government-funded Education Endowment Foundation is pursuing with its promotion of evidence-based research into ways of raising attainment. It seems that, here too, the consistent evidence of all the international education surveys (PIRLS, TIMSS and PISA) that educational standards in England haven’t risen for 20+ years has persuaded Ofqual and the DfE that tinkering with assessment won’t raise standards any more than past teaching approaches, like the National Strategies, that were introduced without evidence of success. Again, there are no quick fixes.

So what next?

It would be sensible to assume that Amanda Spielman means what she says in her commentary on the curriculum and that she has been appointed to lead Ofsted in influencing schools to achieve it. There is a cross-party political imperative to raise attainment in England’s schools and, with her direct knowledge of curriculum development and assessment, she evidently understands that this is to be achieved by improving teaching and learning rather than by performance in tests. With her professional experience in management, she knows this will take time – “this is a long-term investigation for us” as she puts it.

Ofsted can’t direct teaching and learning, of course, but it can influence it by inspection and reporting. The next major revision of the Ofsted School Inspection Handbook is due in 2019, a long lead-time which fits Spielman’s view that worthwhile change takes time. However, if Spielman, the Ofsted Board and their political backers are serious, we can expect significant changes in the interpretations of the current descriptors of effectiveness of leadership and management and quality of teaching, learning and assessment in the School Inspection Handbook before 2019. There will be less reliance on data and more on evidence that schools are providing breadth and depth of learning experience.

The logical consequence will be that schools that persist with a KIPP-type approach to teaching and learning – test-driven, with narrowed curriculum, teaching based on direct instruction and micromanagement of pupil behaviour – will be downgraded from Outstanding or Good to Requires Improvement. No doubt there will be howls of protest from the relevant schools and their MATs, some of which have been backed by Conservative thinktanks and social media, but with Spielman in her first year of a 5-year term as HMCI, the educational landscape is likely to be very different by 2021.

Beyond this, Ofsted’s change of approach will at last require schools to rethink discredited teaching and learning policies such as the National Strategies lesson model and Ofsted’s earlier requirements of progress by every learner in every lesson and frequent assessment of learners’ work to track progress against target levels and grades. These were discredited and withdrawn in 2008 when international surveys showed attainment in England’s schools as flatlining since the mid-1990s, but Governments have never publicly admitted that these policies had failed to raise attainment so that many SLTs have required their staff to continue them, causing unnecessary workload and adding to problems of teacher recruitment and retention.

Ofsted also envisages a change in how schools are led, away from improvement being driven by a dynamic headteacher towards a more collegiate approach. At the recent Ark conference Amanda Spielman said “transforming a school – or, come to that, a MAT – involves more than just one individual. It needs the work of a whole team. Schools are transformed when teams work together and make use of everyone’s time well” –

Again, this is promising as there are schools and MATs with a business-oriented managerial top-down approach which leads to demoralisation, burn-out and high rates of staff turnover. We may in due course see Ofsted including staff turnover in its reports.

There are two more formal indications of what’s coming. The first is Ofsted’s Corporate Plan 2017 – 22 which includes more inspections of outstanding schools which have now been exempt from inspection for years; inspections of MATs; a greater focus on how schools promote social mobility; and steps to combat inspectors’ bias which may lead them to undervalue schools in disadvantaged areas (and, by implication, overvalue those which are orderly at the expense of effective teaching and learning) – Schools with a KIPP approach (and MATs which espouse it) are evidently over-represented in the Outstanding and Good categories and this seems set to change.

What happens when and if a school like Michaela Community School in London is re-inspected will be indicative. This school adopts the KIPP approach more outspokenly than most and was graded Outstanding by Ofsted in May 2017.

The second indication is Lessons Learned: putting experience to work (2015). As mentioned, this is the report on teaching and learning that Ark developed with King’s College London with Amanda Spielman’s support during her time at Ark – It consists of six essays, three each by academy and King’s staff, each with a vignette of how the recommended policies are being implemented by Ark. Each essay argues for policies which actively promote social mobility, such as Alison Wolf on the relative poverty (in all senses) of vocational education in England and its disastrous effects, and Becky Francis on the need for better targeting of pupil premium especially to engage disadvantaged pupils in high-quality learning. She rejects “an unhelpful binary, with ‘standards;’, knowledge and attainment positioned on one side and inclusion, skills and engagement on the other” (page 64).

The essay most directly about the curriculum is Jeremy Hodgen’s on mastery learning. He points out the problems of trying to cherry-pick an approach from very different cultures like China or Singapore and other uncertainties, concluding that the most promising initiatives in the UK “combine mastery approaches with other promising approaches including collaborative learning and the use of meta-cognitive strategies”. He singles out Ark’s Mathematics Mastery, ICCAMS (also for Maths) and, more widely, the Let’s Think programmes in English, Maths and Science which aim
“to accelerate students’ cognitive development by teaching all students to be smart or ‘clever’. To do this, lessons involve low floor, high ceiling tasks that are designed to provide challenge for students at all levels of attainment” (page 39).

It seems Ofsted will soon be looking for active engagement by students of all abilities in learning that will raise their genuine attainment and their social mobility, and so these are the kinds of programmes they will expect to see.

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