Are School Inspections Changing?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 20 May 2019
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

In a recent speech to the Schools North East summit, Chief Inspector of Schools in England and Wales Amanda Spielman, discussed the driving force behind the proposed Ofsted inspection changes in England and Wales due to come in September 2019.  In his latest article Frank Cassidy, former principal of St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena and Regional Officer of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in Northern Ireland, considers if these changes are likely to be reflected in our own inspection format here in Northern Ireland.

When speaking on what has inspired the proposed changes to the inspection framework, she stated that she felt that Ofsted should “be a force for improvement” and that the current inspection model is driving too much workload, much of which falls on the shoulders of classroom teachers. She continued that currently inspections focus too much on outcomes which place “too much weight on test and exam results”. Current (Ofsted ) working practices have increased the pressure on school leaders, teachers and pupils to deliver perfect data above all else and  have led schools to put results ahead of individual children’s needs. It is these issues she suggests, that the proposed changes will attempt to tackle. It will be interesting to see if these changes are reflected in our own inspection format here in Northern Ireland.

This new approach is based on a review of research and evidence which will underpin the new education inspection framework. The review is structured to provide the evidence base that underlies each of the four key judgements for the proposed new framework: quality of education, personal development, behaviour and attitudes, and leadership and management.

The paper makes fascinating reading and should be a very useful reference source for schools. I have dipped into it to discuss some of the interesting findings but it contains a wealth of suggestions and ideas worth exploring.

The theme of over emphasis on measuring schools by examination results clearly emerges from the review. Professor Gert Biesta of Brunel University for example is quoted from his publication, ‘Good Education in an Age of Measurement, as arguing that a lack of attention to the aims and ends of education has led to a reliance on a ‘common sense’ view of education namely a focus on academic achievement in a small number of curriculum domains or subjects.' In many schools now there is evidence of curriculum narrowing. International evidence indicates that a focus on only a few measurable outcomes can have some negative consequences for curriculum design and that as result, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular may be discouraged from taking academic subjects.

The test anxiety felt by teachers and school leaders with which we are all too familiar, is leading to the study of the arts diminishing and studies on the unintended consequences of school inspection in Europe associate inspection systems with the narrowing and refocusing of the curriculum on test objectives and with discouraging teachers from experimenting with teaching strategies.

Looking at inspection reports and conducting discussion groups with head teachers from outstanding schools, Ofsted has indeed found evidence of narrowing curriculums, of teaching to the test and of equating curriculum with the examination board syllabus or statutory tests. 

Interestingly Ofsted highlight misuse of assessment and testing in schools. They suggest that there are a number of issues associated with the overuse of assessment for measuring progress and that “...overuse and questionable practice have emerged as major issues in the English education system and have contributed to overly high workloads among teachers, who report spending eight hours a week on marking”

“Existing tests and systems used in schools have been found to be only partially accurate predictors of actual attainment at school level and tend to provide little information on the progress of individual pupils. Data on small groups of pupils is highly susceptible to the effect of one or a small number of individuals with unusually high or low scores; so-called ‘outlier effects’. Therefore, overuse of such data is unlikely to have many benefits, while contributing to increased workload.”

Flagging up high standards of behaviour and discipline as key elements of successful schools is a new emphasis in the review. Ofsted quote a DfE  study in 2017 where a number of English schools were visited which were identified as having very effective behaviour management. The study involved interviews with school staff, discussions with experts and 20 independent case studies. This study identified the following features as leading effective behaviour management in schools: 

  • Committed, highly visible school leaders, with ambitious goals, supported by a strong leadership team;  Effectively communicated, realistic and detailed expectations understood clearly by all members of the school;
  • Consistent working practices throughout the school;
  • A clear understanding of what the school culture is and what values the school holds with high levels of staff and parental commitment to the school’s vision.

I know that these are features are characteristic to most Northern Ireland schools and it is very gratifying to see them given their place in the list of success criteria in this important review. Equally the review highlights the importance of fostering self belief, resilience and good mental health in pupils, again something at which our schools here generally excel. The review describes this potentially new emphasis in inspection as;

“...not so much individual actions of the school, but attention to climate and culture that matter. School climates that are supportive and nurturing, while also promoting discipline and boundaries, and that actively nurture belonging to school and pupil involvement, show widespread benefits.”

Currently in Northern Ireland ETI outline the main emphasis of the inspection and subsequent reports being;  

“..on the education training provision and outcomes, as seen in the quality of the learners’ recent standards and achievements and of the learning and teaching.  There is also an emphasis on the leadership and management of the whole organisation and how this contributes to improvement”.

The information required by ETI in advance of an inspection is of course data based of necessity focusing on examination result analysis and leavers destinations. While inspection reports here do include mention of quality of relationships and pastoral care as well as quality of teaching and learning it will be interesting to see if excellence in these wider areas now being considered by Ofsted will feature more prominently overall in assessments of schools here too in the future.


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This article is correct at 20/05/2019

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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