Inspection, honesty and the end of teaching-to-the-test?

Last week, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, acknowledged what I suggest many of us in education already knew – inspections have resulted in too much focus on examinations.

My first reaction to this story – well done Amanda Spielman!

Under Sir Michael Wilshaw’s previous regime, acknowledgement of the inspectorate’s role in the burgeoning teach to the test culture in schools was, at best, far-fetched.

Wilshaw was wedded, hook-line-and-sinker, to the relationship between examinations and testing, and school quality. As recently as 2016, Wilshaw demanded the reintroduction of formal testing for 14 year-olds in England as a way of tackling the underperformance of the most able students.

Scroll forward two years and Wilshaw’s successor has, bravely in my view, highlighted that the inspectorate’s demands have resulted in teachers and schools focussing upon “test scores above all else”.

And there is more.

Spielman goes on to suggest that Ofsted should be focusing more on how schools contribute toward the “wealth of human knowledge”.

The Chief Inspector laments that under the previous regime, schools attempted to second-guess what they thought the inspectorate wanted to see as “outstanding” practice. This resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and the increase of strategies aimed at developing students’ “test technique”.

Similarly, Spielman highlighted how some secondary schools were truncating Key Stage 3 so as to begin GCSE preparation earlier and earlier in pupils’ secondary careers.

So, examinations are out then? Well, no.

Spielman stresses that examination success will still be an indicator of school performance.  However, she appears to be highlighting a tail wagging the dog scenario.

Rather than examinations being an outcome of a great curriculum and great teaching, Wilshaw’s Ofsted led to examination success being the be-all-and-end-all of what teachers and schools did.

The current Ofsted Chief, want schools to focus on curriculum and in doing so educational success—not just examination success—will follow.

Moreover, the national curriculum, whilst being a benchmark, should no longer dictate how individual schools structure what they believe their curriculum should be.

Does this sea-change signal the end of the Ofsted dictated curriculum then? I fear not.

Credit where credit is due. Amanda Spielman has made it clear through her statement that she understands the implications of a neo-liberal, marketised—and what Jean Francois Lyotard calls “performative”—education system upon schools, teachers and most importantly learners.

However, Spielman, highlights that attainment will remain a high-stakes indicator of school quality and effectiveness.

So, even the touchy-feely approach of the new Chief Inspector still comes back to the old equation of examination success=school quality.

What to do then?

To truly eradicate and inspectorate driven curriculum would require a simple change – eradicate the inspectorate itself.

In my 17 years teaching in inner city schools in England, I saw first-hand how the focus changed from pupil-centred learning to Ofsted-centred learning.

As long as an inspectorate exists—with the power to take punitive measures against “failing” schools—then schools will focus upon an Ofsted-centred curriculum.

There is of course a need for regulation of a tiny majority of schools, which are not just underperforming but are potentially doing harm to their students.

However, this is a tiny minority.

If Spielman is truly interested in the work our schools do, not just passing on on human knowledge but adding to it, then further reflection regarding the inspectorate’s purposes and processes is necessary.

Time will tell if Amanda Spielman is the reflecting type.

Andy Clapham

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