Key insights interviews Ofsted’s Sean Harford

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

by John Davies

Sean Harford, National Director for Education at Ofsted, is perhaps best known for his non-stop efforts dispelling myths about what schools need to do for inspection. He’s often engaged in robust edu-debate on social media and thankfully he is not afraid to speak his mind. During our recent Twitter Q&A with Sean, I took the opportunity to put some questions to him about the future of Ofsted and the new inspection framework in 2019.

It’s early stages, but could you say how the new Ofsted framework in 2019 will be different?

“The new framework will be built on our research. The major current piece of work is on the curriculum and the Chief Inspector’s first commentary on it, which sets out the areas we’ve looked at and possible problems, has just been published. We’ll soon be publishing a paper on a survey at reception level which we have also conducted as part of our overarching work on curriculum.

There are other interesting pieces of work going on, as well. We are looking at what you can learn from being in a lesson for half an hour with Rob Coe and a number of other international researchers. We’re also evaluating what we can and can’t learn from book scrutiny. And we’re pushing forward on our work on reliability and validity that we started last year; we particularly want to focus in on validity, so that we are clear with people on what they can reliably infer from our judgements.

We’re going to evaluate all of this research and develop the framework based on what we learn. We’ve got two years to do it and we want to engage with schools, school leaders, unions, the Department for Education (DfE), in order to make sure people are aware of what’s going on as it happens. We will also be working with schools in testing out the handbook, with pilots, to see how it would affect inspection outcomes.”

You mentioned Ofsted’s work on curriculum. There seems to be a growing emphasis on ensuring pupils receive a rich curriculum. Do you agree that the accountability system, such as the Ebacc, might make that harder?

“I don’t think they’re at odds with each other at all. The Ebacc doesn’t pretend to be a broad and balanced curriculum – it’s what the government identifies as a good basis for a curriculum, but it never said that it should be the entirety.

In secondary what we are seeing is a move towards the 3 year Key Stage (KS4) curriculum, cutting into KS3. The issue here is that if you are asking pupils to choose their subjects at end of year 8 and start GCSEs in year 9, you are potentially going to stop them doing the subjects they need to have a broad and balanced curriculum, such as art, music, drama, history, design and technology. That’s the danger.

Now, there are some subjects that lend themselves to being taught over three years – the ones that where pupils revisit ideas and concepts at a higher level. In science, for example, you might well teach electricity in years 2, 5, 8, 10, but you revisit it each time at a higher level, so it might make sense to have a three year scheme of work for science at KS4. Maths is another one. But if year 9 history is the only place you are going to study the Stuarts, for example, you are never going to study them again if you cut it out here to make way for beginning GCSEs.

You need to think about the subject and whether it is appropriate for a 3 year scheme of work.”

“The key is not just to withdraw marking, but to replace it with something that is better and more effective and efficient”.

Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said recently that Ofsted ‘will do more to publicise’ the fact that it recognises the tougher challenge of leading a school in a deprived area. Does this mean that in the future the context of a school will weigh more heavily on a school’s overall grade?

“Amanda was talking about the fact that now, 34% of primary schools in deprived areas that are ‘requires improvement’ are judged to have good leadership and management. In the least deprived quintile this goes down to about 10%. So there is already an in built recognition that it is potentially harder to lead a school in a tougher area.

But we need to be clear about what we judge. In addition to judging leadership and management, we judge the quality of education in a school. What we won’t do is say that the quality of education is better than it is, just because a school is in a deprived area. That would be wrong for the pupils and would give a false impression of the quality of education and standards across the country generally.”

Ofsted’s new corporate strategy says that it will be looking at new ways to ‘scrutinise’ MATs. What areas of a MAT will Ofsted want to look at in the future?

“Over the last few years we’ve been reviewing MATs and their effectiveness through inspection of a sample of their schools. Although they aren’t given an overall judgement, I don’t think anyone who reads our reviews is in any doubt as to whether we think they’re doing a good job or if we’ve got clear concerns. We also published our review of 7 effective MATs, setting out what we thought was going well in those MATs and where they’d been successful.

In the future, we will be working with MAT leaders, the DfE and other bodies to make sure that we are evaluating the right areas in MATs. The key is ensuring we are inspecting at the right level of responsibility and accountability. In developing this work we will make sure that we look at the things we can reliably make judgements on. Part of this is about a MAT’s capacity for school improvement, but also asking whether it provides a decent standard of education for the pupils in its schools. We’ll also look closely at governance and the work of trustees.

What we are doing now is working out whether MAT reviews should look broadly the same as they do now or if they should change. We want to hear from the sector to help us get the methodology right.”

Is evaluating MATs a challenge because some of the MAT leadership roles are quite different to those you get in schools, such as  finance or HR directors?

“We are open and recognise that we might have to work with other bodies and agencies with particular expertise, such as the Education and Skills Funding Agency (EFSA), in carrying out reviews of MATs. We need our inspectors to do what they do well and then decide if there are things that others could do better and work with those people.”

Inspectors now ask how school leaders consider the impact of their policies on staff workload. Have you seen any examples where schools are reducing workload effectively that you want to highlight?

“I’ve seen some really good work recently on marking, where schools are thinking about feedback and assessment and have moved away from written marking, but in doing so have really thought about which methods can take its place.

I recently met and tweeted about a school where they’d actually stopped teachers taking home bags of books because they had set up a system of assessment in the classroom. They talk to children about their work as they do it and record it on tablets. The pupils receive sharper and more frequent feedback. Teachers work hard during the lesson, but the amount of time spent on assessment and feedback has reduced considerably as a result of that.

The key is not just to withdraw marking, but to replace it with something that is better and more effective and efficient. I think many schools are solving this now, which is great.”

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