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Observing Ofsted’s National Spring Conference   - Gill Coulton

Observing Ofsted’s National Spring Conference   - Gill Coulton


As part of JUSCO’s engagement with Ofsted – members of the steering group were offered the opportunity to observe at recent Ofsted training events.  So, despite my long held conviction never to cross to the dark side, back in April I attended the Ofsted Spring Conference for the London region … and found it to be a really worthwhile piece of CPD.      


The conference training was delivered by HMI to an audience of additional inspectors, the majority of whom were school, academy-trust or LA-based practitioners. On the schedule were four sessions:

  • developing a common understanding of progress and its relationship to a high quality curriculum;

  • using this understanding of curriculum to inform inspection practice;

  • raising awareness of children who ‘fall out’ of education - evaluating schools’ use of exclusion, alternative provision and off-rolling;

  • increasing clarity on the government’s careers strategy.


Whilst the training was preparatory for the forthcoming 2019 framework, there was an intention that inspectors could, within the confines of the current handbook, begin to consider its message with immediate effect.  That said, although one session dealt with practical inspection activity on evaluating the use of exclusion, the tone of the curriculum sessions was more academic than procedural. As if to underscore this, Amanda Spielman prefaced the training materials with a word on the importance of ensuring that, “all inspectors are well-equipped, intellectually and practically” for their inspection role (p2 School’s National Conference Notebook, Spring 2018). True to the academic model, inspectors had been issued with pre-reading which the trainer acknowledged to be a challenging read. Throughout the proceedings, there were strenuous efforts to avoid spawning new Ofsted myths, with reminders to inspectors to engage with the content as a whole rather than trying to reduce it to checklists and sound bites.  


For the purposes of this feedback, I’ve focused on the curriculum and progress elements of the training. Whilst the entire day was interesting, these two themes were of greatest relevance to JUSCO members and were undoubtedly the heavy-weights of the day.


Why foreground curriculum?

Sean Harford has shared extensively in social media and the educational press that Ofsted are concerned with curriculum design as encapsulated by the three ‘eyes’:

  • Intent: a framework for setting out the aims of a curriculum, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage;

  • Implementation: the structure and narrative of the curriculum within the specific context of a school;

  • Impact: an evaluation of what pupils have gained against expectations


Essentially, the training sought to establish the rationale for this agenda. Mention was made of Ofsted’s recent curriculum review which highlighted a lack of expertise, narrowing through teaching to the test and a tendency to confuse the curriculum with key assessments or qualifications. Excerpts from Amanda Spielman’s commentary and speeches echoed these findings as she sought to direct attention back to the core purpose or substance of education as something distinct from exam grades and progress measures; the heart of education is, she argues, “the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation” (p4 Conference Notebook). The other driver of the curriculum agenda is the evidence-based claims from cognitive psychology that have pushed ‘knowledge’ into the educational spotlight. Just to be clear, there was no mention of knowledge organisers. The ‘knowledge’ being described here was understanding of vocabulary, concepts, ideas and processes not just people, events and places etc; in other words, not simply a collection of discrete facts, but a deep body of knowledge that is the substance of education.    

According to the research, the accumulation of vocabulary concepts creates interconnected knowledge webs – or schemas - which in turn enable more productive processing when new material is encountered. The more schemas a learner builds, the more numerous the possible connections to new learning become – basically a snowball effect. The retention of knowledge, therefore, becomes critical for making new learning meaningful and ensuring continued learning success. This has implications for social justice since some children are unlikely to acquire sufficient vocabulary or accumulate sufficient background knowledge outside of schooling.  


Indeed the importance of vocabulary acquisition was repeatedly reinforced.  Participant activities demonstrated the importance of Tier 2 vocabulary knowledge in enabling children to comprehend new material. Texts from the 2016 KS2 reading paper were used by way of illustration: delegates had to deconstruct the passages (remember The Lost Queen and the dodo!) to reveal a multitude of vocabulary concepts drawn from wider subject learning (ancestor, extinct, predator etc), knowledge of which allowed readers to extract deeper meaning from the texts. The ‘take-away’ for inspectors was that a broad, carefully structured curriculum is essential if children are to build the background knowledge necessary for success with learning per se, and this type of reading matter specifically.  


Further illustrations were provided in the tasks that followed, including examples of concept-rich Tier 2 words that could be taught during familiar topics, like Roman Britain. Ideas such as empire, invasion, good roads, wealthy landowner and so on, all of which are highly transferable concepts, were explored in terms of their relevance to other subjects and themes; the conclusion was that through careful sequencing, these ideas could be reinforced and developed across curriculum contexts.


Another task invited inspectors to consider how vocabulary concepts grow in complexity: for example, the word prince, initially understood in Reception/Year 1 in a fairytale or Disney sense, might become a more sophisticated idea of monarchy by the time a child reaches Year 6, perhaps even forming part of a knowledge web that includes succession, democracy and so on. Inspectors also discussed how this knowledge could be developed across subjects in a broad curriculum; conversely where a curriculum was narrowed to be test focused, learners might well miss out on this breadth of background knowledge.  


What does Ofsted mean by progress?

How was progress defined? Well not with negative numbers, confidence intervals or a predetermined number of ‘leaps’ per year. The rationale HMI shared with inspectors again comes from cognitive psychology: ‘if nothing has changed in long term memory then nothing has been learned’ (Sweller J, Ayres P, Kalyuga S (2011) Cognitive Load Theory).  As a logical extension, Ofsted’s message was that progress means ‘knowing more and remembering more’.  A quote from David Didau was used to explore the implications of this: [learning] cannot be observed in the here and now. The only way to see if something has been retained over time and transferred to a new context is to look at what students can do later and elsewhere,’  (p4 Schools National Conference Notebook, Spring 2018).


What does a well designed curriculum look like?

HMI explicitly stated that Ofsted does not advocate any particular curriculum nor any specific curriculum model; their remit is to ascertain how well a school’s curriculum has been designed to ensure its learners gain useful, cumulative knowledge.


Inspectors explored a number of defining features of a well-designed curriculum. It should not be too narrow as this would likely preclude pupils’ acquisition of wider knowledge. Content and structure need to be carefully considered: the choice of vocabulary and concepts to be taught should be useful for what is yet to come, transferable to other contexts and be of age-appropriate demand; and the sequence of learning should enable pupils to make progress by incrementally building knowledge.  Such a curriculum might address the ‘vertical’ progression within a subject but also integrate ‘horizontal’ links between different subjects in the same year group. Particularly important is how curriculum design supports children who are unlikely to acquire sufficient Tier 2 vocabulary and background knowledge outside of school.


In order to gain insight into effectiveness, inspectors are likely to be interested in how school leaders articulate their decisions about the curriculum. Pertinent questions for leaders and inspectors to consider might include the following:

  • How do school leaders sequence knowledge to aid retention?

  • Is the knowledge pupils are acquiring useful in terms of generating further learning?

  • Has thought been given to the vertical, horizontal and diagonal links that integrate a curriculum?

  • In lessons, are teachers ensuring that pupils incrementally gain knowledge – are they emphasising the right content?

  • Are pupils, particularly those who may not otherwise have access, gaining cultural capital from the knowledge they are acquiring?

  • What are pupils remembering long term?

  • How do teachers and leaders know pupils are making progress by knowing more and remembering more – how do they make sure that learning sticks?

  • Is there evidence that learning is durable and lasting?


Implications for JUSCO members

Aside from the training itself, it is worth noting that the participants I spoke to were not well informed on the junior/primary data gap, though they were all secondary practitioners. Data formed no part of the April course so there was no opportunity to explore this further, but it could be an indicator that levels of awareness continue to vary across the sector. It is also worth considering whether the proportion of junior school head teachers serving as additional inspectors is similar to that of their primary counterparts. This conference alone was excellent CPD in the theory of curriculum design; the insight that Ofsted training provides must also make being on the receiving end of inspection an easier process to navigate. If junior heads are underrepresented, could it be something for JUSCO to explore?


Overall, the fact that the usual performance data were not mentioned in the progress narrative was refreshing; in fact, reductive progress measures were notable by their absence. Ofsted’s adopted progress definition seems to be more grounded in learning than ‘performance’, with inspectors urged to consider the progression of knowledge in a curriculum. That said, HMI acknowledged Ofsted was busy working out how inspectors could best evaluate progress during inspections. In the foreword to the training pack, Amanda Spielman refers to the value of professional conversations between inspectors and school leaders and calls for a deeper understanding to inform inspection practice. She also references the accountability functions as intended at the time of Ofsted’s inception: published data as one discrete accountability measure, inspection as another – complementary but separate, not the latter rubber stamping the former.       


There was much to consider from these sessions. From my perspective, it felt more like a drive to change the educational mindset rather than merely another round of inspection reform.  Although the way forward is bound to be fraught with difficulty for both Ofsted and for schools, I came away persuaded that those at the top of Ofsted really are trying to pursue a very different course.


Going forward, for those people who want to know more, the following books were recommended to inspectors:

  • Daniel T Willingham (2009), Why Don’t Students Like School?

  • Peter C Brown, Henry L Roediger, Mark A McDaniel (2014), Make it stick

  • Isobel Beck, Margaret G McKeown, and Linda Kucan (2013), Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction   



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