Amanda Spielman on box-ticking, coursework and the importance of a “rounded” education

The chief Inspector of Ofsted discusses the government watchdog’s changing approach to assessing schools.

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The criteria by which nurseries, schools and colleges in England are assessed are about to undergo a huge overhaul, with new measures installed by Ofsted, the government’s education watchdog, aiming to shift the focus of its reports away from exam results, as of September.

“There is a limit to what you can do with quantitative measurement,” says Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman. “You can get to a point where if you try to hang too much weight on any quantitative measurement then you will start to buckle under the strain.” Ofsted’s role, according to Spielman, is “not to reinforce or put additional pressure on teachers to achieve certain numbers.” Rather, it is to “provide insight into how education is delivered.”

Spielman, a Cambridge maths graduate, is unlike her predecessors. She has never been a teacher – something that was criticised by trade unions at the time of her appointment in January 2017. But she does have a master’s degree in comparative education from the University of London, and spent 20 years in the financial sector, before becoming part of the founding management team at Ark Schools, a network of 39 academies. Between 2011 and 2016, she served as the chair of Ofqual, the government’s exam regulator.

Spielman says she does not need to have been a teacher, though, to appreciate how “challenging” the job is. An over-reliance on “data-driven” assessments of schools, she adds, has led to box-ticking approaches to education, at the expense of delivering a “rounded” experience. “We know that for all sorts of reasons, some of which have been to do with Ofsted, that school management conversations have been about tracking data over time, identifying gaps between groups and sub-groups. But let’s look at whether a school is delivering a rounded education rather than immediately diving into the data to find out if the five free-school-meal Polish boys are doing better than the four non-free-school-meal Somali girls.”

Spielman says that Ofsted wants to discourage schools from “teaching to an exam”. She suggests that the weight attached to results has led to a “narrow” curriculum. “What we often see is teachers telling students to ‘learn these seven statements’… That’s what you need to learn in order to check off the essay about Chartism, for example. That’s not to say that exams aren’t still important, but actually, you could probably teach a far more interesting series of lessons about Chartism than lessons designed simply to teach those seven points.”

Given class sizes, budget constraints and the need for a healthy work-life balance, how much can teachers realistically be expected to cover? “You don’t necessarily have to say that we’ll do a much broader sweep of 19th century British history. You can just do more to make the bits you are teaching full and satisfying, to illustrate what goes in before, and after, and alongside, the history. I don’t think this is necessarily saying make the job of schools something that is impossible.”

Spielman says she favours more fluid approaches to learning and more freedom for students. She wants to see “contexts” for lessons broadened. So does that open the door for a return to coursework – which is usually project-based – informing a proportion of students’ final subject grades? “Absolutely not,” Spielman says, shaking her head.

But Adam Seldon, a history teacher from north London, suggests that an absence of coursework is “ethically and educationally dubious”. Seldon says: “Many of my students sat well over 20 exams last summer and had their mental health negatively impacted by a pressure that schools don’t currently have the capacity to support students through. Judging a student’s two or three years of learning in such a format doesn’t give a useful indication of their intelligence or potential. It’s a format that doesn’t reflect the world of work. Having no GCSE coursework means a key part of A-Level and degree preparation is missed out on and it’s the disadvantaged students who are most likely to lose out.” Spielman counters: “I understand that it’s an attractive prospect, but it consistently breaks down in practice. What we have seen in many schools is that coursework turns year 10 and 11 classes into a treadmill of repeating the same pieces of work, until the child has finally ticked off enough boxes on the mark scheme.”

Could coursework be reformed? If it was more flexible, and say, research-led, as most university courses are, then students would arguably have the opportunity to study things they chose, and were therefore more engaged with. Spielman disagrees. “Then you have real problems with validity and comparability. The chances of you being able to meaningfully compare someone who has chosen some meaty, historical tome [for an English assignment, for example], and somebody else who has chosen the thinnest, lightest book on the list of options… It would be virtually impossible to get fairness across students in that regard.”

If not exams and grades, then, what does Ofsted propose the new priorities for inspections should be? Spielman says assessments should be “holistic”. Ofsted’s four main criteria for inspection are: school leadership and management; students’ behaviour, personal development and welfare; the quality of teaching; and, finally, outcomes or results. “Only one of those criteria,” Spielman points out, “is remotely quantifiable. And even with that one,we don’t just pick it up and say a high number equates to a high score.”

Spielman says the perceived quality of outcomes should depend on how capable students are to “use” what they’ve learned, rather than “their ability to answer a particular type of question”. She stresses a need for “skills” and the “long-term” application of learning.

Spielman acknowledges that as a national body Ofsted must be sensitive to “regional inequalities”, and adds that schools should be prepared to bridge gaps in “cultural capital”. She says: “I think it’s fair to say that we don’t know whether the next Albert Einstein is going to walk into a reception class in Chorlton-cum-Hardy or the back end of Brighton next September. So our education system has to set out to provide a really good opportunity for everyone, wherever they are. But we accept that some schools, in some areas, may have a harder job than others.”

Cultural capital, Spielman explains, “is the knowledge that many people would take for granted. It’s what you would expect someone of a certain age to know. For a four-year-old, it might be something really basic, like types of food or animals. When you meet a four-year-old, who doesn’t recognise a potato, except in chips, then you think that’s a bit of cultural capital that’s missing.”

Spielman says that “progressive” initiatives such as the government’s pupil premiums – designated funds introduced in 2014 for state schools with disadvantaged students – need to be “used effectively”. Pupil premiums are additional funds of between £935 and £2,300 provided by the government, depending on whether schools have a type of student that qualifies for them. As examples, schools may receive pupil premiums for students adopted from care or who have left care, or for students eligible for free school meals.

Ofsted, Spielman says, is “absolutely in favour” of extracurricular activities to “complement” the curriculum. “That’s part of why the pupil premiums were brought in, to make sure that the overall experience was there. Where the extracurricular side and the behaviour side both broadly sit, they’re being pulled together into a holistic judgment.”

While pupil premiums appear, at least at face value, a good idea, are they enough? That is a question, Spielman says, for the Department for Education. “[At Ofsted], we don’t provide or allocate education resources. Our job is to report on what’s there, but we can make recommendations [on how the funds could be used].”

Another priority for Ofsted is a crackdown on “off-rolling” – that is the exclusion of pupils who are badly behaved or not as academically capable, without due process. “There have been instances of parents removing their children from schools, not because they genuinely want to home educate them or because they’re moving to another school, but because the school has made it clear that they no longer want them.”

Spielman clarifies: “I’m not sitting here in cloud-cuckoo land, saying that no child should ever need to be excluded.” But there is a temptation, she says, for schools to cast aside “the children they consider to be the biggest headaches. We’ve started doing some data analysis as part of our inspections to flag some schools that have unusual patterns of departures.”

Indeed, Ofsted’s inspectors will be told to give an “inadequate” rating to schools that are found to have off-rolled pupils unfairly under its new framework. “If a child does need to be excluded, then it needs to happen properly, justifiably, and done with consultations with the local authorities. But certainly no child should ever be shunted out of the back door.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman