@Ofsted Chief Inspector warns against pursuing success without substance

This year's annual report finds the overall quality of education and care in England is good and improving, but chief inspector warns against complacency.

Launching her third Annual Report as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman said today (21 Jan) that the great majority of schools, colleges, nurseries and child minders in England are good or outstanding, reflecting the hard work of teachers, leaders and support staff who work there.

  • 86% of schools are judged to be good or outstanding
  • 96% of early years (EY) providers are good or outstanding
  • 81% of inspected further education and skills (FES) providers are good or outstanding

This year’s Annual Report also highlights improving developments in children’s social care, with 48% of local authority children services now rated good or outstanding, while 84% of children’s homes, fostering and adoption agencies, residential special schools and other social care providers returned a good or outstanding grade in their most recent inspections.

Ofsted’s core job is to inspect, regulate and report objectively. The Annual Report provides a summary of findings from thousands of inspections and visits and research published over the past year. It presents a ‘state of the nation’ commentary on the quality of education, training and children’s social care services in England. Ofsted is the only independent body that can provide this view across England.

Sector Response

MarkDawe 100x100Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Mark Dawe said:

In a time of immense change particularly in respect of apprenticeships, we should recognise that over three out of four independent training providers being good or outstanding is testimony to their excellent responsiveness and overall quality.  ITPs have also changed over much faster than other providers to the new apprenticeship standards which are longer, harder and independently assessed.  Moreover providers are adjusting to greater employer control and we believe that the EIF will increasingly identify that incredible progress is being made.

AELP is investing significant resource in encouraging its members to achieve either of the top two grades.  Our employer members are also clear that more read the entire inspection reports rather than just check the overall grade.

In the light of the CI’s comments on where apprenticeships are being offered, Mark has added:

We fully support employer choice, but this needs to include the 98% of non-levy payers and they need proper funding. The decline in SME funding is a major contributor to the fall in the vital first-step apprenticeships, access by young people and in some of the high tech sectors. Those areas that the government want to level up are crying out for these opportunities and it is easily solved with a separate adequate SME budget.

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Mark Farrar100x100Highlighting the need for apprenticeships to be matched to skills shortages, Mark Farrar, Chief Executive, AAT said:

Amanda Spielman’s assertion in her organisation’s annual report that apprenticeship levy money should be targeted more towards skills shortages is spot on. There is currently no financial linkage between the government’s industrial strategy and the skills strategy required to achieve it.

There needs to be - and it needs to reach wider than just apprentices. AAT has been calling for a more flexible skills levy for some time now, given the need to upskill/reskill those already in the workforce.

Attention is needed for both the low-skilled employees as well as those seeking to achieve high levels. Importantly, there must be pathways available that enable people to achieve their potential.

Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First said:

It’s good news that the majority of schools are rated good or outstanding but we can’t take our eye off the ball. Our research shows significant inequality continues: as schools rated less than good are disproportionately found in disadvantaged communities.

Every headteacher and every teacher works tirelessly to give their pupils the best education - but those serving poorer areas face bigger hurdles. This is often exacerbated by challenges to recruit and retain talented teachers in these communities.

Recent pledges to increase teachers’ salaries are welcome progress. But to buck the trend of inequality we’re calling for an additional pay premium to help incentivise talented individuals who work where they can make the greatest difference.

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said:

We are pleased that Ofsted is echoing our calls for more transparency and accountability in academies and multi-academy trusts to ensure disadvantaged children can get an education of the highest quality that they deserve, whether that is in an academy or a council-maintained school.

Evidence shows that council-led interventions have an even better record in terms of turning around failing schools with 89 per cent of maintained schools being good or outstanding.

With the right powers, councils can play a leading role in school improvement yet again and help the Government meet the challenges currently facing the education system.

The on-going review on the system for children with special educational needs to take on board the views of councils to make sure it works more effectively for everyone.

The Government also needs to stress the importance of Ofsted assessing inclusion of schools during inspections – rather than focussing primarily on academic results - and hold schools with low numbers of children with SEND to account.

We agree with Ofsted that there should be a tougher crackdown on illegal schools, which is why we are calling for the Government to enforce a register so councils can make sure every child not in school is getting the best possible start in life.

Ofsted has rightly recognised the pressure councils are under to ensure children are getting the best support. The number of children in care is rising every year, in particular amongst older children who are more likely to require accommodation in children’s homes. However, shortfalls in funding for children’s services are making it incredibly difficult to develop and maintain the right provision locally that meets the needs of young people.

Councils want to work with the government to ensure they fulfil their promise to review the care system to understand these pressures along with sustainable funding so the right homes are available for all children in the right place whatever their needs.

It’s important not to let complacency creep in

However, the Annual Report warns that a minority of schools and other education providers continue to make decisions in their own best interests, rather than those of their learners. This includes various forms of ‘gaming’ that seek to maximise the school’s attainment data and league table positions.

Ofsted is concerned that these providers are failing to act with integrity or focus on what really matters. As a result, some children - particularly the most disadvantaged - are not being well prepared for adult life. 

Speaking to an audience of education and social care professionals and policy experts in Westminster, Ms Spielman said that, while the overall picture is good and improving, it’s important not to let complacency creep in.

Amanda Spielman100x100

Ms Spielman said:

It’s important that we don’t allow complacency to creep in. We must ask the tough questions and highlight inadequacy, as well as excellence.

… So, as we look at the high standards of education and good quality care that most are achieving, we must ask: what lies beneath? Away from the excellent work going on in many places, what is getting in the way of further and faster improvement – and what does that mean for our children?

Ofsted launched a new education inspection framework (EIF) in September 2019, which put the quality of the curriculum at the centre of its approach, with less focus on performance data. Since then, there has been a real shift in emphasis in schools. School leaders and teachers have widely welcomed Ofsted’s new approach and the opportunities it has given them to think carefully about their curriculum, and make sure it gives every child the chance to acquire the same knowledge and learning.

We must guard against restricting education excessively. Exam results are important but have to reflect real achievement. We should not incentivise apparent success without substance. This doesn’t represent a good education for any child. And for those who aren’t being read a different story every night, who aren’t taken to the museum at the weekend, who don’t get the chemistry set for Christmas, it is especially impoverished. These children need and deserve a proper, substantial, broad education, for as long as schools have them.

We recently inspected a school that had been requiring every child to take a sports science qualification, using up a valuable GCSE slot, whether or not they had any interest in sports science at all. We’ve seen schools requiring almost every child to take a qualification in English for Speakers of Other Languages, even though they were nearly all native English speakers who were also taking English Language and Literature GCSEs.

We’ve seen schools that have been cutting back drastically on all children’s opportunities to discover the joys of languages, art, music, drama and humanities – so that most children have to give them up at age 12 or 13, when they have barely begun to discover what these subjects have to offer.

… We mustn’t succumb to the seductive but wrong-headed logic that we help disadvantaged children by turning a blind eye to schools that narrow education in this way, as long as they deliver acceptable grades at the end. Grades are hollow if they don’t reflect a proper education underneath. And we have no idea yet who the most talented and singular women and men are, who will drive this country forward in the 2030s, 40s and 50s. They could be in any primary or secondary school anywhere. All of them should have the chance to develop their talents. Poorer children shouldn’t get a worse choice.

Regarding Further Education and Skills

At the other end of the age range, the discussion of further education and skills (FES) has taken on extra significance. In 10 days, the UK will leave the European Union and start to plot its future trading relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.

Now, more than ever, we must think strategically about skills and how the further education sector is funded and encouraged to provide the right courses of the right quality.

I’m not happy that some colleges steer too many of their students towards superficially attractive courses that fill their rolls and attract funding – whether or not they open doors for the students who take them.

This doesn’t mean the courses young people are taking are completely worthless. But flooding a local job market with young people with (say) low-level arts and media qualifications, when the big growth in demand is for green energy workers, will result in too many under-employed and dissatisfied young people and wind turbines left idle.

We need a clearer focus on matching skills to opportunities. Not just for Brexit. Many FE providers operate in places the government says it wants to ‘level up’. What better way to level up than to radically improve the quality of vocational and skills education in our towns? But it does also mean tackling the small minority of colleges that have under-performed or been ‘stuck’ for years.

Apprenticeships have become a much larger part of our post-16 work. Over the last two years, the number of further education and skills institutions has grown by over 60%. Most of the growth has been in independent learning providers (ILPs), who offer the majority of apprenticeships. Their numbers have more than doubled to 1,200. Remember, there are fewer than 200 general FE colleges.

And our inspections tell us that too many providers are not clear about the purpose of their apprenticeships. The quality of courses is still sometimes too low and the proportion of ILPs judged good or outstanding declined this year, for the third year in succession. This needs to change.

Changes to the funding model and the introduction of the levy have driven growth in the number of providers, but they’ve also bent apprenticeships out of shape. Even with more providers, the overall number of apprentices has dropped – and this has a particular impact on younger age-groups.

Apprenticeships can be transformational for young people. And yet one in five of all new levy-funded apprenticeships are higher- and degree-level, often aimed at people who are already doing the job, or who don’t need the leg up that a great entry-level apprenticeship can provide.

Meanwhile, there are more than twice as many apprentices in business and retail as there are in the priority areas of construction and engineering.

The government and providers must look at what can be done to redress the balance across apprenticeships. The critical 16 to 19 age-group needs to be better catered for and decisions must be made about how to reverse the decline in school leavers taking up apprenticeships.

More generally, there is clearly room for greater targeting of government funding in post-16 education of all kinds.

Other concerns highlighted in this year’s Annual Report include:

  • Ofsted continues to be worried about the number of pupils leaving schools during their GCSE years. Twenty thousand pupils left their state-funded secondary schools between Year 10 (2017) and Year 11 (2018). There are 340 schools with exceptional levels of pupil movement, of which around 100 have been inspected this year.

  • This year, Ofsted’s unregistered schools task force provided the evidence for three successful convictions of illegal schools and their operators. However, legal constraints still make it too easy for illegal schools to operate in defiance of the law. Ofsted urgently need stronger powers to seize documents and the Government needs to tighten the legal definition of a school and of full-time education.

  • Ofsted’s inspections of provision for children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) has exposed a lack of coherence and coordination. Local leaders across education, health and care do not always see themselves as collectively accountable for this provision. Too often, parents encounter fractures in assessment and planning. In these cases, the system is not working well as a whole to make the best decisions and achieve the best outcomes for children and young people.

  • Local authority children’s services continue to endure significant financial pressures. Challenges across children’s services are underpinned by a chronic lack of funding, set against increasing demand.

  • The children’s home sector is facing huge challenges in sufficiency and capability, which need national oversight and strategic leadership. There are not enough children’s homes in the right places across the country, and there is no central joined-up strategy or plan to meet children’s needs.

  • In the FES sector, there has been rapid growth in the number of new apprenticeship training providers. However, a gap remains between the knowledge and skills required for the economy and current provision, in particular in relation to training for low-skilled workers. The sector needs to work much more in tandem with the government’s Industrial Strategy.

  • The early years sector has seen a continued decline in the number of childminders. Meanwhile, more and more nurseries are joining large national and international providers, but are inspected individually. These nurseries are more likely to be rated outstanding, which suggests that strong practice can be shared effectively across the whole nursery chain. There may be benefits from a different inspection model that would allow individual inspections of nurseries to be brought together and features across the whole chain to be analysed.

  • Increasingly, decisions that affect children’s education and care are being made by central management in large multi academy trusts, nursery operators or children’s home operators. Decisions about the curriculum, the model of care, staffing, safeguarding and behaviour policies go to the heart of what Ofsted needs to consider through inspection and regulation, but the legal framework for accountability is not keeping up with the evolution of the education and care sectors.

In the coming year, Ofsted will look more closely at some of these areas to see if things can be done differently to improve outcomes for children.

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