Ofsted’s new inspection framework went live at the beginning of September and the first reports have now been published. Anecdotally, I’ve heard whispers from two different inspections about the sorts of questions that are being asked and the sorts of challenges being made, but it’s interesting and, I hope, useful, to interrogate the published reports to get a sense of the common themes and patterns emerging from inspections.

The following observations are gleaned from a sample of reports from 11 primary schools and 14 secondaries.* 14 of these reports were for ‘good’ schools whilst 11 were for schools that ‘require improvement’. I was unable to find any reports from September 2019 for inadequate or outstanding schools.

Primary schools

Curriculum

In the schools judged as good, the curriculum is con-sided well planned and logically sequenced and well-planned:

Long-term plans for English and mathematics are well sequenced to build upon what pupils already know and can do.

… pupils can develop their knowledge and skills in a logical order.

… knowledge is sequenced so that pupils’ understanding builds steadily.

… plans for subjects have been arranged in a logical way. Leaders have identified the knowledge that they want pupils to know at certain points in their schooling.

[Teachers] check that pupils gain skills and knowledge in a logical order, which helps them to remember more.

In schools that require improvement, the curriculum is more likely to be viewed as disjointed or patchy:

At present, only a few other subjects are well thought out.

… staff have not considered which parts of the curriculum they want pupils to remember over time. Curriculum planning does not make the necessary links between one topic and the next.

… the curriculum is not yet sufficiently coherently planned. For example, in art, activities are not well connected.

The quality of the curriculum is often linked to teachers subject knowledge:

… middle leaders are not experts in the subjects that they lead and cannot support other teachers in the best way to teach that subject.

Teachers have good subject knowledge. They plan for important concepts to be repeated so that pupils can remember more.

Several reports mention that results in national assessments have come at the cost of the quality of education:

Outcomes in national assessments at the end of key stage 2 have improved. However, this has been achieved, in part, by pupils spending less time studying subjects such as science or geography in Year 6.

Assessment

‘Good’ schools were often praised for the quality of assessment:

teachers use assessment information well

[Teachers] adapt their teaching to plug any gaps in pupils’ knowledge or to iron out misconceptions.

Teachers are improving the way that they check what pupils know and remember.

Teachers check to make sure that all pupils are keeping up. If pupils are struggling, teachers give pupils extra help.

Assessment was not explicitly mentioned in any of the reports for schools that require improvement. Pleasingly, there was not a single mention of marking or of the necessity of completing any particular frequency or quantity of work in books in any of the reports.

Reading

All the reports I read focus on reading and, in particular, the state of phonics teaching. In schools judged as good, reports tend to include comments such as:

Phonics is taught in a logical sequence.

Staff have all received training in the delivery of phonics.

Teachers follow a systematic programme and frequently check children’s progress.

Teachers and teaching assistants are well trained in teaching phonics.

In schools judged RI, typical comments included:

In lessons, teachers use different ways to teach pupils new sounds and this is sometimes confusing. This means that some pupils struggle to read fluently and do not understand what they are reading.

Too often, teachers send books home that are too hard for Year 1 pupils to read.These books include words with sounds that pupils do not know, so they cannot read them.

Key stage 1 pupils do not build well on their Reception achievements to become fluent readers quickly. If they fall behind, they are not helped to catch up promptly. Pupils have insufficient opportunities to read to an adult in school or change their books.

Pupils at the early stages of learning to read do not read with accuracy as soon as they should.

It’s clear that if schools are not teaching clearly sequenced phonics instruction they are going to be penalised. Also, it’s good to see that reading fluency is being mentioned, although it’s unlear from these reports whether the concept is understood by inspectors.

SEND

Every report focuses on the the experiences of children with SEND. In schools requiring improvement, provision for these children is often a weakness:

Pupils who struggle with reading or those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) are particularly affected [by poor reading instruction].

Not all pupils with SEND make the progress that they should in all subjects.

in some lessons … teachers give pupils work that is too difficult. This includes pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND).

In ‘good’ schools, provision for children with SEND is often praised:

Teachers are skilful at setting different work for pupils with SEND.

Parents told us that the school meets the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) or with medical needs.

Teachers ensure that disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND do well.

Leaders have ensured that teachers meet the needs of disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND).

Pupils, including those who are disadvantaged and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), achieve well.

Pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities are well supported.

The sense I got from the reports that mentioning SEND appears to be something of a box-ticking exercise; in none of the reports I read was SEND provision discussed in detail.

Workload

Disappointingly, workload is rarely mentioned. I only found two reports where it was featured at all, and even then, sparingly:

Most staff are happy with their workload.

Leaders have considered staff workload.

Maybe workload wasn’t considered a problem is any other the other reports but it would useful for this to be clearly stated.

Secondary Schools

Curriculum

As one would expect, in ‘good’ schools the curriculum is generally considered to be a strength:

Subject leaders have designed the curriculum well. Pupils build on what they have learned already.

Curriculum leaders have planned what pupils will learn in each subject in detail … detailed planning supports current pupils to remember the knowledge they need.

The plans for most subjects make clear to teachers exactly what to teach pupils and in what order.

Teachers plan carefully to make sure that pupils know more and can do more as they move through the school. They think carefully about the order in which things are taught and they ensure that pupils understand connections between different parts of each subject.

Most curriculum leaders have planned skilfully what and how pupils should learn.

In RI schools, curriculum planning is more likely to be a weakness and 2 year Key Stage 3 models come in for particular criticism:

… leaders have only recently started to think about what pupils learn and in what order. Pupils in key stage 3 spend two years learning a curriculum. In Year 9, they pick their GCSEs, which reduces the number of subjects they study. This means that teachers teach about a broad range of topics but they do not explore subject content in depth. This leads to gaps in pupils’ understanding.

… there is less time available for studying subjects to the necessary depth in Years 7 and 8. Subject leaders have started to plan the curriculum in their subjects. At present, they have not fully thought about how to plan for key stage 3 so that pupils who decide to ‘drop’ the subject at the end of Year 8 do not miss important knowledge.

the range of subjects offered by the school at key stage 3 is narrow. The curriculum at key stage 3 does not stay as broad as possible for as long as possible. It is not as ambitious as the national curriculum.

I suspect it’s no coincidence that all the schools judged to be good, students followed a 3 year Key Stage 3 and 2 year Key Stage 4. This is not to suggest that it’s impossible to provide a good quality of education with an alternative model but it does firmly put the responsibility on school leaders to justify a potential narrowing of the curriculum.

More broadly, there is clear criticism where curriculum plans are not carefully sequenced:

The order of topics is random. Pupils struggle with this because they have not remembered the vocabulary from previous lessons.

Across some aspects of the curriculum, the work pupils have to do is not sequenced carefully enough.

… weaknesses in the curriculum mean that some pupils do not achieve as well as they should.

Assessment

Despite inspectors being clear that they will not look at internal data, most reports emphasise the quality of assessment:

Teachers use assessment to check on pupils’ learning and identify pupils’ mistakes. Most leaders use assessment well to make informed changes to the curriculum.

In mathematics and science, assessment accurately identifies what individual pupils do not know. Teachers plan learning to give pupils time to address these gaps in understanding. In a few subjects, approaches to assessment are at an early stage of development. Sometimes, teachers ask pupils how confident they feel, instead of checking what they know and understand. [my emphasis]

teachers identify where there are gaps in what pupils know and fill them.

The school uses different sorts of assessment to keep an eye on how well pupils are doing. This information tells leaders that pupils’ achievement has been below expectations for some years. However, leaders, teachers and governors still have a rosier view of pupils’ achievement than is the case.

There is particular criticism of ineffective assessment:

Sometimes, when teachers assess what pupils know, they do not use the results as well as they could.

Currently, assessment in some subjects does not focus enough on the most important key concepts.

The most important factor is that teachers ought to have a good idea of whether students are learning what they are intended to learn and have a plan for intervening where they are not. Although inspectors won’t look at data, there’s a clear expectation that teachers know how their students can make progress. Again, no mention of marking.

Reading

Students’ reading was only mentioned in 5 of the 14 reports I looked at:

Pupils’ reading skills are not sufficiently well developed. The lack of focus on reading in school is not helping pupils to broaden their vocabulary. Although this is stronger in English, it is not the case in other subjects. Very few of the pupils who spoke with inspectors are currently reading a book.

Most pupils read fluently and well. Teachers read stories to pupils frequently. Since the beginning of term, pupils in Year 8 have teamed up with pupils in Year 5 as reading buddies. This is another way that pupils can read more often. [From a Middle School report]

… leaders are determined that more pupils will read fluently by the time they leave school

[In the special needs department] pupils receive specific help with their reading, writing and mathematics. This helps them to understand their learning in other subjects. Strategies to promote a love of reading outside of the learning zone are less well developed.

Teachers use tutor time to support pupils’ reading or to practise recalling what they have learned. A programme for weaker readers at key stage 3 has improved their reading. Leaders plan to better promote the library to help pupils to enjoy reading more.

What can we infer from this? The sense I get is that this area is pretty ad hoc. Inspections only seem to consider children’s reading if it is a particular interest of the inspection team.

SEND

Interestingly, SEND provision seems to be more of a focus in the secondary reports and comments are likely to be in greater detail than the primary reports I read:

Leaders and staff are equally ambitious for pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND). Pupils with SEND study a wide range of subjects. This group of pupils also receives strong pastoral support. In general, teachers use a variety of information to ensure that they meet the needs of pupils with SEND. However, some teachers do not use this information well enough to adapt the curriculum for this group of pupils.

Teachers make sure that they include pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) in their lessons… Teaching staff know about the individual needs of pupils with SEND. Staff meet these pupils’ specific needs well.

Teachers identify the needs of pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) well. They use this understanding to help pupils with SEND to learn effectively. This is complemented by work in the new learning zone. Here, pupils receive specific help with their reading, writing and mathematics. 

Where subject plans are less detailed, teachers find it hard to know what changes to make for SEND pupils. SEND pupils do not do as well in these subjects as they could.

Inspectors saw pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) work independently in their classes. Teachers had made sure that the work was accessible for everyone. The proportion of pupils with SEND moving on to the next stage of their study or employment is high. One parent described the school as ‘an incredibly inclusive environment’.

The school provides good support and care for pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND). Pupils say they feel safe and happy. Pupils with SEND can study all subjects. For example, the physical education department offers adapted sports. All trips and visits are offered to pupils with SEND. Most pupils with SEND achieve well but staff need more training on how to adapt their teaching so that pupils with SEND achieve their very best. A small number of pupils with SEND attend alternative provision. The provision meets their needs well. They study a full range of subjects. They get additional support to help them manage their behaviour. The school checks on their well-being and progress regularly.

Staff help pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) to get the support they need. This happens in the specialist resource base and in lessons. Leaders say that SEND provision is a priority for them. Recently, staff with more experience have joined the school. This helps to identify early the learning needs of pupils with SEND.

Pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) have their pastoral needs met well. However, in class, teaching is not matched well to their needs. Leaders have brought in external support to strengthen this area of the school’s work. This is not yet bringing about the improvements needed to help teachers plan their lessons to best meet the needs of pupils with SEND.

I’ve no idea why SEND concerns appear to be reported in more detail in secondary school than in primaries but this could possibly reflect an increased priority for inspectors.

Workload

Again, workload is rarely mentioned in reports; only 4 of the 14 reports sampled made any mention at all.

Staff speak positively about the support that they receive from senior leaders. Leaders consider the well-being and workload of staff when they make decisions.

Leaders have taken practical steps to reduce staff workload. Staff feel well supported.

Governors and school leaders are considerate of teachers’ workload. They do not ask for excessive amounts of information.

[Leaders] have listened to their staff about workload. All staff spoken to by inspectors feel supported.

Whilst this does not mean workload concerns are being neglected in inspections it strongly implies it. The fact that workload is regularly cited the issue most likely to lead to teachers leaving the profession means it deserves greater attention. If school leaders are going to prioritise the reduction of pointless workload, this needs to be something they are held accountable for. That this vital area appears to be being neglected in reports is something of a disgrace.

In summary, the content of these reports is largely encouraging. There are numerous references to teachers building on students’ prior knowledge and students being unable to able to remember what they had been taught previously. That this is being done with some sensitivity is clear from comments such as “pupils know a lot of historical facts but are not good at using them to explain or analyse historical events.”

The focus of inspectors is more concerned with the past and the future rather than the thin slice of the present inspectors can observe directly. There continue to be oddities and misplaced judgements (In one report we’re told that the school has improved because “school leaders and trustees of the multi-academy trust focus on making it the best school it can be.” The idea that this would somehow be different to any other school is bizarre!) but on the whole, the new framework appears to be bedding in fairly comfortably.

* I am grateful to Watchsted for being able to compile this post – while all of Ofsted’s reports are published on their site, there’s currently no way to search for them by date, as far as I’m aware.