Youth engagement and the new Ofsted framework

Staying engaged with the shifting landscapes of education policy can be a mighty challenge. Policy changes can appear minute from a distance, almost not worthy of note, and then, all of a sudden- a sea change appears around the corner; those that read the movements correctly, especially those in schools and the education sector, are likely to be rewarded – particularly by the new Ofsted framework, which is likely to favour those schools insisting that students complete their Key Stage Four in two years from year 10 to year 11. The shifting tides on this should have a large influence on organisations keen to work with young people- schools will be starting to think actively about broadening their curriculum and they will look for external partners to engage with. Organisations prepared to fill these gaps will have a key opportunity to engage young people in the projects they believe matter. Here’s a brief explanation of why.

Ever since the introduction of the new reformed GCSEs in 2015 I’ve been an advocate for the protection of the Key Stage Three curriculum experience; whilst 50% of schools have cut a year off the key stage, they will now be seeking answers to searching questions from Ofsted. The ethical implications of these decisions are pretty clear: whilst we have an obligation to ensure quality outcomes for students (often narrowly defined by grades), we have a competing obligation to maximise choice for children, and asking children to make choices in Year 8 that will effect the rest of their lives clearly limits this choice. However, even if you are more practically minded, it has been becoming more and more obvious that limiting KS3 to year 7 and 8 is not likely to please Ofsted. The first signal was sent in Ofsted’s 2015 ‘Wasted Years’ report which paradoxically called for the prioritisation of Key Stage Three at a time of major reform to Key Stage Four and Key Stage Five. The arrival of Spielman at the inspectorate in 2017 sent further signals- she highlighted concerns about gaming and teaching to the test very early on in comments about curriculum reform.

To any schools that hadn’t heard the message, the September commentary on the new Ofsted framework should have been a final warning. This document sent a pretty clear message that shortening the Key Stage Three is a curriculum design decision that will be placed under greater scrutiny than others. Answers to that question will be used as a litmus test for the overall strength of curriculum design across the school. Little advice is offered on what kinds of justification might avoid inspectors concluding it was the wrong decision- clues are left in the stress on ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’ which will leave schools that have distributed leadership styles, with departments as hubs of curriculum production, with a multitude of headaches. Whilst some may suggest judgements on curriculum reform are inherently ‘subjective‘, this approach unlikely to assuage skeptical Ofsted inspectors who are now actively trained to spot attempts to prepare children for exams over preparing them effectively for the wider world. The key will be getting everyone singing off the same hymn sheet when it matters whilst allowing teams flexibility to adapt their plans creatively.

For those organisations in the non-profit and private sector keen to engage with schools, these changes hold many potential benefits. Schools that respond by switching back to a full length Key Stage Three will look for external support and advice in making the changes. It is more likely however that stick to their guns and they will have to show they are providing students with a broad range of experiences even if they have dropped a range of subjects at an early stage. As a result, the curriculum is no longer the exam- it is everything going on within the school. Girls schools keen to strengthen access to STEM carrier pathways will look to augment their relationships with scientific learning programmes and businesses. Colleges that have sidelined the benefits of the creative subjects, and by extension, the creative industry, will look to build a portfolio of opportunities. Skills vital for employment- teamwork, leadership, empathy, research- long derided by exam reformers as nebulous and hard-to-measure, will be slowly getting more bandwidth in decision-making about learning beyond the classroom; business can offer invaluable partnerships to help develop these skills in young people.

The key, however, is in thinking carefully about how to engage with schools. Teachers are the most important figures here and how an organisation works with them will define whether or not they operate effectively in this new, more fertile, environment. Teachers have long been keen to think outside of the classroom but the pressure to prepare students for the newly reformed GCSEs has made it even harder to make the case for enriching learning through engagement with something other than a textbook. Teachers are a ready, although hard-to-reach, audience. Organisations that understand the importance of quick wins, quality resources and long term partnership are the most likely to win their attention and time. Don’t sent blanket emails to cheaply bought data sets; do engage with professional networks- local and national.

One final thing- in the education sector, like any sector, quality wins over quantity every time. Robust approaches to design and development of education programmes is vital to those that want to work in schools. Place the quality of learning at the heart of your plans. Educators remember the organisations that come in and run dud workshops; they also remember the organisations that have clearly invested thought, effort, and good people into building programmes that work for young people. This requires a lot of up front effort with testing, redesigning and retesting but it pays off in the long tun.


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