Imagine if Ofsted arrived at your school one morning, but instead of attempting to inspect the whole school, they just focused on one year group. The school would not know which year group would be inspected until the day of the visit. The school would be judged on the quality of education being delivered to that year group.
Such an approach might help tackle one of the biggest issues we face in our education system today, which is the disproportionate amount of resources directed towards Year 11, and other year groups facing public exams. It’s no secret that these terminal year groups, particularly Year 11, absorb so much of our schools’ energy, and it’s no surprise either, given that our accountability framework rests on the outcomes of these year groups, rather than the quality of the educational journey that students receive throughout their time at the school.
We have come to accept the fact that Year 11 will be allocated the best teachers, the sharpest scrutiny and the lion’s share of after-school booster classes, alongside an austerity-resistant supply of revision breakfasts and boot camps.
But just as our obsession with Year 11 is no mystery, it’s also completely bonkers. Imagine if the resources we throw at Year 11 intervention were directed instead towards students in Year 7. We could systematically support students with low levels of literacy, unlocking the curriculum for these students for their remaining 5 years. We could do the same with pupils with poor mathematical skills, and school leaders could identify and patch-up other gaps in students’ understanding, much the same as question-level analysis is used to fine-tune exam preparation for students in Year 11. The gains made by this approach would serve the students and the school for years to come.
If Ofsted focused on just one year group, and if schools had no clue which year group it would be, schools would ensure that their most established teachers and heads of year were distributed evenly throughout the years. Schools would ensure that their booster classes were open to all cohorts, and that concerns about poor progress were identified and acted upon in every year group, not just Year 11.
Ofsted would benefit too. By focusing on just one cohort, the inspectors would be better placed to understand the educational experience that students receive. Inspectors could become specialists in one year group, enabling them to compare the standards achieved by Year 8 students at one school with another. In one day, two inspectors focusing on one year group could explore the school at a depth beyond the reach of an inspection team grappling with 5 cohorts or more.
The strongest objection I can think of to this approach is that schools might perceive Ofsted judgements to be invalid if they are based on the experience of just 20% of the student body. One way to solve this would be for the school to provide its own assessment of the quality of education received by each cohort. So on the day prior to the inspection, the headteacher would provide contextual information, with evidence, on each year group.
One half of our accountability framework – performance tables – will always focus on those year groups facing exams. Perhaps the other half of our accountability framework – Ofsted – could turn its gaze towards other year groups.