Education quality falls when curriculum narrows, says chief inspector

Janet Downs's picture

Prioritising data and results is endemic…

Ofsted has seen evidence of declining education quality driven by narrowing the curriculum and ‘prioritising data and performance’, writes Chief HMCI Amanda Spielman

Despite criticising excessive emphasis on data, Spielman contradicts herself: 

‘…pupil progress and attainment will always be a central measure in the school accountability system.’

But pupil progress can’t be measured accurately.  Progress and attainment measures discriminate against schools with a large number of previously low-achieving pupils. 

Obsession with data is ‘failing young people’

Spielman is right that focussing excessively on test results is failing young people.  And she’s right that the curriculum should be ‘rich, broad and deep’.  Inspectors will shift focus to intent, implementation and impact, she writes. 

But impact is defined as ‘the results and wider outcomes that children achieve, and the destinations that they go on to.’

It’s unclear what ‘wider outcomes’ are.   But judging schools on destinations makes them responsible for decisions outside their control.   Judging schools on results rewards schools which manage to deter previously low-achieving pupils, disadvantaged pupils and White British pupils on free school meals.  The last two categories are disproportionately found in ‘intractable’ schools, Spielman writes.  These are schools which have been ‘judged to require improvement or be satisfactory or inadequate in every inspection they have had since 2005.’

It’s misleading to claim previously satisfactory schools were retrospectively unsatisfactory when they satisfied inspection criteria at the time.  Nevertheless, Ofsted cited ‘poor performance’ as the reason behind these judgements.  This brings us back to assessing schools mainly on results.

Outstanding school exemption must go

The exemption from inspections for outstanding schools must go, Spielman says.  She’s right.  The outstanding grade is ‘a beacon of excellence’ which falls into disrepute if schools haven’t been inspected for years.

English schools already had a ‘wide degree of autonomy’

Schools in England had a ‘wide degree of autonomy by international standards’ before mass academization, Spielman admits.  This rather contradicts pro-academy propaganda which claimed schools could only have freedom if they escaped local authority control (LA).

Spielman avoids using the word ‘control’.  She prefers ‘auspices’ which is more benign.  Nevertheless, Spielman still claims the academy programme gave heads ‘greater autonomy’ and admits she was an academy pioneer.

Spielman contradicts herself again.  Immediately following the assertion that academy heads would have greater autonomy, Spielman admits that in many multi-academy trusts (MATs), ‘much decision-making now sits at the level of the trust, not just on financial and employment matters, but in determining curriculum, teaching and assessment.’ 

That’s far more control than LAs ever had.

By her own admission, Spielman was an early advocate of academization.  This has led to the situation described above: MATs, not heads, control their academies.  She rightly emphasizes the degradation of education quality caused by focussing far too much on exam results but still stresses their importance when making inspection judgements.

Schools will only be able to focus on providing quality education for all children when the current accountability system in England is scrapped.

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John Mountford's picture
Wed, 31/10/2018 - 21:16

Having read the whole of Spielman's letter to the chair of the Public Accounts Committe, only a fool would feel confident that she actually has a full grasp of the facts. For the best part of two decades, teachers in retirement and in service have been aware of the mounting pressure on the system to deliver 'higher standards' against a background where curriculum entitlement has been progressively narrowed. Ministers have been aware of this trend and, for ideological reasons they feel are justifiable, they have been unrelenting in driving the system along this dangerous path. Spielman herself may be new to the job but others have held her office and have chose to ignore the mounting evidence. Her long letter to Meg Hillier is totally lacking fire power.

There is little chance that any of the changes being proposed will benefit pupils and teachers when  the intention with the new framework is  to develop " a new ‘quality of education’ judgement. This will include curriculum intent, depth and breadth alongside the quality of teaching, the quality of pupils’ work and the resulting outcomes. Rather than viewing outcomes in isolation, we want instead to look at them as the product of a good, strong curriculum."

It doesn't take a genius to predict that once this has been bastardised in the halls of the DfE under the guidance of ministers and a Secretary of State who don't understand the first thing about what an education for the 21st century should look like, this is going to have a devastating effect. What chance is there that all of these additional points of focus for inspectors will not be driven by even more data requirements? This looks like a rocky road ahead.

Matthew Bennett's picture
Sat, 03/11/2018 - 08:09

Paul Marshall, the current chair of Ark Schools, recently told an audience at the LSE (where he has set up the Marshall Institute of Philanthropy):

We’re now reaching the point where the state’s frontiers are seen to be very limited.  States are running out of money everywhere.  …  We have had in this country one of the most radical, bold and exciting reforms that the world has seen ... which is effectively saying, with the education system, that this system will be funded by the state, supervised by the state, but it’s going to be delivered by the voluntary sector.  That is a very historic moment. … Academies started the process of change, which is now … on the road to completion, of handing the entire education system over to the voluntary sector.

What is this ‘voluntary sector’ that Marshall is referring to?  He himself is Chief Investment Officer of the Marshall-Wace hedge fund (currently registered in Dublin, after the bulk of the funds were moved from the Caymans).  The current eight-strong Ark board includes four more hedge fund managers.  One of them is Ron Beller, whose Peloton Partners hedge fund collapsed in 2008, after an ill-fated attempt to ‘short’ subprime mortgage derivatives.  Another trustee is Stanley Fink, who made his name with the MAN Group hedge fund (registered in Bermuda), and who told the press in 2015 that ‘everyone does tax avoidance at some level’.   States are running out of money everywhere…

Amanda Spielman has been closely associated with Ark since 2005.  Her background is in corporate finance and ‘strategy consulting’.  She was working for Nomura, a big financial firm, before she became leader of Ark Schools’ founding management team, and helped to build their ‘data-driven culture’ (to quote from Ark’s profile on the DfE website).  She remained a key player until becoming head of Ofqual in 2011.

These people know nothing about education, and care even less.  Their interest is in creating new investment markets.  After all, as Lord Fink says, philanthropy is really ‘enlightened self-interest’.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 03/11/2018 - 10:47

Thanks Matthew - it's important to be reminded about Spielman's link with ARK as an early supporter of academization.


Matthew Bennett's picture
Sun, 04/11/2018 - 19:27

Here's the full quote from the 2014 'in-depth sponsor profile':

Ark Schools Trustees were very involved in all aspects of management from the start, and established a highly data-driven culture within the network.  The central team demand granular school performance information and use this to drive decision-making processes.  This means prioritising mechanisms for standardised data reporting, which are used to drive improvement and hold school leaders to account. (emphasis added)

The profile notes that the first thing Ark does when it takes over a school is to introduce 'standardised systems for reporting to the centre, monitoring performance'.    'Underperformance is tackled briskly through close observation, supported by focussed, tailored work from the centre'.  God knows what that last bit means -- but every teacher in the state system has learned to dread the word 'support'.

This is the 'excellent and unparalleled model for school improvement' (sic) that Spielman helped to build when she left Nomura to join Ark Schools' founding management team.  This is the culture which is promoted by Ark's in-house training programmes for teachers and 'leaders' (the profile notes how important it is that every school leader should be 'someone with experience in an Ark setting, or who has been through the Ark programmes').

Are we seriously supposed to believe that the scales have suddenly fallen from the HMCI's eyes?  I'm afraid that, after the Commission on Assessment Without Levels and the DfE's workload review groups, yet another Trojan Horse -- even bigger and better than the last one -- is being wheeled out...

Ark's sponsor profile can be found here:


John Mountford's picture
Sun, 04/11/2018 - 22:29

Having read Matthew's latest response and listened to the LSE talk from Paul Marshall, I reiterate my initial comment about the likely outcome for the revised Ofsted framework. Anyone who is remotely concerned that excessive data collection is a major drain on human resources in the current cliamte of increasing accountability needs to be aware that Spielman's reforms are going to create masses of data if the planed changes to work. How else is the proposed quality of education judgement to be reached than through the accumulation of masses of new data?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/11/2018 - 10:04

Warwick Mansell also has concerns about Ofsted's continued reliance on 'impact' (his words below - my bold):

'Inspectors will judge schools on what schools want for all children through the curriculum; whether they are implementing it effectively to achieve those intentions; and then the “impact”: “the results and wider outcomes that children achieve, and the destinations they go on to”.

'I think the last aspect is particularly concerning. It seems like another data-driven indicator, to be gamed like any other. (Just think how a school might react, say, to having a child on its roll which might not go on to university or employment, and you begin to see the problems. Sorry to be cynical, but this is the high-stakes, competitive system of institutional reputation being so central which has been created by politicians).'

'For what it’s worth, I think any decent remedy would have to acknowledge that the current accountability system is very unbalanced.'

Matthew Bennett's picture
Mon, 05/11/2018 - 21:35

It may be coincidence, but the word 'impact' is central to the emerging field of 'impact investment'.  Here in the UK this is centred on social impact bonds -- which a former Ark employee, Toby Eccles, helped to develop -- and which were imported to the US as 'Pay for Success' (a central element of Obama's Every Student Succeeds Act).

Social impact bonds are financial instruments which allow private capital (institutional investors or high-net-worth individuals) direct access to the 'public services market'.  The idea is that specific, cost-saving programmes or 'interventions' (replacing services historically provided by the state) are backed by private investors.  If those programmes can show 'impact' -- the key word -- then the investors get their money back, plus a healthy ROI drawn from the putative savings to the state.  But in order to demonstrate 'impact', and justify the payout to investors, you need data -- lots and lots of data.  That's where technology -- digital platforms which allow close or even 'real time' monitoring of the target group -- comes in.

The ideal set-up for the 'impact investor' is some kind of online training programme -- of the type that the Behavioural Insights Team ('Nudge Unit') specialise in -- aimed at developing 'soft skills' of one kind or another (e.g. 'workplace readiness' in unemployed teenagers, 'parenting skills' in low-income families, 'resilience' in the elderly, 'mindfulness' in the mentally ill, etc).  Such programmes are largely about data production, rather than effecting any kind of real change in the real world.  If the target group can be trained to produce the right kind of data, then there will be 'evidence' of 'impact' -- remember, it's all about 'what works'! -- and the investors will get their 10 per cent return.

The world's first social impact bond (SIB) was launched by the then-Home Secretary Jack Straw, a few months before the 2010 election; the test bed was a private prison in Peterborough.  There are now more than 30 SIBs in the UK; we are considered a world leader.  The project has continued smoothly, undisturbed by three changes of government or Brexit.

A big target area for the first wave of SIB pilots, under the Coalition, was youth unemployment.  It can only be a matter of time before we start to see test runs of SIBs in education.  Judging from developments in the US, my money would be on the early years, on the one hand ('school readiness'! the 'word gap'!), and alternative provision on the other.  Alternative provision was mentioned as a target area for SIBs in Nicky Morgan's 'Educational Excellence Everywhere' white paper; and the Life Chances Fund, launched soon after May became PM, is underwriting a SIB in Doncaster which will involve a US charter school chain, Big Picture Learning, setting up shop in the town.

'Venture philanthropists' like Ark and Impetus-PEF -- the 'voluntary sector', as Paul Marshall puts it -- are playing a key role in developing this new investment market.  They are financiers, after all.  As I said, former Ark people like Toby Eccles and Louise Savell helped to develop SIBs in the first place.  And another former Ark person -- Amanda Spielman -- is currently well-positioned to open up more areas of state-funded education to data-driven 'impact investment'.



Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 06/11/2018 - 10:15

Re SIBs - The Howard League for Prison Reform  commented on the Peterborough SIB after an evaluation found it was successful in reducing re-offending.  It said, 'Whether a social impact bond for helping former prisoners is cheaper than just financing such services properly through public finance (taxation) isn’t clear.'  

The project was abandoned after two years because of changes in the way probation was handled (as we now know, outsourcing probation for all except the most violent prisoners has been a disaster).

Peterborough prison is managed by Sodexo who parent company Sodexo SA is based in Paris.  It's a global outsourcing company withy numerous subsidiaries and holdings.  The Howard League provided evidence in a court case involving Sodexo which raised 'concerns about the state’s ability to monitor private prisons and hold to account the companies that run them.'   The case involved alleged illegal strip searches.   

In Alan White's book Shadow State (p86),  he cites a Howard League dossierwhich included "'allegations made that a woman who had miscarried at HMP Peterborough was left to clean up after herself' while the foetus remained in her cell." 

As well as being the first SIB, Peterborough prison is unique in having male and female prisoners on the same site but in separate blocks.  The female prisoners weren't included in the SIB.  A couple of years ago, articles made by women prisoners were sold in Peterborough Cathedral.  I bought a mug.


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