Amanda Spielman’s speech to the Confederation of School Trusts, 2023
A speech by Ofsted's Chief Inspector at the Confederation of School Trusts’ conference
Hello, and thank you for the invitation. I’m very happy to be here and talking to you all especially after hearing Steve’s inspiring talk just now.
This year’s conference theme of ‘belonging’ is very well chosen. It brings together some of the biggest challenges facing schools and offering pointers to some of them.
Because children belonging at school has never been more important. It’s not just about the education they missed during the pandemic, it’s the wider benefits of going to school. The long and slow process of socialisation. Understanding the expectations of society. And learning to adapt and thrive among their peers. All of these things need steady attendance and participation. And schools’ job has got a lot harder.
I’ve regularly raised concerns about the damage the pandemic has done to the social contract. To the clear expectation that parents should get their children to school every day and that in return, schools do everything they can to give children education and to prepare them for their future.
Making sure schools are a place where children feel they belong is vital to rebuilding that contract and to their learning and development.
The importance of belonging
For this, we obviously need to emphasise the importance of year-round attendance. The expectation does needs to be clear. There’ll always be some parts of school life a child is less keen on than others, but it’s not something you can pick and choose. That used to be well understood but, since the pandemic, the waters have got a bit muddied.
There’s been a great deal of rapid social change and shifting expectations. But even in the “new-normal”, parents and children need to know that school is a package deal. Part of school is learning the things you didn’t know you needed to know. And enjoying the things you didn’t think you would until you tried them.
There’s value in a broad and well-rounded curriculum, not just the subjects a child enjoys most. There’s value in learning alongside and with your peers, not isolated and through a screen. And there’s value in the whole school experience, not just in learning enough to pass a few exams.
But we also know that, even when parents understand the expectation and want to meet it, some are finding it hard.
And you have a big role in resetting the expectation. You know the damage that persistent absence can do. The more a child is out of school, the less well they’re likely to do. The more they dot in and out, the less they’ll benefit. Obviously children may have to miss school occasionally – but it shouldn’t be for minor ailments or parental convenience.
But we shouldn’t just talk about the negatives. Parents and children need to see the benefits of the whole package. The benefits of learning, of enjoying things like sport and music, of building relationships with adults beyond their families, and of building friendships with peers. These are the building blocks of wellbeing and a good life.
Good schools contribute so much to this. A meaty curriculum, good extra-curriculars, supporting additional interests, fostering friendships; this is the everyday activity of a school. These elements should be ingrained in the school’s culture and carry the standards and expectations that you set for your children. And when those things are right, learning and wellbeing are most likely to follow.
I want to put particular emphasis on behaviour. I know how hard it is for many of you to deal with challenging behaviour at the moment. But poor behaviour can make other children anxious about school.
Clear rules and expectations, consistently applied, and with known consequences are of course important elements of a proven approach. But you know it’s not enough just to set the rules and sit back. Children need to be taught behaviour and routines explicitly, and to be given time to learn and practise meeting those expectations.
As you will all know, with the disruptions over the last few years, children are needing more support to understand and adopt new routines. And for some, school is the only place where they get this kind of structure and support.
But where schools do this well children’s sense of community with their peers and belonging also grows. A reliable, consistent, and predictable school culture will help children feel comfortable, so that they can truly benefit from all that school offers.
I do want to be clear about the importance of consistency of expectations and of shared teaching and practice. Because building a sense of belonging isn’t primarily about packages of micro-adjustments for every child. That’s no way to prepare children for adult life. Learning to cope and adjust on your own within the boundaries of a school, and of wider society, is an important lesson in itself.
Of course, there are some children than need individual flex, and for some, reasonable adjustments should be made. But this should be about enabling full participation, not about exempting children. Things like reduced timetables can help in the short-term, but contribute to children coming further adrift if they don’t come with a transition plan to begin or return to full-time learning.
SEND support is vital for those who need it, but it shouldn’t become a catch-all for every challenge a child faces. There is a growing tendency to link all problems with behaviour and attendance to unmet SEND. But that isn’t fair to children with SEND. And it isn’t always helpful for children to be labelled.
Labels and diagnoses for children who are just dealing with the normal complexities of growing up can isolate them further. And we risk making children feel they can’t or don’t need to meet the expectations that we should have for all children.
Childhood, adolescence, and education can be more difficult for some than others. Every child sometimes struggles, or feels awkward, or that they don’t fit in. But good schools can and do help most children through most of these challenges within the bounds of your core work – with high quality education and strong pastoral care.
This is even more true following the pandemic. We have more children struggling but to locate those problems in a child isn’t always right.
Teachers need the support of a strong and clear framework for deciding when adjustments are appropriate. We know many teachers are finding this part of their job is taking up much more time than previously.
Understanding and identifying the children that need additional help, and need steady encouragement is an important part of a teacher’s job.
Obviously, some children do need additional help, and they should get it. And we understand the frustrations and long wait times for EHC plans. So, making sure that the limited SEND resources on the children who most need them is even more important.
By giving the teachers in your schools clear guidance and support, you can empower them to make decisions with confidence and spend as much time as possible teaching.
Make the job doable
And belonging matters for teachers too. Teachers need the right support and structures to do their jobs well. I know that good trusts do a great deal of work in this area.
Making the job doable for teachers helps strengthen a schools’ culture, increase their time with students, and help with the recruitment and retention problems that so many of you are facing.
And a big part of making the job doable is making sure that children feel they belong. When attendance is high and behaviour is good, it’s easier to teach.
Making the job doable also comes from minimising mission-creep in schools. I’ve consistently warned against loading schools up with new agendas and roles. I do believe schools should be able to concentrate on their core job of education. Though this is hard at the moment with a combination of challenges that I know are falling to you.
Later today you’re going to hear from Doug Lemov. As he and his co-authors say in Reconnecting:
Achieving simple and important things in a complex and challenging world is no easy task. And adding more goals can create as much distraction as benefit. Getting everyone focussed on one or two key things is plenty difficult.
Educating children is a difficult and complex goal on its own. Every policy maker contemplating adding a new role for schools, needs to give real thought as to whether it is important enough to risk that core mission.
Role of Ofsted
Making the job doable is something that we are very focused on. When we developed and introduced this framework, we made sure it rebalanced our approach – shifting accountability upstream away from junior teachers and more on senior decision makers.
We intentionally built a framework that gets under the bonnet of a school but doesn’t need you to do anything beyond what you should already be doing for your students. Our model is built around professional dialogue and has reduced the need for collecting and analysing reams of data. It’s about having conversations that get to reliable judgements but also have professional value for school leaders.
The substance of education
We wanted to make sure that the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) focused on the right things. On the real substance of education. So our inspection conversations are about the things that they ought to be about. The things parents and educators want them to be about. The things the school is doing to provide a high-quality education and great start for their children.
We’re fully transparent about our conception of quality, and we have grounded it in research. The framework and handbooks set this out for everyone to see what we train our inspectors to look for. I know a few of you in this room are Ofsted inspectors (OIs) and I thank you for that. Because it’s vital that they use a common, consistent, and standardised conception of quality. One that is well-evidenced, not one of their own. The EIF takes this further this more than any previous framework.
Of course, our conception is not a narrow or prescriptive one. It’s not our job to tell you what to do. The conception of quality that’s embedded in the framework can be debated, tested, and iterated.
And there is value in a framework that does effectively preclude what we know doesn’t work, to avoid returning to failed models of the past. That just isn’t unfair on children.
Research reviews and subject reports
And our research reviews have extended this approach to national curriculum subjects. We’ve published reviews summarising available evidence in all but one subject. These give a clear and transparent conception of quality across the board.
And we know that many of them are helping you too. They have been downloaded over half a million times and we know that schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) have found them useful in their curriculum planning and teaching.
We’re now following these reviews up with subject reports which are evaluating the quality of current curriculum and practice in each subject. We’ve published reports on science, history, maths in the summer. We’ve just published reports on PE, geography, and music. English, RE, and personal development will all follow in December and the others in 2024.
Working with the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) and trusts
Working with the sector has made these reviews and reports possible. And it’s also fundamental to how Ofsted operates. Collaboration has helped us develop the EIF, produce research, and make changes to how we inspect schools.
We know that not all of you like the regulatory system for schools, of which inspection is a big part. And the education landscape has changed a good deal since the laws that govern inspection were put in place. Keeping pace with sector changes is one of our strategic priorities and we’ve said that “accountability should sit with decision-makers, and the way we inspect and regulate should hold decision-makers to account.”
In many instances, that means academy trusts.
But the ability to inspect trusts is not something we currently have. I don’t want to dwell too much on this. It is a decision for government to make and is not likely to change in the near future.
Similarly, I know some of you may want us to act more as a support agency than an inspectorate. But again, that is not a decision for us. Our role has long been defined in policy as one of diagnosis.
We are here to identify good schools and also to point out when things aren’t right. It’s important for children and for the health of the school system that somebody is able to do that.
But returning to recognising and including trusts in inspections, we will carry on working as well as we can within current constraints. But we must do this without compromising the government-mandated approach of school level inspection. So we can’t always recognise trusts as much as you might like.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t recognise what trusts bring to education.
Value of trusts
Because we do know how valuable your work can be.
This was particularly evident during the pandemic. Our education recovery reports showed that most academies within a trust felt well supported – with the kinds of help including pooled resources, trust-wide curriculums, and trust-wide moderation.
This was crucial during the pandemic, and it is now.
Shared approaches, resources, good practice, and support are helping schools take on the big challenges of the day including behaviour, attendance, as well as curriculum and teaching.
Trusts can take some of the burden away from the individuals working in schools and help them to concentrate on the job they do best. Making sure that teachers are spending more time with students and less behind a computer, worrying about concrete, or writing bespoke policies.
You all have different operating models. What you decide at the centre and what you delegate to schools varies. But many of you are helping with issues that have become particularly messy or contentious. Trust level decisions about things like the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE), school uniforms, mobile phone usage and transgender guidance at a trust level can make sense for lots of schools.
And this all feeds back into the idea of making the job doable.
Thanks to the sector
Much of this same logic also applies to representative bodies like CST.
By grouping and working together, trusts can reap some of the same benefits they provide for their individual schools. Sharing training, resources, and good ideas can bring great benefits.
Bodies like CST can do so much with their insight and reach. I know we have been particularly grateful to see CST translate and share good practice, as well as defusing some of the myths and anxieties about inspection.
So thank you for all you do for the children in your trusts, and thank you to CST for the invitation to speak to you today. And I hope that, notwithstanding the many challenges, we can all move forward with the optimism that we can imbue in children.