NSN welcomes Ofsted’s consultation on proposed changes to its inspection framework and the level of detail provided in the accompanying inspection handbook and curriculum research.
Since September 2018, NSN has held regular discussions with open and pre-open free schools of all phases and types, and all 442 open free schools were invited to respond to a consultation survey. Feedback from discussions and the survey show the overwhelming majority of open free schools broadly welcome the proposed changes to the inspection framework (90%).
However, there are some areas of potential challenge – and opportunity – that free school leaders raised specifically; our consultation response aims to share these with Ofsted. The main areas of challenge and opportunity for free schools are:
- Internal data: Though free school leaders generally welcome the proposed refocusing of inspections away from internal progress and attainment measures, some free school leaders are concerned that free schools inspected for the first time, after two years of being open, would be unable to offer any statutory performance data (with the exception of the Key Stage One phonics screening test in relevant cases.
- Quality, neutrality and capacity: A number of free school leaders raised concern about the capacity of inspection teams, particularly their ability to accurately interpret and apply the new framework. Other leaders feel a lack of understanding of the challenges faced in setting up a new school, particularly one inspected in temporary accommodation. Based on previous experiences, some leaders expressed concern that a general bias against free schools has been detrimental in the past and do not believe the new framework alleviates this concern.
- Narrow vs broad curricula: Some free school leaders raised concerns that the proposed changes do not go far enough in considering the specific needs of the communities individual free schools were established to serve. Some of the best performing schools in the country are free schools that have consciously narrowed the breadth of their curriculum offer to allow for study at a greater depth in the core curriculum. Free school leaders would benefit from additional information on how the curriculum will be inspected, particularly in those schools that have been created to offer an alternative for communities.
- Building the curriculum: A number of free school leaders raised concerns about their curriculum being inspected while the school is still growing. It is not always possible for a new free school to immediately offer the full curriculum proposed in the application, which will come when the school is at capacity and has a full staff. Free school leaders would benefit from additional information on how the curriculum will be inspected before the school is at capacity.
- AP and off-rolling: Some free school leaders feel there needs to be further clarity about potential unintended consequences of the well-intentioned focus on ‘off-rolling’ for AP free schools. While the increased focus on ‘gaming’ and ‘off-rolling’ is welcome, further thought should be given to how a reduction in exclusions might impact alternative provision free schools.
Sam Fitzpatrick, Head of Open and Pre-Open Schools, said:
“For the most part, we think Ofsted’s proposals are positive. Free school leaders I’ve spoken to across the country welcome the shift towards looking at the substance of the education they’re providing, focusing on the quality of the curriculum which is often so central to the initial vision of the free school.
“That said, it’s clear some of Ofsted’s proposals require further development. A number of challenges have been raised by free school leaders, particularly in the context of opening and growing a school from scratch, which need further clarity – this is particularly the case with looking at the curriculum, with free schools inspected anytime from their seventh term, it’s unrealistic to expect a broad curriculum to be established in a school that does not yet have pupils in every year or a full staff body.
“This process has shown us how forthcoming the sector is in engaging with consultations, so I’m confident Ofsted will be able to work together with free school leaders to ensure their Inspectors have a full understanding of the context a new free school operates in.”