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On Saturday 5th November I attended the Learning First conference in Sheffield. A grassroots movement which focuses on life after levels, the conference hosted a huge array of speakers from academia, schools, MATs and more. One person in particular who spoke at the conference, and who actively supports the movement via Twitter, is Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director – Education. If you don’t yet follow Sean on Twitter I urge you to do so. He goes out of his way to help support schools to separate the fact from the fiction in terms of “what Ofsted is looking for” and this has included regular updates to the Ofsted Myths and Facts document.

At the conference this month, Sean spoke specifically about the new freedoms schools have since the changes to the curriculum, loss of levels and the changes to the Ofsted inspection handbook. He urged school leaders to have sections of the handbook ready for inspections too in case you ever feel you need to fight your corner on the changes. He requests that you fight in a nice professional way of course, but is keen for schools to start challenging some long held preconceptions!

Sean spoke about the curriculum freedoms. Apart from history (due to the chronological timeline nature of the new curriculum) Sean was emphasising the fact that schools now have the freedom to teach the curriculum in whichever order they feel is best within the year/across the key stage. It is no longer prescribed that we teach units in a particular order. So that gives a freedom around how we teach in many ways including how cross curricula links work. The key is to organise based on what suits the learning of the pupils best. Sean especially mentioned, and has done at previous conferences too, the freedoms at Key Stage 3 where there are not actually many objectives compared to other key stages and therefore there is a lot of scope to be innovative.

Sean spoke also about pedagogical freedoms for teachers in their classrooms to teach how they feel works best for their own pupils. As well as via Twitter conversations and the training he has undertaken with inspectors, Sean is keen to point out that Ofsted does not prescribe any particular method of teaching and wants teachers to feel free to do what works best in their classrooms without thinking Ofsted is looking to see any set models of practice.

He also spoke of the myths and facts document which includes such things as Ofsted not looking for a certain amount or frequency of marking in books. Sean is well aware that this is something that often adds to the stress and workload for teachers but there is no set ruling here. All that Ofsted will look for is that there is a match between the amount of marking and that which is laid down in the marking policy. Any mismatch may lead them to wonder about school leadership if teachers are inconsistent with the policies but even then there are no hard and fast rules, it is more about getting a consistent picture of progress. If progress is evident it is not about how you got there or comparing you to another school and their methods. Of course, assessment wise, we know this is a similar story as Ofsted is not looking to see assessment data presented in any particular format, but would expect to see evidence that assessment happening in the classroom and discussions matches what is laid out in the assessment policy.

Sean would like school leaders to really focus on what will work best for the students in their care, rather than being concerned with what outside agencies are looking for. If you put the students and their learning first then the rest will surely follow. If you make decisions with students at the centre then their progress will be evident – whether through data, books, conversations with children or any other way – and this will impact not just on inspections but in future national results data. He is keen for schools to be confident in their choices and to use the new freedoms to really put the pupils at the heart of decisions.

I don’t think Sean, from all the Twitter conversations I’ve seen him have (often late on Sunday nights!), is at all unaware of the reasons that so many school leaders are worried about treading their own path, and is fully aware of how previous Ofsted inspections may have instilled in schools a perceived expectation of things happening in a certain way. But I do know that he is working very hard to show schools that things have changed in light of the other DfE changes over the last few years, and he is very keen for schools to take back their agency and have confidence in their decisions.

So have you embraced the changes? Do you feel confident to move away from what you have always thought you knew about what Ofsted looks for? Maybe your school has had an Ofsted inspection since the changes and noticed any differences with the old and new frameworks? Do let us know any of your stories if so!

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