Ofsted, Inspections, and the Turn to Character

The University of Birmingham School’s (UoBS) bespoke character education programme has been singled out for praise after the first Ofsted inspection (May, 2018). In the report, Ofsted highlighted the School’s focus on ‘character education’ and recognised that the programme ensures that leaders promote pupils’ personal development well. Ofsted go on to report that ‘the development of a ‘character education’ programme has rightly received national and international acclaim. Leaders promote spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and British values very well through the curriculum. This includes through “personal learning and development” lessons.’

 

For a school that is explicitly dedicated to the character development of its staff and pupils, it is perhaps not so surprising that such an in-school focus would receive attention from inspectors. Further, there is a conflict of interest that should be acknowledged, as we in the Jubilee Centre welcome such praise, being the main instigators in both the creation of the School’s focus on character and the designing of the bespoke character programme itself.

However, that is besides the point that I wish to make. It is refreshing and reassuring that Ofsted and its teams of inspectors are starting to give more emphasis to character during school inspections. This, for us in the Jubilee Centre, is a really positive step. The Centre’s aims to impact policy and practice have been far reaching both in the UK and internationally since 2012, however, until recently, Ofsted’s approach to recognising character as a positive in school inspections has been limited at best, verging on non-existent at worst.

During the past month, though, there had been the publication of two school inspection reports (of which UoBS is one) that congratulate schools for their focuses on character education. Kings Langley School in Hertfordshire has a long established character education programme, which was again congratulated and applauded in the School’s recent Ofsted inspection; with inspectors praising ‘an impressive award-winning curriculum on character education… evident across all aspects of the pupils’ experience at Kings Langley and pupils say that it helps them make healthy decisions and become better citizens.’ The recognition of such programmes’ impact on pupil development, outside of mere attainment metrics, is particularly pleasing to read. It helps support the Jubilee Centre notion that developing one’s character is a good in itself, not something to use as a means to reach an end of better attainment scores.

 

In addition to acknowledging the prominence and value that discrete character education programmes can and do have in schools, the importance of character was spoken about by National Director, Education Sean Harford at the #CharacterEd18 conference at Lichfield Cathedral School on 12 May. The slides from the presentation, titled ‘What is Character?’, were subsequently posted on the @Ofstednews twitter feed. In his presentation, Harford presents three definitions of character (one being the Jubilee Centre’s model). The presentation then goes on to look at possible metrics and performance indicators as ways of identifying character development taking place in schools; indicators that Ofsted inspectors can measure, something which doesn’t appear in either of the two school reports highlighted above. Rather than be content in reporting the observations of good character development taking place in schools, the risk of Ofsted finally taking an interest in this area of education is that inspectors will simply look to reduce good activity and provision to a set of metrics and indicators.

 

Harford presented that where an explicit focus on ‘character’ or ‘character education’ is missing from the current Ofsted Inspection Handbook, ‘it is nevertheless implied in almost all key judgement areas’. This certainly seems a convenient response at the current time. Harford was speaking at a conference dedicated to character education, so would have to acknowledge the limitations of the current Inspection Handbook in this area. Character education remains a focus for the Department for Education, albeit in a similarly more ‘implied’ way than the explicit focus given to it by Nicky Morgan (2014-2016), but is what Harford says about character being ‘implied’ in the current Handbook good or bad? Does it give inspectors licence to highlight and praise good and outstanding provision, as with UoBS and Kings Langley? Or does it risk the opposite, with inspectors reporting on character provision whether it exists in schools or not?

 

What Harford did do in his presentation was to ask the question of delegates (made up largely teachers, academics, and those with some stake in mainstream schooling) ‘is it desirable to measure character?’ With metrics on attainment, league tables, free school meals, Pupil Premium, and attendance having dominated Ofsted inspections and reports for years, such a question seems somewhat refreshing. For the National Director, Education to ask a group of (largely) practitioners, and for the slides to be made public on social media suggests that Ofsted are willing to engage in ways to evaluate or assess character provision in schools, something that the Jubilee Centre has advocated for some time. Equally, asking if a more explicit focus to character ‘should’ be present in the revised Ofsted Inspection Handbook due in 2019 again suggests willingness from Ofsted to move with education and not to limit inspections to performance metrics and attainment.

 

This turn to character is something to be encouraged and embraced, and is something we at the Jubilee Centre hope to continue to have input to.

Aidan Thompson is the Director of Strategy and Integration at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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