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Editor’s blog: It’s time to scrap the one word Ofsted ratings

Its acronym alone can strike fear into the heart of the average teacher.

I speak of Ofsted of course – the school inspection regime for England.

The system – widely hated by teachers – is being reviewed after headteacher Ruth Perry took her own life shortly after inspection into the leadership and management of her school was dubbed ‘Inadequate’ – Ofsted’s harshest rating following errors with safeguarding training. The school had previously been rated ‘Outstanding’ and a few months after she took her life it was lifted back up to ‘Good’.

An inquest later this month will review the specific circumstances of her death but a wider enquiry into Ofsted by MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee began in October. It was launched amid concern that the one-word ratings that Ofsted gives to schools may not be conducive to helping schools improve and in the most serious cases cause significant harm to the mental health of people working in schools.

The inquiry is reviewing whether the added workload of preparing for an Ofsted inspection is detrimental to the wellbeing of teachers and school leaders.

The Houses of Parliament
A Education Select Committee is reviewing the potential reform of Ofsted inspections.

Lord Jim Knight, a former schools minister in the Blair government, couldn’t have been clearer in his belief.

He commented: “We have a whole system that is operating in fear and in stress. Once the Ofsted window opens – that they are going to be inspected in the next couple of years – that massively skews the behaviour of everyone in the system, and I think to the detriment of children’s education.”

Also concerning is the evidence that for a significant percentage of schools, a poor rating can leave a school ‘stuck’ – unable to improve – or even deteriorating for years and years.

If the stigma of being a failing school prevents a school from ever improving, there is certainly a vicious circle at play. This comes back to the ‘one word ratings’ and the likelihood that being judged as ‘inadequate’ will deter brighter pupils and more able teachers. On the flip side, schools that have narrowly missed a rating often pass the threshold a year or two later thanks to the Ofsted feedback. It is quite a conundrum!

Do we have to accept some schools aren’t going to make the grade if we are to have high standards? Statistically speaking it’s a certainty as there’s not much value in engineering a situation where everyone can be considered great. The inspectorate does have to be able to give negative judgements but that needs to be balanced with the capacity or ability of the school to improve based on its resources and other socio-demographic factors. It’s no surprise that wealthy areas tend to have more ‘outstanding’ rated schools. Any teacher that has worked in the independent/private sector will tell you that the children aren’t any brighter, they are just enabled and perhaps, more crucially, expected to do more. Ofsted clearly has no power to raise the standards of parents!

A former Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw told the committee he was in favour of scrapping the one word ratings.

Sir Michael, who axed the ‘satisfactory’ rating for ‘requires improvement’ as he felt parents were being falsely reassured, said he had been “a big supporter” of one word ratings but wasn’t anymore.

“They are not giving parents an accurate picture of what’s happening in schools,” he told the committee. 

“It’s providing parents with false comfort.”

He went on: “Ofsted says that nearly 90% of schools are good. That’s nonsense. That’s complete nonsense. Having seen some of the schools judged good over the last few years, I would not say [they] were good.

“When I’ve been into some of these schools and then I’ve seen the [Ofsted] report, I’ve felt like going to Specsavers and getting another pair of glasses because they were not good and it’s giving false comfort to parents.”

Wilshaw also accused Ofsted of moving too far away from data and he said inspection judgments were becoming much more subjective.

“We’ve got the ridiculous position of schools with really low progress scores – minus progress scores – and terrible outcomes getting a good judgement.”

The committee is also considering the remit of Ofsted amid vast differences in school regulation across the UK and the world – with many countries having no school inspection regime.

It has heard that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all had less demanding systems that placed more trust in schools to evaluate their own performance.

Dr Sam Sims, from the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, questioned the ‘doubling up’ occurring under the English system, in other words the inspectorate reviewing schools’ educational performance regardless of exam results.

Dr Sims suggested that the regulator should be more focussed on other performance measures such as safeguarding, extra-curricular achievements and ensuring schools weren’t cutting corners on health and safety and other pastoral matters.

So, with all the evidence we see so far it seems sensible to scrap the one word ratings for something more nuanced, but not too complicated for parents to understand.

What would you do to reform Ofsted?  Share your thoughts with me via nick@euromediaal.com

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