Ofsted’s shifting goalposts have hung schools out to dry

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman was characteristically bullish this week about the inspectorate’s downgrading of hundreds of ‘outstanding’ schools that were previously exempt from inspection.

“The exemption was a policy founded on the hope that high standards, once achieved, would never drop, and that freedom from inspection might drive them even higher. These outcomes show that removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better,” she declared.

For good measure Ofsted’s press release reminded us that some of the schools concerned were last inspected as long as 15 years ago.

Who could possibly disagree then with the return of the inspectors to shine a light on how a school is doing now after such a long interval?

After all, it is likely to have a new leader, set of teachers, and governors.

But let’s also remind ourselves that it was the government that decided on what now seems, at the very least, a rather muddled policy, not the schools concerned.

And that since they were last inspected Ofsted’s framework for making judgements has changed significantly, representing a seismic shift of the goalposts.

It is impossible to know whether or not standards have dropped compared to the framework under which the schools were originally judged because they haven’t been assessed on that basis but under a different one.

Schools, in other words, have been hung out to dry.

Parents and communities may not, however, understand the arcane mechanics of changes in inspection frameworks. After all, they’ve probably got better things to do.

What they will see is their school downgraded with the consequent damage to morale this inevitably causes to all concerned.

To be clear, I am not arguing that the exemption should have remained in place.

But it would have been better if the Chief Inspector had at least acknowledged in her comment that the sands had shifted in the way inspections were conducted.

And all this once again reminds us of the severe shortcomings of the inspection system.

Schools and colleges are too complex to be reduced to a single, blunt descriptor, and doing so is manifestly damaging – and it is this which is at the heart of the problem.

Many of the schools downgraded remain ‘good’ but it still leaves the ridiculous impression that they have been relegated from the Premier League, which is simultaneously upsetting for them and insulting to other ‘good’ schools.

And those which receive ratings which are below good may actually be stigmatised making it harder for them to attract teachers and pupils.

Who does this system help? It certainly isn’t much fun for leaders and teachers, drives people out of the profession, and worsens the teacher supply crisis.

And the consequent teacher shortages also work against the interests of children and families, particularly if their school has a negative Ofsted rating and finds it even more difficult to recruit staff.

So, this week’s customary muddle about formerly exempt ‘outstanding’ schools actually points once again to the underlying problem.

The current system of inspection is broken, and must be reformed in a way that is more sensible, more proportionate, and more supportive.
Posted: 25/11/2022 10:33:36