Ofsted could do better when it comes to marking schools harshly Institutions coping with the impact of social problems on children are more likely to be found wanting by inspectors
Natalie Perera 17 MINUTES AGO 0 Print this page The writer is chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, a think-tank
Parental alarm spread across England this week, with reports that Ofsted inspectors had found cause to downgrade hundreds of schools after their latest visit — including a number of grammar schools. The reports painted a picture of an educational system in turmoil.
While anxious families ask questions about the quality of their children’s school, leaders of the teaching unions say Ofsted’s findings are “unreliable and invalid”. The inspectorate itself acknowledges that the drop in standards is “concerning” — especially for primary schools — but doesn’t seek to draw more helpful lessons.
As always, there are lots of things happening at once. This means that all three of these perspectives are, to some extent, right.
First, an important reality check: this week’s data is a catch-up on a subset of schools that had not received a graded inspection for over a decade. Policy introduced in 2012 mostly exempted schools rated Outstanding from reinspection. In 2020, this changed. Over the past academic year, Ofsted inspected more than 300 of those previously top-rated schools. The vast majority either retained the Outstanding grade or fell to Good. Around a fifth were deemed either Requiring Improvement or Inadequate.
But the thing to focus on is that, while we don’t want a single school to be less than Good, the number downgraded to below this level is still relatively small. And the long period since the previous inspections made some of it inevitable. This is a necessary correction — my own organisation warned the government in 2016 that Ofsted was not prioritising Outstanding schools for reinspection, even where their performance data was declining. As Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, said, “removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better”.
The fall in the proportion of Outstanding grammar schools has caused upset. Grammars have no overall impact on attainment, as studies, including our own, repeatedly show — academic outcomes are largely down to selective intake. But there’s no reason to panic. Only three previously exempt grammars have been downgraded to less than Good — a much smaller proportion than for non-grammars.
The explanation is Ofsted’s new inspection framework, with its greater focus on curriculum and a better balance of weighing attainment scores with wider features of effective schooling, including wellbeing. It’s only logical to expect some schools rewarded under the old framework not to do as well. What’s more, due to cancelled national exams during the pandemic, inspectors have had incomplete data to go on.
Nonetheless, this is not just Ofsted moving the goalposts. Covid-19 disrupted children’s lives and learning in ways we do not yet fully understand. There has been an increase in diagnosed mental health conditions and a rise in child poverty. Combine that with a decade of real-terms funding cuts to schools and children’s services, and you have a perfect storm for a system struggling to support young people.
And these are high stakes. While an Ofsted verdict may offer useful guidance for some parents, we also know that poorer judgments weigh more heavily on schools serving disadvantaged communities. Not only are they more likely to receive a poor rating, but as a consequence their intake tends to become more disadvantaged and teacher turnover increases, making it harder to improve.
So, is school quality actually declining? In some cases, yes, because educational institutions are asked to deal with so many of society’s problems. But it’s certainly not to the extent that this week’s consternation suggests.
The real focus and energy must be on ensuring that our public services are properly resourced to support children — and that the inspectorate doesn’t punish schools struggling to cope with forces well beyond their control.