Ofsted outstanding schools downgraded – Are Ofsted’s re-inspections fair?

photo of besuited man inspecting a plain surface with a magnifying glass, representing Ofsted outstanding schools downgraded

Inspections for previously Outstanding schools may be long overdue, but Ofsted aren’t comparing like with like, argues Paul Buckland

Paul Buckland
by Paul Buckland

As the head of an Outstanding school that had been exempt from routine inspection since 2009, I welcomed the decision in 2020 to treat my school the same as any other under the new Ofsted Inspection Framework.

Those 10 years without inspection represented a long span of time. The school had made numerous changes, including my appointment. I was proud of the school, and felt confident that we would again be recognised as Outstanding.

Frustrated and bewildered

Amanda Spielman’s recent pronouncements about the impact of the EIF on schools like mine makes me very glad that I retired in 2022, before the call came. Yet her words also left me frustrated and bewildered.

Confronted with her clumsy contortion of the relevant facts and data, I was reminded of Mark Twain’s comments around ‘Lies, damned lies, and statistics.‘ For any readers who missed what she said, Spielman’s comments appeared in a November 2022 release by Ofsted, entitled ‘A return to inspection: the story (so far) of previously exempt outstanding schools.’

The ‘story’ it told was that over 80% (308) of schools previously rated Outstanding hadn’t retained said rating when given a graded inspection within the past year. Instead, Ofsted judged the majority to be Good. It rated 17% as Requires Improvement, and 4% Inadequate.

Now, is it just me, or is that ‘so far’ in the report’s title rather ominous?

All or nothing

Based this data, Spielman’s verdict was that “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.”

Sounds reasonable? If they’d used the same criteria it would be. Under the older School Inspection Framework (SIF), Ofsted used a ‘best fit’ methodology to draw its conclusions. Inspectors used their professional judgement to reach grades.

Under the newer EIF, that’s been replaced with an ‘all or nothing’ approach to the Outstanding judgement. Schools must now first meet all the criteria for a Good judgement. They must then fulfil a further set of specific ‘Outstanding’ requirements to be recognised as such.

HMCI’s comments remind me of the old adage about comparing apples and oranges. There will inevitably be a high likelihood of different outcomes for schools being judged years later under very different criteria. This doesn’t necessarily make them any ‘better’ or ‘worse’ – just rated differently under a wholly separate assessment system.

Cheap shot

I would argue that it’s time for someone else to take over as HMCI and run Ofsted as an organisation that actually lives up to its professed aims: “To bring about improvement in education provision [so that] providers can learn intelligently from the judgements made.

The resulting reputational damage to those schools that have been downgraded, and the implied criticism of those yet to be visited, isn’t acceptable. While I can accept that some schools may have lost ground over time, the sweeping generalisation is a cheap shot. Moreover, how can ‘providers learn intelligently’ from such methodology?

HMCI also omits to mention that the ‘immunity from inspection’ policy was largely conceived as a cost-saving exercise. This is rather than one driven by high-minded optimism that Outstanding schools would improve without inspection.

An acknowledgment of this mistake made ten years ago, and some recognition of the changed context around inspection would perhaps have been more conducive to ‘providers learning from a force for improvement’.

Whoever eventually succeeds Ms Spielman as HMCI must approach the role with a better understanding of how Ofsted’s judgements impact upon leaders, staff and other stakeholders.

Of course, the best interests of children ought to remain at the heart of inspection. But there also needs to be an acknowledgement that if schools and Ofsted are to work together successfully, honesty and transparency must accompany all pronouncements from on high.

Paul Buckland is a recently retired secondary headteacher

You might also be interested in...