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How NOT to choose a school! The unreliability of Ofsted

It has become a commonplace view that Ofsted judgements cannot be relied upon to be an accurate view of a school - several recent articles in the press have raised the issue and there is growing pressure for the system to change. How we have arrived at a system where the inspectorate is the primary driver of what goes on in schools and where an entire industry has been developed to support schools to get good grades on inspection, rather than to improve the education of children, is for another post! Suffice to say that Ofsted reports are not a reliable way to choose a school, particularly if your child has additional needs.


I speak best from personal experience. Following an Ofsted inspection in March 22 I wrote the following account and circulated it to staff, parents and governors. It clearly indicates why, whatever the school, Ofsted judgements cannot be trusted:


"This is a good school".  What is it about these 5 words that are so important?  Why would a parent want to send their child to a school that wasn't "good"?  Why would anyone want to work in a school which wasn't "good"?  How could a community be proud of such a school?


We were inspected recently and judged to be "Good" in all areas except the grade-limiting "Quality of Education" judgement.  That judgement is a best fit across "Intent", "Implementation" and "Impact" of the curriculum.  We were told that we have a highly ambitious curriculum for all our students, but the impact is yet to be sufficiently seen across everyone.  Our students' behaviour and attitudes are good, their personal development is very close to outstanding and the leadership and management of the school is good, but not enough curriculum impact is yet seen.  The knife-edge of "good" shatters us.  All the comments from the inspection team that we are doing everything right, that we have made good progress on a journey, that the report will be very positive, are redundant - in the eyes of our community and the wider world we are "not yet good".    


The criticisms of the inspection process always come from those who have failed to make the grade so they always sound like "sour grapes" and can be dismissed as "excuses for failure".  It is a symptom of the tyranny of the inspection process that those who "succeed" celebrate and breathe sighs of relief while those who "fail" quietly lick their wounds and regroup - they rage and weep in private in case what they say may damage their chances of success in future.  The gut-wrenching feeling that you may not be doing enough for your students, that you may be letting young people down in some way reduces the best people to tears, to leaving the profession, to mental illness.  These are the people that we most want to work with our young people - they care.


So I am calling it out for the flawed process that it is. 


It is important to recognise that this is not about the particular inspection team that we had - I have no complaints about their behaviour towards us or our students.  I have nothing against inspection - we spend public money so the public are entitled to hold us accountable for the use of that funding.  This is about the inspection process itself.  


We are a really good school.  We are truly comprehensive with a full distribution of academic ability.  One of our defining characteristics is the number of our students who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).  We are recommended by parents with SEND, by people from the local authority, by social media networks, by anyone who has a child with SEND who wants them to be educated in mainstream.  We also have a very high number of students who are “in care” – they aren’t supposed to be educated in schools that are less than “good”, but we are always told that we are the best place for them.  We are known locally and nationally as a highly inclusive school.  The thought then strikes me - what if the presence of all these children with additional needs is to the detriment of the education of others?  From 2018 to 2020 we undertook a 2-year, rigorous, research-based project to develop our approach to teaching and learning - our toolkit for "Brilliant Teaching in an Inclusive Classroom" and embedded it.  We coupled that with strong relationships and a reviewed behaviour system and during the recent inspection Ofsted found no disruption to learning going on at all.  Ofsted found that our curriculum was highly aspirational and challenging and that our expectations of all students were very high. So our students are not disadvantaged in any way by the presence of lots of students with additional needs.


So why are we "not yet good"?  


Inspection is not an objective process. It claims to be so, but it isn't. It depends upon the team of inspectors. Legitimate professional discussions become criticisms if the inspector does not agree: the relative emphasis placed on fictional as opposed to academic texts becomes a point to influence judgement rather than a professional dialogue; detailed work on question level analysis becomes either a focus on essential key skills or a distraction from progress; a student's reluctance to engage with an inspector becomes rudeness if misunderstood; a legitimate discussion about the selection of teaching activities becomes a reason to criticise curriculum implementation. 


Inspection is too swift a snapshot. The speed at which everything is done means that single examples are generalised to influence judgements. One assessment found in one group that was given too early is used to mean that assessment is flawed; one example of a student with severe mental health needs overheard using derogatory language outside becomes evidence of tolerance of discrimination; only low ability students being interviewed in one subject results in a skewed view of progress; a small number of SEND students completing a task quickly becomes a negative conclusion about provision for SEND students in general. 


Inspection judges social context. A small number of students, chosen at random and asked as a group if they like reading look embarrassed and say no, not really; students admit to using inappropriate terms amongst themselves whilst knowing it is wrong and accepting that they are always picked up on it when heard in school. These are used to say that we can't be good or outstanding. These are judgements on social context, not on our education of young people. 


Inspection has an illusion of transparency. The headteacher is kept in touch with the inspection and is asked about anything that looks like we might be really failing. If things are basically going ok it is not until the final team meeting that you hear each criteria examined and exceptions brought out so that the criteria are not "fully met". At that stage you can hear, but not speak - the disproportionate weight given to single events means that criteria are not fully met and you are not permitted to contest them with any form of evidence. The inspectors say "we can only judge what we have seen" and as both the seeing and the judging are flawed processes then the results become unreliable. You can only listen in disbelief and pain.


So we are "not yet good" - we still "require improvement".  Our parents and carers do not send their children to a good school.  What?!  We are a really good school.  I am not arguing that we are "outstanding" yet (except in personal development), but the lead inspector was clear that we are doing everything right and that we just need to keep going.  It was just that we had not demonstrated the curriculum impact fully yet.  On the current "best fit" model that merits a good judgement.  


So what next? In order to be "good", it would be sensible to have an action plan which said 

  • Get rid of most students with SEND - bar the door to them, don't answer the phone, don't let them in.  Destroy our reputation for inclusion and support so that we get just a small number of SEND that we can easily focus on.  Keep out vulnerable and "difficult" young people at all costs;

  • Re-brand the school as being highly and exclusively focused on "academic standards" and swiftly remove any students who don't meet our "standards".  Recommend that anyone who can't keep up with the academic pressure and isn't very well supported at home goes to another school;

  • Make sure that all our intake are good at reading and come from homes with lots of books and strong support from families.

Not while I am still breathing.  We keep doing what is right.  We have developed a rigorous intelligent model of education for all - our "Brilliant T&L toolkit".  We don't tolerate disruption or aggression.  We are kind, safe, supportive and fantastically caring of young people and families (and that was clearly articulated to Ofsted by our students).  Our “destinations” data is amazing - students leave here and progress securely into further education and training. We like children, relate well to them and have a sense of humour.  We recruit brilliant, relationship-focused, knowledgeable, committed staff and we trust them to do the very best for our students.  We focus on professional development as the way in which we all improve.  We are a calm, kind, respectful, supportive community - a point of stability and hope for those who are lucky enough to send their children to our school.  We must remember that the purpose of a school is to educate and care for young people, especially supporting those who find learning hardest.  It is not our primary purpose to get good Ofsted grades – that should follow, but it is not our primary focus.  The young people come first, staff come second and Ofsted grades ….well they matter, but nowhere near as much. 


But we still aren't "good" - and that hurts.  It shouldn't do, but it really does....


So don't trust Ofsted reports when choosing a school for your child.


As always I am happy to discuss these issues with anyone and to support any families in their work with their child's secondary school. Please see www.findingcommonground.org.uk for details.


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