Ofsted should champion disadvantaged schools – not penalise them

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

The new Chief Inspector Sir Martyn Oliver has rapidly implemented changes during inspections to improve the focus on staff wellbeing. We welcome this. It is an important and overdue step. 

But nothing changes the fact that inspections themselves continue to be a high-stakes nightmare for far too many school and college leaders.

It is not only the inspection that drives this stress and anxiety but the cycle of weekly dread about when and whether the Ofsted call may come. 

No sensible accountability system can continue to operate in this way – damaging the wellbeing of staff, driving people out of the profession, and stigmatising the schools and colleges which most need support.

Sir Martyn has recognised that there is much more work to do, but the scale of that challenge was set out in detail this week in a report from MPs on the House of Commons Education Committee. 

Much of the resulting press coverage understandably focused on a key recommendation that the government and Ofsted should develop – as a priority – an alternative to graded judgements that better captures the complex nature of a school’s performance.

That is absolutely right. This must happen – as we have said on many occasions. 

Virtually everybody, including parents, agrees that graded judgements are brutal, reductive and counterproductive. The government seems increasingly isolated and out of touch in its dogged determination to continue with them.
However, the cross-party committee highlighted other significant problems which were less well reported. Here at ASCL, we think they warrant greater attention. 

The report included concerns that Ofsted does not sufficiently take a school’s context into account, in particular the numbers of disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND. The committee reported: “Many written submissions expressed this view, stating that in consequence schools with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils were ‘unfairly’ penalised by Ofsted and that it was ‘disproportionately difficult’ for schools serving disadvantaged communities to receive an outstanding judgement.”

The MPs recognised that the 2019 inspection framework aimed to improve the situation by moving away from outcome data “but there still remains a clear link between disadvantage and negative Ofsted grades.”

Their report recommends that:

Ofsted must ensure that inspectors are fully taking a school’s size and context into account in reports and judgements, in particular the numbers of pupils from disadvantaged groups and those with SEND, and other relevant factors such as recruitment and retention challenges. It must ensure that these factors are clearly described and visible in the final report.

It is an excellent point. We need all parts of the education system to encourage people to work in and lead schools in areas of high disadvantage and with large numbers of children with SEND. 

This is how we can ensure that these schools have the staffing capacity they need to do a job that is essential to improving social equity and justice, to ensuring that every child can reach their full potential whatever their starting point or context. 

It ought to be a government priority.

And it is absolute folly to have an accountability system which actively penalises the people who work in these schools. Yet that often seems to be where we’ve ended up, not just in terms of the inspection system but also in the perverse mechanics of performance tables. 

Negative judgements and negative scores serve only to make it more difficult for these schools to recruit and retain the staff they need to secure improvement, as well as demoralising the staff who remain, and the pupils, parents and communities they serve. It is a miserable and remorseless cycle from which it can be very difficult to escape.

Added into this mix is the wider national problem of exceptionally difficult circumstances with the recruitment and retention of staff in general. Only 50% of the postgraduate teacher training target in secondary subjects has been achieved this year. Indeed, the secondary target has not been met since 2012/13, except for a Covid-related upturn in 2020/21. And the figures in many individual subjects are a disaster – only 16% of the target for business studies, 17% for physics, 27% for design and technology and the same for music, 33% for modern foreign languages, 36% for computing, and so on.

In schools stigmatised by the accountability system, it proves to be even harder to recruit a physics or maths teacher than it is in other schools, and much easier to fall foul of an Ofsted inspection or a set of performance metrics when you do not have key specialist teachers in post. 

So, yes, it is good to see this recognition from the education committee that a sensible accountability system must take context and circumstances into account. And good to see it say that inspection judgements should be capable of reflecting where there are systemic pressures that are affecting a school’s ability to deliver its curriculum. 

Because, frankly, the government has got off the hook for far too long. 

An independent inspection system must have the guts to call out the lack of resources which hamper schools and colleges. Because those failings – which are government failings – are just as important to performance as the work of leaders and their staff. This is at the heart of the inspection downfall and the deep-rooted perception of unfairness – the feeling that you are being judged on factors that are not only outside your control but made worse by the act of inspection and the negative consequences which flow from that inspection. 

Inspections must, of course, hold to account all those with responsibility for children’s education. But because context – place and circumstances – seems to matter too little, inspection in its current form seems to impact negatively far too much.

It’s time to change that, if we really want to improve our education system.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.

Posted: 02/02/2024 09:15:42