How many are aware of the “Outstanding” schools free pass?

Ofsted caused a Twitter stir this week that reminded me of an accountability issue that I suspect is little known to parents. The tweet highlighted that some schools have not been inspected for a decade because at the last inspection they were judged as “outstanding”.

Under 2012 legislation – the snappily titled Exemption from School Inspection (England) regulations – such schools were exempted from routine exemption unless subject to significant complaint or data provided evidence that there was a decline in outcomes or widening attainment gaps.

Ofsted 1

The tweet was taken as an enthusiastic endorsement of the policy but I am not convinced that it is all that it seems. It factually states what the regulations set down by the DfE are, that Ofsted have no control over. Is the “unless things change” coda an invitation to challenge it? If so, I would whole heartedly agree.

The current policy does not serve parents well as the basis upon which an inspection would be triggered is not transparent and seems to rely on decline becoming obvious before action is taken. The greatest concern on the latter point is that it might be that your child is part of the cohort that suffers the decline in outcomes that triggers what would necessarily be a belated inspection.

I am also concerned that, if it is exam outcomes that are the greatest indicator for Ofsted of the need for an inspection, the context for those results are not considered until intervention is deemed necessary. The Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, has rightly highlighted concerns about schools “off-rolling” pupils so that they don’t adversely affect their accountability measures for example. How would this practice be picked up in an “outstanding” school under the current policy?

What scrutiny would there be of adherence to the promotion of ‘British Values’? How seriously are the school engaging with the community? Is the curriculum as broad as it appears? Are the school’s results reflective of the teaching and learning within the school or, for example, have tutors been engaged by parents? How closely does the final cohort taking exams match the one that started in the school?

Without regular scrutiny of these elements, how can an Ofsted grade be a robust indicator of quality for parents?

There was a further anomaly that we raised in an ensuing Twitter conversation with the admirably open to discussion Sean Harford, the National Director, Education for Ofsted. In response to our question regarding how the policy applied to recently opened free schools, Mr Harford confirmed that the same regulations apply. That means that some schools that were judged “outstanding” at their first inspection are exempt despite having a small percentage of their full population at school at the time. In the case of a secondary school that would mean that the Key Stage 4 (GCSE courses) element of provision has never been inspected as only KS3 would have been running at the time.

Mike Cameron, school governor and knowledgeable education observer, is correct in our exchange that this is unlikely to relate to many schools (42 had been judged “outstanding” by 2015) but it illustrates a serious flaw in the current process.

Schools take different approaches to how they use their “outstanding” judgement in their promotion but over-use of the Ofsted banner causes much comment on social media as does use of the Ofsted badges on communications. It is undoubtedly used as a short hand by some parents for making their choices easier but they should be made aware as a minimum of the context of those judgements. I suggest introducing the requirement to add the date of inspection to any banner badge sanctioned by Ofsted in the first instance to assist parents now.

My preferred direction would be to move to drop the “outstanding” judgement altogether and have good schools and those being supported to become good. Indications are that there is sympathy for this position within Ofsted but, for now, providing parents with a clearer and more high profile understanding of how judgements are maintained would be very welcome.

A final thought on why this policy was introduced in the first place. My assumption was that it was to cut down on Ofsted’s workload, to allow a cut in the number of inspectors and to focus to a greater degree on those schools at risk of a decline in standards. But something else has occurred to me.

It’s a lot easier to have “more good and outstanding schools” if a large number of them are not at any risk of being down graded…


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