Ofsted Grades: The Good, The Bad and The Outstanding

Before Amanda Spielman took up the post of Chief Inspector, there were rumours she had plans to shake things up a bit. One example was her views about the “Oustanding” judgement. She told the Commons Education Select Committee, “I’m quite uncomfortable about some of the effects you see it [the grade] having in the system, I have to say.” However, since taking up the post in January 2017, little more has been said about the matter of Ofsted grades – until now. “Ofsted is buzzing with rumours that the grading system for schools is about be scrapped and replaced with pass-or-fail inspections” wrote Schools Week at the end of last month.  If this is true, it will be one of the most positive and significant changes that’s ever been made to the Ofsted framework. The system of grading schools is clunky, outdated and in desperate need of reform to the point that we’ve recently seen schools take Ofsted to court over their judgements, and win. Here’s why these grades need to be scrapped.

1. The problem with Outstanding

I’ve been through two “Good to Outstanding” Ofsted inspections in my career to date and whenever I think back on them I am reminded of this cartoon:

Who's a good boy?

Because let’s face it, we know Ofsted is flawed. We know that schools are more likely to be judged to be Good or Outstanding if they are in affluent areas. We know that primary schools with high numbers of children on free school meals are only half as likely as those with lower numbers of pupils on FSM to be judged outstanding (11% compared with 25% respectively.) We know that Infant Schools are three times as likely to be outstanding than Junior schools because their end of Key Stage data is teacher assessed rather than an externally marked test. We know all of this. It is the basis of much of our cynicism about the Ofsted process.  And yet, if the time comes that our own school is judged to be Outstanding our cynicism is forgotten as we break out the champagne cava left over from the Christmas party, clear a space on the wall for the letter from the Education Secretary and roll out the over-sized PVC banners (please Head Teachers, I know you’re proud but enough with the ridiculous banners.)

And who can blame us? An Outstanding judgement is great news for a school. Following the judgement it’s likely you’ll become oversubscribed. If you’ve previously been struggling to attract pupils you may quickly find yourself at capacity. Well-heeled, middle class parents will go to great lengths to get their child into your Outstanding school going as far as temporarily moving to a house within the catchment area or, should you be a faith school, making a rapid conversion to Christianity. You’ll find it easier to recruit staff and you’ll be inundated with requests from other schools to come and visit in the hope of being able to “magpie” some ideas. The perks don’t end there.

“That’ll shut the parents up for while, we’ve just added a few grand to the value of their houses.” one head teacher told me knowingly, the day we received our Outstanding rating from Ofsted. She wasn’t wrong: within London at least, being in the catchment area of an Outstanding school can add an average of 80K to the value of your property – (estate agents LOVE Ofsted grades.) Such is the power of these judgments.

But the best thing about receiving an Outstanding judgement is that Ofsted then pretty much leave you alone. In 2011, the government introduced a policy that exempts Outstanding schools from further inspection as long as they maintain their performance. This has its own problems. It means there are some schools that haven’t been inspected for over a decade. Which means they haven’t been inspected since the new curriculum was introduced, or the new assessments. It means a head teacher could take over what they believe to be an Outstanding school only to find the reality is very different. Which leads me to another snag with the Outstanding judgement: it can put off potential headteachers. After all there is only one way an Outstanding school can go and no head teacher wants to be the person that “lost the Outstanding.”

However, whatever downside there is to the Outstanding judgement, they are nothing compared to the damage done by the dreaded RI.

2. The problem with Requires Improvement

It is my opinion that one of the most damaging changes made to the Ofsted framework was changing the “Satisfactory” judgement to “Requires Improvement.” Think about what that word, satisfactory, for a moment.

Satisfactory: fulfilling expectations or needs; acceptable.

A satisfactory judgement meant just that: this school provides an acceptable standard education to its pupils. In 2012, it was decided that satisfactory was unsatisfactory and that all schools should be striving to be good or better. A noble intention indeed. But this wasn’t just a discussion about semantics. It was announced that schools will only be allowed to stay as RI for three years – after which they would be subject to regular re-inspections every 12 to 18 months. Every 12 to 18 months: every other school year.

Trying to improve a school with an inspection every other year is like trying to fix a leaking pipe with someone interrupting every two minutes to say, “Is the pipe fixed yet? How much progress have you made towards fixing the pipe? Why isn’t it fixed yet? What are you going net to fix it?” A report in 2017 found that the proportion of schools that had “recovered” from a Requires Improvement was the lowest on record and that doesn’t surprise me. That RI label makes it harder to recruit staff and, because of the endless pressure of regular inspections, makes it much harder to retain the staff you have. The NAHT Recruitment Survey conducted in 2016 found that schools judged Requires Improvement or Inadequate found it significantly harder to recruit staff. This then becomes a vicious cycle because those schools need the most skilled and effective teachers if they are going to improve. The label of “RI” may actually be holding the school back from being able to do the things it needs to do to improve.

Ofsted recruitmentWhich leads to my next point. Having worked in a Requires Improvement school I have seen how difficult it is to make real, meaningful change in such a short window of time. It takes more than 12 months to make proper, lasting change and the threat of bi-annual inspections mean you end up spending most of your time trying to collect evidence that your school is improving rather than putting your time and energy into the things you need to do to actually improve. We knew why our school required improvement and we were very clear on the areas that needed work, however the one thing we really needed is the one thing you’re no longer given under the current inspection framework: time.

3. Removing grades lowers the stakes

Anyone who was teaching in the days when individual lessons were graded as part of an inspection or performance management will know how that one grade will overshadow any feedback. You’d sit listening to the observer talk thinking, “Yep, that’s all great, but what was the grade?” It was a ineffective system that treated trained professionals like children and scrapping it has been entirely positive. Now, feedback after an observation becomes a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson; there’s no judgement, no label, just some things to consider and work on. It’s more professional and more meaningful.

If Ofsted were to stop grading schools, then inspections would no longer be such a high-stake process. If you knew there was no threat of academisation, or the head teacher losing their job or the humiliation of being “downgraded” at the end of it then the whole process would be far less threatening.  If at the end of the day you were left with a list of strengths and weaknesses that, let’s face it, as a school you would already have been aware of, then inspection would no longer be something to be feared.

This is still a long way off but the fact this conversation is even happening suggests Amanda Spielman is listening and understands the need for reform.

 

The Perfect Chief Inspector

hiring

This week applications opened for the new Chief Inspector of HMCI. If you’re interested you, and you’re not like Michael Wilshaw, you can apply here. I can’t help but think if we were more creative in our recruitment methods we might have greater success. So I’ve taken a leaf out of Jane and Michael Banks’ book (yes, the children from Mary Poppins) and I’ve written a short song…

Wanted: A chief inspector

If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition
Good ideas, a good sport
Work well, with all sorts.

You must be kind, you must be clever
And in time you should endeavour
To take on the government, give us hope
Help the teachers cope.

Never be mad or cruel,
Never forget the pressure put on schools.
Respect the teaching profession,
And end this data obsession.

If you will judge and intimidate us
Continue to undermine our status
We won’t teach your curriculum
Or play your games,
We’ll leave our jobs
For sunnier plains
Good luck, new chief!
All the best,
One more thing,
(Scrap these ridiculous tests.)

Twas The Night Before Ofsted

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In the penultimate week of the Autumn term 2014 we received The Call. You know, from Ofsted. As I’m sure you can imagine/know first hand – the 24 hours between getting the call and Ofsted arriving are the most intense, hysterical and exhausting you’ll ever experience when working in a school. Moods swing unpredictably between anxious and stressed to hysterical and giddy; before my first Ofsted inspection in 2011 I had a light-saber battle with the head teacher (using rolls of backing paper because light-sabers aren’t allowed in schools.)

I digress. The first thing a school has to decide is how  and when to tell the staff. Ideally this is done as soon as possible to give everyone maximum time to prepare. This normally involves putting all the children into the hall for a “surprise assembly” and calling everyone to the staffroom ASAP. Phone calls are made to loved ones, childcare arrangements are made and various takeaways are ordered. Perhaps the only enjoyable aspect of those 24 hours is the “Blitz spirit” that takes hold. Parents, partners and friends turn up to help tidy book corners, prepare resources and make coffee; all differences and niggles are put aside as everyone pulls together for the sake of the school.

As you can imagine I had a lot to do in the 24 hours between “The Call” and “The Inspection” but for some reason ( I blame the aforementioned “giddiness”) before planning my lessons or preparing for my interview I decided to write this poem which I shared with the staff over fish and chips that night.

I would like to dedicate this post to all the lovely staff at that school who were, and continue to be, outstanding in every way.

‘Twas The Night Before Ofsted

‘Twas the night before Ofsted, and in every room,

Was a feeling that they’d be arriving quite soon.

The SEF is submitted, the lessons are planned,

The result undecided as we prepare our hand.

 –

The Tracker is ready, the Raise is all green,

The Learning Environments are a sight to be seen.

Fish and chips are consumed as we hash out our days,

That’ll show we’re outstanding, in so many ways!

 –

Paper on everything; tables, desk, floor,

Don’t worry about pens we’ve ordered some more.

Next-steps and targets are ready to go,

But secretly I’m praying for quite heavy snow.

 –

Will the inspectors be kind, good natured and human?

Will they be warm in the interview with myself and Miss Newman?

Will they recognise all of the good we do here?

And will they be sweetened by our Christmas cheer?

 –

They can’t fail to see how brilliant we are,

The children will wow them; they’re all superstars,

Our school is outstanding we all know it’s true.

If you can’t see that Ofsted, then no presents for you.

Dear Job…

miss brown

Dear Job.

I like you a lot. You challenge me, motivate me and reward me. We’ve been together 6 years now and have shared some very special times. Because of you I’ve taught children to read, write, count and think. I have boxes upon boxes of thank you cards. Some from parents with beautifully written messages inside but most are drawings of me with three eyes and blue hair – I love them all.

Job you’ve made me a better person. I’m more patient, harder working and stronger than I was when we first got together. You’ve made me resilient. I can now sit in meetings about unspeakably horrible cases of child abuse and not even wince, let alone cry.

Without you Job, I would never have met so many of my closest friends or my future husband. You introduced me to politics and made me realise it was too important to be ambivalent about. It was because of you I went on my first rally.

I’ve learnt to speak publically, sung dozens of songs, ran clubs, written plays, stories and poems, dressed as a fish, dressed as a bear and baked a lot. I’ve learnt how to plot linear equations, play tag rugby and use a semi-colon. Job – all of these were opportunities you gave me. I am so grateful.

I’ve been the cause and the cure for tears. I’ve had thousands of children sing happy birthday to me. I’ve had the pleasure of watching 30 children see a baby chick hatch from an egg. I’ve watched light bulb moments and seen the frustration when a child just doesn’t “get it.”

Job at this point I also want to say thank you for the holidays.

However Job, there are some things you do that I don’t like. I don’t like that we spend 12 hours a day together and I really don’t like that you follow me home. I don’t like that you leave me with just 4 waking hours each day to spend time with my husband-to-be or to see my lovely friends and family. I don’t like that you constantly make me doubt myself and question whether I’m doing enough. I hate that no matter how hard I work the lives of the children I teach don’t seem to get any better. I resent that I spend most of the year grey and exhausted. If I’m honest Job – you’re becoming impossible.

I eagerly await your response.

 

 

 

Life After SATs

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Life After SATs

This morning office doors were closed,

Coffee poured and papers shuffled.

Teachers ushered into rooms,

Whispered tones hushed and muffled.

For months we drilled the children

In SPaG and maths and reading

We went over complex sentences

Until our hair lines were receding

So we’re crunching all the numbers

And looking at the stats

To answer the big question:

Have they done well in their SATS?

Did Amar do enough,

To keep Ofsted from the door?

He was Level Two in KS1

So now he must be Four.

Did Andrew check his answers?

Did Kayleigh take her time?

Did Shreya understand

Why the poet wrote in rhyme?

Did they listen in our lessons?

Did they remember all our tricks?

To answer enough questions

To get a Level Six?

We’re proud of them, of course we are

They really did their best

But think of all the things they’ve missed

For this statutory test.

All the playdates that were cancelled

All the trips they didn’t take

All the drama they’ve missed out on

All the things they didn’t make

The children must be overjoyed

For what could matter more?

Than knowing enough answers

To get a Level Four.

If the results were not for Ofsted

And the political fat cats

We could teach them what they really need

For life after The SATs