Why celebrating OFSTED grades is the wrong thing to do
After another wave of celebratory social media posts about just-published OFSTED reports, I felt compelled to write something about it. Not a tweet, because they are always too short, but something to explain why I think, ultimately, this is the wrong thing to do.
First, let me outline the current problems as I see them:
Following the death of Ruth Perry in January, the floodgates opened with thousands coming forward to share their own stories of inspections that, for a multitude of reasons, ended in judgements being made that they felt were wrong. These people who have been wronged can't all be wrong. In September this year, Queen Emma School in Cambridge successfully challenged their own inspection outcome. After originally being graded ‘inadequate’ in 2022, in June 2023 they were upgraded to ‘good’. Other schools are expected to follow this path with NAHT crowdfunding for such action. This feels like the tip of a giant iceberg. A group of headteachers, led by John Bald, has raised £46,000 for the purpose of legal challenge suggesting there will be more to come. In the news just this week, it was revealed that Michaela Community school was graded 'outstanding' despite not offering the ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum that the inspectorate says schools must have to gain that judgement (more on this story here), leading to allegations of political interference in the process. OFSTED themselves have, perhaps predictably, carried out limited research into the effectiveness of their own inspection judgements, but Education DataLabs have exposed many of the various biases inherent in their processes through various blogs.
The basis for judgement
A few people turn up at a given school, enter for two days, and at the end, return an all-encompassing grading of said school. It has always been this with OFSTED inspections.
Can they judge the behaviour of the students in that time effectively? No – behaviour can be better or worse in the two days.
Can they effectively judge the genuine wellbeing of teachers in that time? No – anecdotally, we know so many teachers too scared to fill in ‘anonymous surveys’ about how they feel, even anonymously. Same with inspectors interviewing teachers – it's simply not a valid gauge. Hence why you have so many teachers who work in ‘outstanding schools’ that are utterly toxic.
Can you judge a school's curriculum offer in 2 days? Technically yes, but this is about presentation. How does the school present its curriculum offer to inspectors? This is as much about the actual curriculum content as it is about how the curriculum offer is ‘sold’ to inspectors and whether they accept explanations, reasonings and ideas positively or negatively. The amount of buzz words used can sway a deep dive, the gloss and format of curriculum maps can ‘weave’ those ‘beautiful and powerful threads of knowledge’ (puke in my soup). This comes down to human judgement. It’s why the Premier League introduced VAR – too many ‘howlers’ were causing untold damage to one team or another with no recompense after a game finished for the other. These ‘curriculum conversations' and the study of curriculum documentation can swing an inspection but there’s far too much sway here on a school being able to ‘sell a story’, do the right things, say the right things, and walk away with a premium judgement.
Can you judge a school based on it’s exam performance data? No. You can’t. I’m sorry. Why?
Hereditary and environmental factors are the key indicator when it comes to exam performance (so many sources I would cite on this, but I wrote this blog in 2017 and very recently, had an incredible conversation with Dylan Wiliam, Robert Plomin CBE in this podcast). Why doesn’t the profession talk about this more? Well, for so long, if ‘your results’ are good, your career can be good too. If you ‘win’ this lottery, then putting this down to anything other than your own hard work and skill is just too much to say no to. Equally, if ‘your results’ aren’t very good ‘yet’, then the incentive of the sunny upland of an incredible overall progress 8 score is also very alluring. Once secured, the career opportunities are endless and include lucrative consultancy. Am I too cynical? Probably. But i'm sorry. I’ve seen it.
Covert selection - This is (usually) an informal process whereby an oversubscribed school with an already small maximum capacity carefully selects its students through multiple and varied methods including but not limited to:
Informal conversations with parents to make a judgement on attitude to learning, socio economic status (the ‘best’ students to select for the sake of OFSTED/performance tables are those students classed as Pupil Premium but whose family/background is committed to learning and where politeness/respect are golden – basically, ‘lovely’ children), needs and challenges (informally, we aren’t sure we can cater for your child here etc), starting point (Again, the lower the starting point, the better the attitude, the amount of progress the student could make is astronomical. Worst case scenario – they make little to no progress but can still point to their starting point as reason for this).
Of course, all of the above does not in any way negate the difference a good teacher and school can make, in general, but I’m trying to paint a picture of a system so much more open to manipulation, bias and human error than is widely reported and certainly known by parents, media and politicians.
There’s one danger in all of this, one word that sums up the consequences – injustice.
We haven’t even talked about the pressure, stress, workload and excessive scrutiny that the inspection system drives and/or facilitates here – I don’t have the time. But it’s been well documented and is extensive.
Now, if you disagree with everything written above or doubt the evidence and assertions I've made, then probably stop reading now, continue to celebrate OFSTED grades to the high hills!
However, if you read this and think that some or all of it is absolutely valid – then I’ll move onto why I think the public posting, celebrating, promoting and endorsing of OFSTED grades is wrong on multiple levels. Here is why:
If you agree that the grading system is unreliable and unfair, then your ‘success’ will be someone else's unjust failure. The posting of a ‘great’ OFSTED report will be a bitter and devastating thing for anyone wronged by the system to see. No, this isn’t about low expectations or feeling sorry for people, it’s about justice. It’s about people's lives.
‘But I’m convinced our judgement is accurate?’ - it may well be, and this is a call to sacrifice, to take one for the team, and go silent on OFSTED. I know it’s a hard ask, but the pain some experience in the system because of the inspection system in its current form far outweighs what anyone might feel on passing up promotional opportunities. Just my view.
Every public affirmation of an OFSTED report affirms and endorses the grading system, whether you like it or not.
‘But I want to celebrate what staff/students have done’ - ok, have a party, tell them they are all amazing, but don’t link it to an OFSTED report? Say it’s a happy school party (lol) – staff and students have told us how happy they are so we are going to throw a huge celebration. Send them all cards because you’ve spent years with them and genuinely seen what they have done and continue to do. Do loads. Go all out, for them. OFSTED shouldn’t be the prompt.
I’ve never met a teacher or student who has said ‘I wish there was an OFSTED banner at the front of our school which says outstanding’ or ‘I wish our headteacher would post our OFSTED report on social media’ and so on. Nope, with students I've seen ambivalence, with staff I've seen relief.
The goal is system reform and I believe the most powerful way and perhaps the only way, is if more and more people ‘on the ground’ reject ‘the norm’ that the inspectorate wants and expects.
I’d love to hear your comments on this either on social media or via the blog comments. You can find me @rogershistory on X, Threads and Instagram or drop me a line on the contact form here.