Why gradeless Ofsted inspections strangle our future

Our school has moved on from its 'special measures' grade, say Lesley Bishop and Melissa Heppell – we'd like a new one, please
2nd December 2020, 3:32pm
Lesley Bishop and Melissa Heppell

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Why gradeless Ofsted inspections strangle our future

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-gradeless-ofsted-inspections-strangle-our-future
Hands & Arms, With Wrists Bound With Rope, Resting On A Table

We've been due an Ofsted inspection since September 2019. We've been ready for it. We want it. We wanted them to come and see what we'd done and what we'd achieved.

Now, with the announcement that Ofsted is unlikely to return to graded inspections in January, we feel cheated. Ultimately, they have a stranglehold over the future of our students. 

The school that preceded ours was one of the worst in the country. It was absolutely chaotic. Children were running around the corridors during lessons. 

It was lots of fun for them, but they just didn't want to sit down, to behave, to learn. It wasn't a safe environment for education, in any sense. There were no rules, no systems, no structures. The leadership was dreadful, and teachers didn't keep any level of control.

Ofsted placed the school in special measures, and then we reopened as an academy (part of Aspirations Academy Trust) in September 2017. It's a completely different school now: new leadership, new curriculum.

Ofsted: Not the same school it was

We really focused on raising achievement, and we managed it within six months. We're now in one of the most improved schools nationally. In the NPP Fairer School Index, published in November, our pupils' progress was top of the league for Dorset, and in the top 6 per cent nationally. So we're doing something right.

Now, we think we're a "good" or an "outstanding" school. The staff are amazing; we have a very clear vision; there's buy-in from staff, students and the wider community. Behaviour is excellent, and teachers can teach. CPD is quite advanced, and the environment is calm and purposeful.

Our children are proud to be here and they want to learn. You can go out in the town at night, and there will still be children wearing their uniforms. They're proud to be part of the school.

And Covid helped us improve our relationship with the community: we gave all our pupils laptops and phones in March. We made weekly phone calls to parents; we helped to reassure them. 

It's unrecognisable, really: it's not the same school it was. We might as well have built a new school from scratch.

Officially still in special measures

But, officially, we're still tarnished with the "special measures" label that was given to our predecessor school. We feel like we're carrying around a legacy label for a school that doesn't exist any more. We weren't a part of it. How long is that label going to last for? 

We're perceived by the wider community as "the special measures school". Even though the results of our school say otherwise, our students are perceived as, "Oh, you've come from that school." They haven't got the badge that says: our school has been recognised as a "good" school or an "outstanding" school. That's the hold Ofsted has over us.

When our students go into the world of post-16 provision, they are judged by other schools. They have to overcome that social stigma. They have something to prove: they really need to hold their own through their character and their self-worth. 

You can destroy a reputation quite quickly. Communities can be destroyed by labels. It affects everything: jobs, house prices. When we're still the school that's in special measures, how do we move on? 

The stranglehold Ofsted has on schools

That stranglehold Ofsted has on schools can incorrectly influence parents' views of a school. Our label of "special measures" isn't a realistic view of where we are now, yet that's the belief that's held.

We don't fear Ofsted: we want them to see what we've done. But we also want to get that recognition of a new grade. What's the purpose of an Ofsted visit without grades? To check everything's OK? We have internal monitoring procedures for that. 

We need that grade change to put us on the map - to put us on a level playing field with our peers in Dorset. 

Our local community has trusted us, without any external agencies to tell them it's OK. But we want to keep that trust. We want the community to be able to feel that they made the right decision - that they've backed the right horse. 

It's not just schools in special measures - everybody needs to be held to account. With gradeless inspections, "outstanding" and "good" schools will remain "outstanding" and "good", even if they're not. 

The current Ofsted inspection framework is outdated and expensive. So what is the alternative?

Healthy accountability is important, but we need to create a system where feedback is relished and not feared. Mutual accountability and support are greater drivers of school improvement than any top-down scrutiny. 

An Ofsted inspection with no grade may be more detrimental than one with a grade because, any time you change a system, there are casualties. Obviously, we may well end up a casualty of this new change.

Worse, we believe this can have a negative impact on the life chances of some of the pupils living here. They've made so much progress, but the perception still remains that they've come from a school in special measures.

Lesley Bishop and Melissa Heppell are principal for secondary and principal for primary at Atlantic Academy in Dorset

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