I recently witnessed a discussion on Twitter where one teacher disclosed that her school’s most recent Ofsted inspection hadn’t gone well. Many observers were surprised that when an assistant principal of a wildly successful “outstanding” school asked her “if she had visited a school whose leadership team are getting it right”.
I thought I’d click through and read the report about this outstanding school. Low and behold, on the opening page of the report it tells me that the school has “well below the national average in pupil premium students” and almost no EAL students in the entire “above average-size” school.
Further reading on this school's website reveals that only 114 (2016) of the school’s 1,253 students are pupil premium. That’s around 10 per cent. Meanwhile, a school in one of the most deprived areas of London, with 66.7 per cent of its students eligible for pupil premium, receives an Ofsted "inadequate" judgement. There are so many mentions of the performance of “disadvantaged” students in the outcomes section of its Ofsted report that I couldn’t count.
A key point in the report is as follows: “The use made of the pupil premium funding has not had a good enough impact on outcomes for disadvantaged most-able pupils.” Is this fair?
Not taken into account
It is more difficult for schools with more disadvantaged students. It is less likely students in these schools will be able to afford extra tutoring, get the parental support they need and turn up to school with the right mindset to learn.
When measuring schools using the pupil premium, none of this is taken into account. None of it.
Disadvantaged students are officially only disadvantaged financially. There is no account taken for other, less quantifiable side effects of this disadvantage.
I’ve written before that I believe “values poverty” is as big, if not an even bigger issue than financial poverty. There is, as of 2017, no official space for that in our school accountability structures.
The fact Ofsted judgements do not take into account the challenges of schools in deprived areas is borne out in its gradings of grammar schools, which have on average fewer than 3 per cent of students on free school meals compared to 17 per cent nationally. Eighty-two per cent of selective schools were rated "outstanding" as of August 2016, compared to slightly more than 20 per cent of all state schools.
I’m not sure what the numbers are for the 20 per cent of state schools rated "outstanding", but I’d hasten to add that the school profiles of many will contain “below average” numbers of disadvantaged students.
The seeming bias of Ofsted judgements doesn’t end there. Two free schools based in London with cohorts of fewer than 400 in the entire school were rated "outstanding" recently. I know some will disagree with me on this, but I feel that it’s much easier to manage a school containing a quarter of the number of students as another.
The reasons I give for that are three fold. First, behaviour. It’s much easier to contain and control the behaviour of a smaller number of children. There are fewer crowded corridors, fewer incidences to log and follow up and more scope to give attention to each pupil. Second, it's much easier to target students for intervention and to be able to do that quicker. Third, it's much easier to manage staff timetables and curriculum with fewer blocks to juggle.
Above all else, staff know individual students much better given smaller numbers.
So why do Ofsted judgements assess schools with more than 1,000 students in exactly the same way as those with significantly less? Again, this seems grossly unfair and literally disproportionate.
Further to this, in light of Amanda Spielman's recent speech about putting curriculum at the centre of inspection, schools can expect Ofsted judgements based on their curriculum plans.
A free school in Newcastle, the tagline for which is “an alternative to traditional school”, was recently rated “inadequate” by the inspectorate for “a curriculum that fails to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain”. This is a school with a special focus on maths, engineering, technology and design. It’s a school that sets itself up as providing jobs in a sector that doesn’t have enough employees: engineering. It controversially omits the humanities, foreign languages, art and PE from its offering.
I know of another free school, in the south of England, that omits arts subjects from parts of its curriculum, but is much more in line with EBacc requirements. It received an "outstanding" rating with specific reference to the “wide range of subjects it offers”.
Perhaps some would argue that Ofsted only wants schools to reflect the current status quo on curriculum thinking (eg. Michael Gove’s reforms). Nevertheless, this raises questions about what curriculum omissions are acceptable.
This weekend’s Durand Academy judgment in the High Court could be a watershed moment. The High Court agreed that Ofsted’s appeals procedure isn’t right.
In 2015-16, not one school managed to overturn its Ofsted rating on appeal. If I were a school leader on the wrong end of an Ofsted judgement right now, I would be seriously considering legal options. Not only because of the High Court judgment, but also because of the glaring inequalities present in our inspection system. These biases should not be ignored.
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