'It time to scrap catch-all Ofsted grades altogether - not merely "outstanding"'

Schools are complex, complicated places with a variety of strengths and weaknesses that a single grade can often mask, writes one heads' leader

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The incoming chief inspector’s comments that she might be prepared to review the use of the outstanding grade for Ofsted judgements is a welcome move. 

She is absolutely right to be “uncomfortable” with some of the effects it has on the system.

Ask any governing body who have tried to appoint a new headteacher to a school previously judged to be outstanding whether the judgement was helpful - I can guarantee the response will not be a positive one. We have heard much talk in the past of how struggling schools find it difficult to attract new leaders with all the risks associated with taking on such a challenge but equally, very few would-be leaders are keen to take on outstanding schools knowing that in Ofsted terms, the only way appears to be down.

These negative side-effects stretch far beyond just the recruitment of potential new leaders. The pressure on schools to strive for ‘outstanding’ can lead to a narrow definition of success and one where teachers are expected to deliver results that are ‘significantly above the national average’ every year.

The outstanding grade and associated criteria can constrain school leaders - the very people who should be the most independent and creative in our schools. Outstanding is not a gateway to freedom, but merely another level of risk. 

The idea that those working in outstanding schools live in some sort of educational paradise without the stresses and strains of being under constant scrutiny from Ofsted is simply not true. The pressure to achieve or maintain outstanding can feel just as intense for teachers and leaders alike.

I should be clear that scrapping the grade does not mean we shouldn’t want every school to be providing an outstanding education for its children; I just don’t think it should be for Ofsted to determine it.

For these reasons and many others, I would welcome the removal of the outstanding grade but I wonder if it is time to be more radical and remove the use of overarching catch-all grades altogether?

Fitting schools into one of four categories is very convenient for the powers that be. It allows them to put schools into neat little tables and charts. It helps with simplistic political narratives about ‘good’ schools and ‘failing’ schools.

But herein lies the problem; it is too simplistic. Schools are complex, complicated places with a variety of strengths and weaknesses that a single grade can often mask.

A simplistic system leads to simplistic conclusions 

The use of such summative grades inevitably means schools are seen through that prism, especially by parents. “The label says outstanding, so it must be excellent at everything” or so goes the implicit logic. If you create a simplistic system, don’t be surprised when people draw simplistic conclusions.

There will be plenty of schools that have been given the label of "Requires Improvement" but have stunningly good pastoral systems, superb child protection procedures and possibly wonderful SEND provision. Even though the report will often acknowledge these strengths, these are completely overshadowed by the impact of the overall grade.

Could we not have a more intelligent system that evaluates a wide range of aspects of a school?

This could include pupil attainment, progress, pastoral care, safeguarding procedures, SEND provision, quality of curriculum, even extra-curricular provision if you like. I can even see an argument for grading schools on each of these categories if you must.

There are those who would argue that this would be too complex a system for parents to understand, but I disagree. Wouldn’t offering parents a wider range of judgements actually allow them to make a more informed decision?

I also think that removing the overall effectiveness grade could make the whole inspection process far more useful for schools. We all know the negative effects that grading children’s work can have, and there is a parallel that can be drawn with schools here.

Rather than having to wait for the inevitable cliff-edge "moment of judgement" when a grade is bestowed upon a school every three or four years, the conversation with the inspection team could be much more about the various areas of strength and weakness, with clear priorities for improvement ahead of the next inspection.

It would still be possible and necessary within such a system to have mechanisms to flag up those very few schools where immediate action needs to be taken to protect children, but let’s remember these are now few and far between.                                                               

The scrapping of the outstanding grade has the potential to be a really positive move for schools, and the school system, but I hope Ms Spielman does not stop there. As a new chief inspector she has the opportunity to re-think the whole system. I would urge her to do so.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen 

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