Never forget: satisfactory won't wash

Ofsted must fix its grading system, says Roy Blatchford

Ofsted will celebrate its 20th birthday in 2012. When established in 1992, Professor Stewart Sutherland, its first chief inspector (part-time, you may recall), wrote that "the intention of, and even the justification for, Ofsted's existence is to make a contribution, through these inspections, to raising standards and improving the quality of educational experience and provision".

Has Ofsted succeeded? I recently returned from inspecting schools in the Middle East on a nine-point inspection framework. A school awarded grade eight or nine is closed. All over the Middle and Far East, inspection systems based on the Ofsted framework have taken root. The governments buying in international inspectors are united in one ambition: to create world-class schools in order to attract businesses and families from across the globe. Satisfactory schools for them are simply not part of the picture.

Yet in England, 20 years on from the birth of Ofsted, almost a third of schools are described by the inspectorate as satisfactory. Too many are grindingly so. Worryingly, 40 per cent of lessons seen by inspectors last year were judged satisfactory and no better.

In the face of such statistics, the recent consultation about a revised inspection framework has focused on shrinking the number of headings under which schools will be judged. This is fine as far it goes. But the elephant in the room, the one key feature not consulted on, is the grading system itself.

Ministers should set their stall out and say, unequivocally, that "all English schools will be good schools within three years". Then England will have a system on a par with the best in the world. We are probably too late now for the 2012 Ofsted framework, but let the 2014 edition spell out quite clearly the following criteria against which all schools and lessons will be judged:

Grade 1 Excellent: above standard expected.

Grade 2 Good: standard expected.

Grade 3 Improvement required: below standard expected.

Quite simply, let us agree that satisfactory is not good enough. Headteachers and governors tell you this, but the current system allows school leaders who receive a satisfactory judgment to breathe a sigh of relief. Ofsted commits itself to monitoring and revisiting a percentage of these schools, but too many of the nation's children still languish in mediocre provision.

Educational inequality narrowed in the past decade, and let it be acknowledged that Ofsted has played its part. That said, "satisfactory" schools are still concentrated disproportionately in the most deprived parts of the country.

Two-thirds of children from the highest socioeconomic groups get five GCSEs at grade C or above, but only a third of those from lower socioeconomic groups do the same. That number falls to a fifth for pupils on free school meals. This educational apartheid is not just a social injustice, but a moral outrage.

The time has come for Ofsted to play its vital part in challenging the assumption that satisfactory will do. It plainly will not, particularly for those children in our schools who most need good teaching to transform their life chances. Just maybe, new chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, as Her Majesty's appointment, will run with this baton. There's no better year in which to do it than 2012: Ofsted's 20th birthday and Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee.

Roy Blatchford is a former HMI, and director of the National Education Trust.

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