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Is Ofsted fit to judge deprived schools?

A school in a poor area is five times more likely to be 'failing' than affluent areas. What does this say about Ofsted?

Ofsted finds almost 1 in 4 schools fail to meet standards

A school in a poor area is five times more likely to be 'failing' than affluent areas. What does this say about Ofsted?

"My view is that leading a school with a large percentage of disadvantaged white boys is statistically a career ender.”

So says Stephen Tierney, the chairman of headteacher thinktank Heads’ Roundtable, who has long been of the opinion that Ofsted inspections do not account for the circumstances of a school.

He says that, for schools supporting deprived communities, there is no level playing field.

And he is not alone in this view.

Although Ofsted says it takes a school's context into account, there have been several warnings that the challenges facing deprived schools are not properly understood.  

Writing in Tes last month, former headteacher Colin Harris revealed how much of the work that a school in a deprived area does can go unseen in an inspection.

For some schools, a normal start to the day involves phoning pupils' homes, delivering children to lessons, dealing with their clothing and nutritional needs, providing emotional support and coping with mental health issues, Harris said. But he warned that much of this does not register when schools are being inspected.

Getting pupils through the door and ready to learn is in itself an achievement in some settings.

Teacher Thomas Rogers has argued that, when Ofsted measures how well schools use the pupil premium to support deprived students, only their financial disadvantage is taken into account. There is no account taken of other, less quantifiable side effects of this disadvantage, he has warned.

Rogers believes that “values poverty is as big, if not an even bigger, issue than financial poverty". Yet, the work schools do to tackle this goes unrecognised, he feels.

Revealing data

So are schools in deprived communities being let down by the inspection system?

The data points to a clear link between deprivation and Ofsted report outcomes.

In 2016, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) highlighted how schools with more disadvantaged pupils were less likely to be judged "good" or "outstanding", while schools with low disadvantage and high prior attainment were much more likely to be rated highly.

The EPI found that secondary schools with no more than 5 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) were more than three times as likely to be rated "outstanding" as schools in which at least 23 per cent qualified for FSM.

Its conclusion was damning: “These findings raise questions about whether the inspection system is fully equitable to schools with challenging intakes.”

New figures have emerged this week, which have added grist to the mill.

Data obtained from Ofsted, drawn from inspection outcomes up to the end of April, again show a clear pattern between the deprivation in the community a school serves and the likelihood of Ofsted rating that school as being less than good.

In the most affluent quintile, just 1 per cent of schools are rated as inadequate and 5 per cent less than good, while 37 per cent are rated outstanding.

This contrasts with the most deprived areas where 5 per cent of schools are inadequate and more than one-in-five schools is rated as good.

Sixteen per cent of schools in the most deprived areas are judged outstanding.

Put simply, a school serving a poor area is five times more likely to be failing, in Ofsted’s eyes, than one in an affluent area. 

And a school in a leafy area is more than twice as likely to be judged outstanding as one in the most deprived communities.

Some believe that if Ofsted inspections were truly a level playing field, this correlation between poverty and inspection grades simply wouldn’t exist.

The figures produced by Ofsted this week also point to a link between deprivation, ethnicity and inspection outcomes.

Although it is unclear exactly how the inspectorate has calculated these figures, the analysis it produced suggests that the most deprived white pupils are more likely to go to a school that is failing or requiring improvement than the most deprived ethnic minority pupils.

And the contrast between Ofsted outcomes for the most deprived and most affluent white pupils is even more striking. 

In the most affluent areas, 58 per cent of schools are outstanding. In the most deprived, the figure is just 4 per cent. Tierney described this gap as “outrageous, but not surprising”.

“Nobody who has been working in a white working-class area will be surprised by this," he said. "It confirms what we have known for a long time.”

Lack of context

Concerns are mounting about how the accountability system is affecting schools serving white working-class communities.

Earlier this year, Tes revealed that a study by headteachers in the North West had warned that the Progress 8 measure penalised schools in disadvantaged areas where there are few pupils who speak English as an additional language (EAL).

Ian Butterfield, a former research scientist and headteacher of Hindley High School in Wigan, conducted an analysis of how Progress 8 scores are affected by a school’s level of deprivation and the size of their EAL cohort. He found that, as the proportion of EAL pupils increases, so too does the average Progress 8 score. The new accountability measure was penalising schools serving deprived white working-class communities, he concluded.

The figures published this week raise fears that this pattern is extending into Ofsted inspection outcomes for schools teaching deprived white pupils.

For Tierney, this points to a bigger set of questions.

Can the inspection watchdog separate the quality and impact of a school's work from the outcomes its pupils achieve? 

Do the challenges a school in a deprived community faces get recognised?

Can Ofsted accurately judge schools’ performance in deprived communities?

He believes the answer to all of the above is no: “Ofsted [doesn't] contextualise schools and this data exposes the myth. Your intake dictates your Ofsted outcome, which is inextricably linked to your Progress 8 score.”

Ofsted, in an annual report last year, said it takes the circumstances of a school into account, but won’t “judge the quality of education to be better than it is, regardless of the socioeconomic circumstances of the school".

An Ofsted spokeswoman says that it recognises that schools in deprived communities face real challenges in terms of both their pupil intake and access to improvement support. This is something that the inspectorate says it recognises "explicitly in our leadership and management judgement".

Ofsted is unapologetic about the outcomes of its reports and points out that critical judgements can highlight when a school needs more support.

The spokesperson says: “When it comes to the overall judgement, parents and Parliament expect to us to report on the quality of education as we find it.

"The truth is that there are areas of the country where school performance is simply not good enough. The role of inspection in highlighting that underperformance is crucial if we are to ensure that these communities get the intervention and support they need to improve."

Experience of school leadership needed

However, Frank Norris, the trust director of Co-op Academies, and a former senior official at Ofsted, has questioned how well the inspectorate is able to understand the context of a school.

He has argued that to properly assess the work of a school in a deprived community, you need to understand it. And for that, you need to have first-hand experience of leading one.

As a result, he has called on Ofsted to ensure more headteachers from schools in deprived communities have the chance to become Ofsted inspectors.

But he told Tes during a recent interview that Ofsted’s requirement for inspectors to be currently leading a good school prevents some leaders from stepping forward.

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of headteachers' union ASCL, echoes this view. He also warns that the smaller the Ofsted inspection team, the less likely it is that it will have direct experience of leading a school in a deprived area.

For Trobe, the issue is that the one- or two-day Ofsted inspection regime is data driven. He says it is a challenge for “a limited-sized team to have a detailed, thorough look at the school and to explore the issues".

“Ofsted does have to rely on data, but the question is how does it interpret this data in the context of the school," he says.

However, Trobe believes that Ofsted is actually getting better at this. And he says the inspectorate can point to an increase in the number of headteachers who were satisfied with their inspections – highlighted in a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report – as evidence.

Grade reliability in question

One of the issues highlighted by this NAO report is the extent to which Ofsted’s budget has been cut.

The inspectorate spent 52 per cent less in real terms in 2017-18 than it did in 1999-2000.

At the turn of the millennium, a team of 16-17 inspectors would go into every secondary school for a whole week, but now the typical "good" school gets two inspectors for one day.

One of the key NAO findings was that “the level of independent assurance about schools' effectiveness has reduced".

This has inevitably triggered a discussion about how reliable Ofsted grade inspections can be – particularly for schools in deprived communities.

Tierney tells Tes that he believes the teaching profession is now finding its voice on the issue. And he has urged heads to use the current NAHT review on accountability to “call for an end of the current Ofsted organisation rather than just another new framework that will continue to undermine the schools serving our most deprived communities".

Norris does not go quite this far, but he suggests that, with limited funding, Ofsted might need to abandon the idea of being able to grade all schools. Instead, he argues, the inspectorate could visit schools and produce a narrative report – “showing the day in the life of a school and describing what they saw".

However, he acknowledges that Ofsted ratings are valued by both politicians and parents alike, and questions how widespread the disaffection with Ofsted is across the schools sector.

When it comes down to it, who is going to fight this battle on behalf of schools serving some of our most vulnerable pupils? 

Norris makes a salient point: “The question is that if around 90 per cent of schools are graded as good or better, are the 90 per cent really going to be fighting for Ofsted to change on behalf of the 10 per cent?”

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