While Ofsted is obliged to hold a public consultation when it changes its inspection frameworks, it can alter its inspection handbooks - which offer guidance on how the frameworks should be interpreted - without seeking external views.
As a result, Ofsted’s new schools handbook for September has been published with little fanfare. But after trawling through the new version, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has uncovered more than 90 changes from last year’s document.
While some will have little impact – the word “robust”, for instance, appears to have gone out of fashion and been purged from the document – other changes could well have serious implications for inspectors and schools alike.
Arguably the most significant of them is the alteration of the description of what level of achievement among pupils is needed to be graded “good”. ASCL fears this could make it more difficult for schools with tough catchment areas to attain the top grades.
Last year’s version of the handbook stressed that while most “good” schools recorded a level of attainment which “compares favourably with national figures”, there was still scope for those where “progress overall is lower than that found nationally” to be rated “good” – provided they were “improving over a sustained period”.
This qualification has been omitted from the new handbook, which simply states that exam results should be "close to or above national figures”.
This interpretation is crucially different, ASCL’s inspections specialist Jan Webber believes. “The ‘national figures’ are national averages - 50 per cent of schools have got to be below them,” she said. “That’s the slight nonsense of this.
“Every year schools are above or below the average. Sometimes they can have a bad year; [the change to the handbook] might affect the judgement for a school in a challenging situation.”
Another key change is the twin focus on students from deprived families eligible for the Pupil Premium, as well as on their most able classmates at the top of the class,
This, ASCL believes, could well be designed to discourage schools from focussing their attention on mid-performing students hovering on the C/D borderline.
“The most able students have now become a crucial group for schools [in inspections],” Ms Webber said. “They could stand or fall on the achievement of the most able. If they’re not getting those very high grades, you’re in trouble. Schools need to be aware of that.”
And even outstanding schools – exempt from routine inspections – could face greater scrutiny, if Ofsted’s risk assessments uncover any problems with their most able students. ASCL fears more of these schools could end up having surprise visits from Ofsted.
“Even if the data looks wonderful, schools have to fire on all these areas,” Ms Webber added. “The message is: ‘focus on everything’.”
An Ofsted spokesman told TES that the handbook changes were “designed to make clearer that pupils’ progress, given their starting points, is judged in comparison with pupils nationally with the same starting points”.
“If a group of pupils with low prior attainment make close to, or above, expected progress compared with pupils nationally with the same starting points, then that would be one element that would contribute to the host school, which may be in a disadvantaged area, being judged to be good for achievement,” he said.
“In addition, of course, the school would have to be found by an inspection team to be meeting the relevant other criteria for a good judgement for achievement.”
ASCL will be publishing a full summary of the changes for the school inspection handbook later this week.