'Ofsted's blunt labels make things worse for schools'

Schools that are put in special measures find themselves in a vicious circle, losing pupils, funding and teachers

Ofsted concerns: Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders

Ofsted deserves credit for its headline-grabbing report on the 415 schools in England that are "stuck" in a cycle of low performance.

It is an earnest attempt to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of how to boost the prospects of schools that face the greatest degree of challenge and improve the lives of their pupils.

And it contains a resounding call to action for all players in the system to work together, recognising that “the whole school and accountability system – of which inspection is a part – has some responsibility for the lack of progress in these schools”.

As I say, the inspectorate deserves credit for that. It is probably about as far as it can realistically go in acknowledging the shortcomings of our accountability system.

But therein lies the problem. There is a lot of good stuff in the report – particularly over the problem of well-meaning but ineffective improvement initiatives and the perils of changing headteachers every two years. 

There is, however, one thing that the report doesn’t tackle, namely the counterproductive and corrosive impact of inspections and performance tables.

Because the reality is that – as we and many others have repeatedly pointed out – the accountability system stigmatises the very schools that most need support and makes improvement that much harder. 

Schools that have been able to "unstick" themselves have done very well indeed. They have managed to escape this trap. But wouldn’t it be a lot more sensible not to have a trap in the first place?

The problem is this: the blunt labels applied by the inspection system to schools that are termed "inadequate" or "requires improvement" make it harder to recruit leaders and teachers, and as these are the vital ingredients for success, the job of improvement becomes that much more difficult.

As the Ofsted report acknowledges, one effect of going into special measures is that the number of pupils on roll tends to fall, which “has a destabilising effect on funding”.

The result is that the schools that most need support are left short of teachers, leaders and money. It is no wonder so many are stuck.

The dice are loaded

And it is actually worse than that. Schools with more pupils from deprived backgrounds are less likely to be judged good than those with more affluent pupils. As Ofsted national director for education Sean Harford has acknowledged, this is so far still the case under the new inspection framework, just as it was under the last framework.

This is also the case with performance tables. Children with lower prior attainment – who are often from disadvantaged backgrounds – tend to record lower attainment scores and make less progress than other pupils.

And since these are the headline measures at key stages 2 and 4, schools with more of these pupils are likely to fare worse than schools in affluent areas.

In other words, the accountability dice are loaded against the schools that face the greatest degree of challenge. And the consequences of "failure" make matters worse: more difficulty in recruiting teachers and leaders, and a likely fall in funding.

One bit of good news in the Ofsted report is that some multi-academy trusts are managing to turn round "stuck" schools. I know from talking to MAT leaders in the ASCL how hard they work to achieve this goal. 

I also know that their job would be helped a great deal if the government focused on creating conditions that were more conducive to success. This must mean improved funding, teacher supply and reviewing the accountability system to address the unintended consequences I have outlined above.

Modest fixes greeted as heresy

We are not advocating the abolition of Ofsted, nor the scrapping of performance tables. Schools and colleges perform a role of enormous public importance, and it is right that they are inspected by an independent inspectorate and that information about their performance is available to the public.

But the government has confused robustness, which is right, with harshness, which is merely counterproductive.

For example, here are two simple steps the government could start off with to take the sting out of the accountability system. First, it could replace blunt inspection judgements, such as "inadequate", with a more narrative-based approach, in which something as complex as a school or college isn’t reduced to a simplistic label.

You may think this is just fiddling around with language, but language is, of course, the key to perception. If the headline is "inadequate", then any nuance in the ensuing report is lost.

Second, it could reform performance tables so they provide more information – a dashboard – that examines other things that matter, such as the support that is offered to students and the extent of enrichment activities, rather than being focused solely on test and exam results. This would be more helpful to parents than the current approach. It would incentivise more of the things that made education great.

It is a sign of how cautious we have become that even these fairly modest ideas will be greeted in some quarters as a form of heresy. But we simply must be bolder in our thinking. Working in the most challenging schools should be a badge of honour, something to which teachers and leaders aspire, instead of the fearful, demoralising experience perpetrated by our accountability system.

It doesn’t have to be like this. As Albert Einstein probably didn’t say: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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