Deciding what school you’d like your child to attend is no simple task – and it’s not simple for the researchers either. Parents are not a simple homogenous group.
Despite this, educationalists on both sides of the Ofsted grading debate are using simplistic arguments about what parents "like" and what parents "know".
For her part, Amanda Spielman, speaking at the Wellington Festival last year, said: “Parents tell us that they want to keep the current grading system. They like the clarity of four grades in helping them to make informed choices, and as a marker of how well their child’s school is performing.”
Yet the polling data that Ofsted uses doesn’t support this. Instead, it reveals that the proportion of parents agreeing that Ofsted provides a reliable measure of a school’s quality has fallen since 2016. It also reveals – in line with evidence from other sources – that Ofsted is one among many factors that a parent considers when choosing a school, but it is rarely the top factor.
Those making the argument that Ofsted should ditch the current grading system are also avoiding crucial factors around parental engagement. The suggestion that a "simple" narrative report replace the grades is unlikely to cut it with parents. According to Ofsted’s own data, currently nine in 10 parents know the rating their school received in the last Ofsted inspection, and eight in 10 read the report. This doesn’t mean that they find the reports useful, of course; a recent Parentkind survey found only 4 per cent think Ofsted reports tell parents everything they need to know about a school.
But this is falling into the trap of thinking parents are a homogenous group.
Fewer parents from the lowest socio-economic group know their school’s rating. Just one in four has ever read an Ofsted report, and those who do read their school’s report are more likely to read only the sections they are interested in than those from higher socio-economic groups.
This is supported in the literature around school choice, which shows that those the government most incentivises to make choices are the least likely to do so.
But if parents can’t be homogenised as a single stakeholder group, how can we find out what they want? Part of the solution might be to look at parents’ responses to the Ofsted framework consultation. Parentkind called for “the inspectorate to consult with parents, such as through focus groups, to determine what further information they wish to see in reports, as well as on how they can tailor reports to be accessible and useful to the majority of parents.”
While Claire Ryan, a parent who set up a group to gather views, opinions and ideas from SEND parents to respond to the draft framework explained to Ofsted: “Parents want to be included and heard, but most of all valued, so we can be part of the solution. Parents are often overlooked, possibly feared or misunderstood, yet we are a very valuable resource.”
If school leaders want to remove Ofsted grades, they need to come up with a viable alternative that is accessible to all parents. An effective way for school leaders to do this would be to work more closely with parents.
At a local level, school leaders need to think about how they communicate with parents. The ubiquitous “This is a ‘good’ school” banner outside school gates runs contrary to the argument that schools are more than a one-word judgement. Want to know what attracts parents to a school? The first step is to ask them.
At a national level, the representatives of school leaders need to engage with the representatives of parents. The only way to counter a narrative that says "parents like Ofsted grades" is by having a more nuanced understanding of what parents – and I mean all different types of parents – actually want.
The final hurdle to changing Ofsted grading is that it would require primary legislation, and that is almost impossible in the current Parliament. However, a national election could be the prime opportunity to get this issue into manifestos and take the debate to the doorstep. To do this, teachers can’t simply be seen to be moaning about their regulator but will need a clear strategy explaining how an alternative to grading will enhance parents’ access to information about schools.
Choosing a school is one of the main points at which parents experience national policy through a local lens, and as such, could be an important election issue both in the big debates and on the doorstep. Part of the debate could be about Ofsted, but to do this, the education community must include parents.
Karen Wespieser is the director of operations at Driver Youth Trust and a trustee of Parentkind