This is an edited version of a longer piece that appeared in TES magazine on 7 October. The full article is available to subscribers here.
Why does Ofsted needs to spend any time, energy and money at all in defining, assessing and judging the degree beyond which any school is considered to be good enough? It is a watchdog of standards, not a best practice network.
So here are seven reasons why the “outstanding” grade should be abolished
1. The playing field is not level
So says Ofsted itself. TES reported in November last year that Robert Pike, Ofsted’s chief statistician, said that it is “harder” for schools with lower-ability intakes to gain “good” or “outstanding” judgements from the inspectorate. Pike also stated that it is “probably easier” for “schools with advantaged intakes” to be graded as “good” or “outstanding”. Removal of the top grade would help, but not completely solve, this deep-seated problem.
2. Some children put a school’s rating at risk
Given the above point, it immediately follows that a school’s chances of being judged “outstanding” are reduced the more children they have on their roll who are of “lower ability”. This group includes those with learning difficulties and many children with special educational needs and disabilities. If attaining “outstanding” status, or a fear of losing it, has become the goal in itself (I have seen it on school development plans) then you can see how, as the children’s commissioner found in 2014, some schools say to parents that “it might be best if you looked elsewhere”.
3. It limits the supply of teaching schools
Schools can only apply to be designated as teaching schools if they hold Ofsted’s top grade. “Good” schools are not yet deemed of sufficient quality to be in the running to support other schools. The same is true for headteachers who wish to be national leaders of education (NLEs).
4. It doesn’t help with headteacher recruitment
Recruitment of teachers generally is difficult. The market is no better for leaders, with a sizeable proportion of vacancies having to be readvertised. Candidates consider carefully the context of the schools they look to apply to. Schools holding the top grade can be less appealing, as dips in results can lead to headteachers losing their jobs. In addition, newly arrived leaders in “outstanding” schools can face tough audiences when identifying aspects of the school’s provision that, to use the vernacular, “require improvement”.
5. It can narrow priorities
In the rush to attain the top grade, things that do not appear in the “outstanding” grade descriptors can be postponed or discounted altogether. I wonder how many headteachers have a performance management target that their school should be judged “outstanding” at its next inspection? I did once.
6. Abolishing ‘outstanding’ is a quick win
This should not be underestimated. Given the fragile and, at times, fractious, nature of the relationship between the inspectorate and the profession, removal of the “outstanding” grade would release the pressure valve and would be a message that the new chief inspector Amanda Spielman is not seeking a dust-up with the profession for the hell of it.
I have a visceral dislike of the banners draped outside schools displaying their latest Ofsted grade, but I understand the reasons why they are there. When my school’s Ofsted judgement went from “outstanding” to “requires improvement”, our reputation took a big hit. Just 15 months later, we were free of that millstone, but there’s a satellite delay while the reputation heals itself and word gets around.
This is an edited article from the 7 October edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. You can also download the TES Reader app for Android and iOs.