A reprieve for schools that make the climb
It is there in black and white. The finalised wording for Ofsted's new inspection regime seems to promise failure for thousands of schools with below national average exam results, which are not closing that gap.
But this week the watchdog insisted that prospect need not be automatic for schools in these circumstances, as it unveiled details of the new- style inspections being introduced in January.
The new arrangements will once again ratchet up the pressure on schools serving disadvantaged communities. Contextual value-added measures taking pupils' social backgrounds into account are being replaced by value-added measures that ignore them, in line with Coalition policy.
But there have also been fears that the new inspections would go even further in targeting schools with low, raw (unadjusted for pupil background) exam results.
These fears first emerged in June, when TES obtained a confidential copy of the guidance being used by inspectors for a pilot of the new regime. It said that schools obtaining a "satisfactory" rating for achievement - the minimum needed to avoid "likely" overall failure - could only have results below the national average if they were "improving steadily and therefore closing the gap with the national average for all pupils".
The finalised guidance published last week introduces a little more wriggle room by saying that schools do not have to be closing the gaps consistently. Otherwise, it says the same thing. Despite this, Ofsted is still asserting that "special measures" or a "notice to improve", resulting in a probable P45 for the head, need not be inevitable for schools that fall foul of the condition.
The first point made by interim chief inspector Miriam Rosen last week was that schools would only be in the firing line for having below-average results if the gap were "statistically significant".
But many find any use of averages when judging schools to be infuriating. They point out that such conditions will always condemn a significant proportion of schools.
As Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, notes: "By definition, somebody has got to be below average."
Ms Rosen was unrepentant. "You could imagine a situation where the general level of attainment rises but we would still be failing schools," she said. "But if they were significantly below the average, I think that would be reasonable."
She added: "Bear in mind that we are also looking at progress." And it is "progress" as opposed to the raw results of "attainment" that appears to offer hope to below-average schools.
It is the reason that Patrick Leeson, Ofsted's director of education, seemed to contradict the watchdog's own guidance when asked whether schools with below-average exam results that were not closing the gap could escape failure.
"That will not be a reason to judge a school to be inadequate," he said. "If you are judged by inspectors to be not promoting or achieving good enough rates of enough progress for pupils, whatever their starting point, the school will be judged to be inadequate."
That is a clear departure from the description of what a satisfactory school should look like, as set out in the official guidance for inspectors, which contains no suggestion that good pupil "progress" can counteract a school failing to meet conditions for attainment.
The watchdog does seem to have managed to calm the fears of heads' leaders. But if inspectors follow official guidance to the letter, the outlook for many schools in disadvantaged areas seems bleak.
GREATER FOCUS ON TEACHING
Ofsted is promising "an even greater focus" on teaching quality in its new inspections.
Education secretary Michael Gove expressed concern this month that schools were able to achieve overall outstanding inspection judgments without having outstanding teaching.
The watchdog goes some way towards addressing this point with new guidance for inspectors that says outstanding schools are "likely" to have achieved the same grade for teaching.
Teaching is one of four graded judgments - along with achievement; behaviour and safety; and leadership and management - that replace the previous 27.
Ofsted has also said that inspectors will spend "even more time" in the classroom.