Gilbert rejects fears that focus on raw results caps potential

27th November 2009 at 00:00

When full details of Ofsted's new inspection framework finally emerged in the dog days of the summer term, heads' leaders immediately predicted trouble over the new emphasis on raw exam results and pupil safety.

Now, just when Christine Gilbert could most do without it, they are being proved right.

As The TES reported last week, the chief schools inspector has had to field interventions from ministers concerned that schools with low raw exam results could be barred from good or outstanding inspection verdicts.

Then - as if attacks from angry council leaders, influential MPs and a high-profile predecessor were not enough - an embattled Ms Gilbert had to answer claims that schools were being failed for having low fences or offering inspectors a coffee before checking their ID.

Her attempts to reassure schools about pupil safety judgments in The TES today (page 4), combined with revised guidance for inspectors, may improve things on that front.

But the row over the greater emphasis the watchdog is placing on raw exam results - or "attainment" in Ofsted-speak - could be tougher to resolve.

Ms Gilbert, perhaps inadvertently, got to the heart of the matter when introducing her annual report on Tuesday: "Schools with a high proportion of pupils from deprived backgrounds are still more likely to be inadequate than those serving more favoured areas."

Her critics believe that, by boosting the importance of attainment in overall judgments on schools, the new inspection framework can only increase that trend.

Deprived pupils are, in reality, more likely to have low exam results, the argument goes. Therefore it is perhaps unfair to mark down schools for pupil backgrounds that are beyond their control.

But the chief inspector is unrepentant about increasing "expectations" on these schools.

"People on free school meals have still got to get good results at some stage in their schooling, otherwise we are just patronising them," she told The TES. "I think we are selling children short if we are not focusing on results." It can be done, Ms Gilbert insists: "There are outstanding schools in challenging circumstances, whose pupils emerge as confident and capable young people, well equipped for the next stage of their lives."

Her report admits that there are only "a small number". But what about those schools which do not manage to push raw results above average? Ministers are now understood to be content that these will not be unfairly penalised because "attainment" is not what is known as a "limiting" judgment. That is technically true, in that it cannot automatically trigger or limit a particular overall judgment.

But the reality, set out in Ofsted's own evaluation schedule, remains that schools where attainment is "low" will not be able to get "good" or "outstanding" overall verdicts except in "the most exceptional circumstances".

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