School inspections have no secret agenda

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Chief inspector argues that Ofsted plays fair but schools must learn to live by more than value added alone

Did you hear the one about the school failing its inspection because the inspector was offered coffee before being asked for ID? Or the school marked down for a hole in the fence? Over the last couple of months, a catalogue of myths has been built up about the new school inspection regime.

I'd have been as outraged as you if they were true. Inspection myths like these are gaining currency. No less pernicious are the suggestions that Ofsted no longer pays any attention to a school's value added, or that we have some secret formula for assessing pupil achievement.

The reality is very different. And it is because the independent inspections by Ofsted are so important to transparency, accountability and school improvement that it is vital that they are not obscured by mythology.

That's why I am keen to spell out what is happening with the new approach to inspection. And what is not.

There is no "secret agenda" and there are no hidden formulas. Our inspection frameworks and criteria are an open book. They are published at There are no secret questions. Inspectors do not try to "catch schools out".

However, the inspection criteria have changed since September after 18 months of engagement and consultation. The new inspection system, for example, allows inspectors to spend more time observing lessons, and to make more detailed recommendations for improvement than ever before. Ofsted's inspections have never stood still, and nor should they.

The new system does look at safety, too, as parents would expect. Schools have a legal duty to ensure that proper vetting procedures and a single central register are in place. This is not a new requirement and schools will not be marked down for safety problems unless the breaches are serious.

If it is just a question of minor administrative errors, I would expect inspectors to exercise their common sense and suggest practical ways that things could be put right quickly. Indeed, this is why inspectors turn to safety early in a visit, allowing errors to be corrected before they leave.

That is not to say that schools are never judged "inadequate" for their approach to safety. But very few schools have been judged "inadequate" as a result of weak safeguarding arrangements alone.

In those few cases, breaches were so serious that they suggested a failure in the school to recognise its legal responsibilities and this was reflected in the quality and consistency of leadership and management. It is worth noting that in the vast majority of cases in which safeguarding was inadequate, this was one of several areas of significant concern.

Perhaps the more serious issues relate to how we evaluate pupils' achievement. Let me put my cards on the table here. I have no doubt that value-added measures provide useful contextual data that help us to judge how far pupils have progressed and how they compare with others in similar circumstances elsewhere.

But the bottom line must be: what matters for a young person trying to get an apprenticeship, job, sixth-form or college place? No employer is going to offer a young person a position if they have no decent qualifications, no matter how strong the contextual value-added (CVA) score - just as no pupil is likely to do well in secondary school without learning how to read, write and do arithmetic confidently in primary school.

So, inspectors do take account of value-added measures. But it would not be right to ignore the importance of overall test and exam results.

This doesn't mean that a school can't be judged "outstanding" if its results are not as good as the national average, provided that the school clearly has the quality of leadership and teaching to support continued improvement and boost individual pupils' progress. But it does mean that CVA alone cannot drive inspection judgments. Indeed, a concern that many schools raised in the past was their perception that it did.

I know that under the new system, some schools have received lower inspection grades than they did under the previous framework, despite some improvements in their test and exam results. In these schools, inspectors may have seen signs that leadership or teaching are not as good as they might have been, and that pupils are not making the progress they should.

Of course schools have the right to challenge an inspection judgment where they genuinely believe the inspectors have got it wrong. But it is often more productive to try to reflect on why the judgment has been made and what can be done to improve matters for the future.

School performance can change over time, and sometimes schools do slip back. But, as I sought to highlight in my annual report this year, the long-term trend is one of strong improvement, notwithstanding the changing inspection frameworks that have set out to raise expectations.

Indeed, under the new arrangements, schools have also been found to have maintained their already outstanding performance or to have improved significantly since the time of their previous inspection. I am constantly impressed by how many schools respond effectively to rising expectations and serve their children and young people very well indeed. I have no doubt that the transparency and scrutiny provided by Ofsted inspections have helped change schools for the better over the last 18 years.

Of course, not every inspector gets it right all the time. And when genuine grievances emerge, I will ensure that we investigate and respond.

But most inspectors do get it right. And most schools, though they may not like inspections, tell us that the judgments are fair and that they have made a real difference to the quality of their teaching and learning.

That's a record and a relationship I am determined we continue.

Christine Gilbert, Chief inspector of education, children's services and skills, Ofsted.

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