Brighter pupils make top ratings easier, Ofsted admits

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Inspectorate official says it is harder for schools with lower-ability intakes to gain the best judgements

A senior Ofsted official has said that it is “harder” for schools with lower-ability intakes to gain “good” or “outstanding” judgements from the watchdog, TES can reveal.

The admission from Robert Pike, Ofsted’s chief statistician, is being seen as a further blow to the inspectorate’s claims to offer objective judgements on the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL union, said: “The way Ofsted makes judgements on data means they simply compare less privileged schools to more privileged schools. [Less privileged schools] are always on a losing streak and uneven playing field.”

Mr Pike also states that it is “probably easier” for “schools with advantaged intakes” to receive Ofsted’s top two grades. He makes his comments in a letter, seen by TES, to a headteacher who has alleged that the inspectorate shows “extreme bias” against schools with lower-ability pupils.

Heads’ leaders are calling for the watchdog to give context more importance when making judgements on schools.

Last month, Durham University’s Professor Robert Coe renewed his campaign for Ofsted to prove its worth, calling for inspectors to have to pass an exam to show their judgements are valid.

‘More effective’ teaching

Mr Pike’s letter was sent to the founder of the National Association for Secondary Moderns, Ian Widdows, who is concerned about the vast disparity between the Ofsted judgements received by his members and those given to selective grammars (see data panel).

The Ofsted official begins by denying the suggestion that the inspectorate is unfairly penalising schools because of the academic ability of their intake. He suggests a variety of other possible explanations for the better Ofsted grades received by grammars.

Controversially, he says grammars’ higher ratings may be because their teaching is “more effective”. “Teachers recruited to grammar schools need to be of sufficiently high calibre to ensure instruction meets the needs of a very able intake, and grammar schools are likely to attract more good teachers because of the teaching environment,” Mr Pike writes.

Mr Widdows, deputy headteacher at Giles Academy in Lincolnshire, said the claim was an “insult” to teachers in other schools. “Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class children with parents who are highly supportive of the school,” he said. “But does that mean the teachers are of a high calibre?”

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was also critical of the comment, telling TES: “That statement has no significant foundation and would need to be backed up by evidence.”

Mr Pike writes that “there is no compelling evidence to support the view that schools with lower attainment on entry which do well by their disadvantaged pupils are less likely to be recognised [by Ofsted] as good or outstanding”. But he appears to contradict himself, adding: “However, nobody is denying that it is harder for [schools in these circumstances] to attain such a judgement compared to those with higher-attaining pupils.

“Similarly, this does not mean that schools with advantaged intakes judged good or outstanding are not decent schools. It just means, due to circumstance, it is probably easier for them to be so.”

Mr Pike states that there is a “chicken and egg question” about whether “better quality students” are drawn towards “the high performing school with excellent teaching and leadership”, or whether the “better quality intake [determines that] the school is high performing with excellent teaching and leadership”. He says the first explanation is “probably” correct.

Dr Bousted said: “Ofsted’s problem is that the data does not tell a good story. They have tried to get out of jail by saying teaching is better in selective schools. It’s laughable.”

Ofsted was given an opportunity to comment.

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