The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Viner

When is outstanding not good enough?

Recent reports have brought renewed criticism of Ofsted’s delay in inspecting 'outstanding' schools. John Viner summarises what has changed – and what hasn’t.

It has taken rather longer to surface than might be expected, but you must have noticed the frequency with which the education press is telling us about the hundreds of schools that have not had a sniff of inspection for a decade or so.

Way back in early 2017, The Daily Telegraph ran a story that ‘more than 1,200 schools have not received an Ofsted inspection for over seven years’ while, a year later, and following a report from the National Audit Office (NAO), the Guardian published an article headlined that ‘hundreds of schools have had no Ofsted inspection for a decade’ and citing what it called the ‘long delay between checks [which] raises concerns that standards may have slipped at many “outstanding” schools’.

Last week Ofsted published its annual report and accounts, which confirmed that it had done little in 2018 to reduce the length of time between inspections in outstanding schools. The report found that for the proportion of least inspected outstanding schools, the average time since last inspection has now reached 11 years.

This all comes as no surprise to Amanda Spielman. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector has always recognised the problem but, to date, little has been done to address it. The NAO pointed out that some pupils manage to go through both primary and secondary school without an independent assessment of their school’s effectiveness and that, the older the judgement, the less likely was its accuracy.

In my role as an Anglican school inspector, I frequently encounter some of these schools – in one case the school had received a reduced tariff inspection (RTI) in 2008 and an interim assessment letter three years later and that was it. The last full inspection (an RTI was the original ‘short’ inspection) took place in 2003.

Some pupils manage to go through both primary and secondary school without an independent assessment of their school’s effectiveness

Legislative morass

Despite noises from Ofsted signalling the return of an inspection regime for outstanding schools, there are two distinct barriers to overcome. The first is that removing the protection of outstanding schools from a full inspection will require a change to primary legislation. The second is that, like the rest of the education sector, the regulator is fighting financial cuts.

It was the 2010 education white paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ that signalled the introduction of a ‘proportionate’ approach to inspection and subsequently the follow-on 2011 Education Act inserted a new section into the original 2005 Education Act, under which schools are inspected. This section allowed for some schools to be exempt from inspection, although it did not tie this to any particular inspection grade.

Subsequently, the 2012 Education (Exemption from School Inspection) (England) Regulations finally confirmed the government’s intention that outstanding schools would no longer be routinely inspected. It is rather a legislative morass.

Policy stand-off

There has always been a caveat. The explanatory memorandum to the 2012 regulations explains that, ‘the Chief Inspector will continue to visit exempt schools as part of his focused programme of subject and thematic reviews under section 8 of the 2005 Act, so it will still be possible to learn from the best’ and that, if performance deteriorates, a section 8 inspection could be converted to a full section 5. This is the system we have become used to.

However, two particulars have changed. Firstly, Ofsted has not carried out thematic inspections for some time now, presumably as a cost-saving exercise and secondly – the reverse side of the same coin – there is not the money in the system for a programme of additional inspections.

We now have the usual stand-off between Ofsted and the DfE. In the red corner sits Ofsted with Luke Tryl, their director of corporate strategy saying that it now wants to be allowed to carry out routine inspections of outstanding schools, and is in talks with the DfE about this. He has said, ‘what we might not pick up is where a school’s quality of education used to be “outstanding” but is now mediocre.’

There is not the money in the system for a programme of additional inspections

However, in the blue corner there is the minister of state for school standards, Nick Gibb, who continues to push out the party line that ‘If Ofsted has reason to believe a school is no longer meeting its previous high standards, we would expect it to use its powers to carry out a full inspection – this has always been the case – and remains so.’ Which looks like no change.

Time to consolidate

In the meantime, Ofsted’s school inspection blog for December 2017 confirmed the revised arrangements for converting a section 8 to a section 5 inspection. If there are serious safeguarding concerns then inspectors will continue to convert short inspections, usually within 48 hours.

However, if this is not the case, then Ofsted will now publish a letter setting out the school’s strengths and areas for improvement. A section 5 inspection will then take place later, typically within one to two years. This gives the school time to address any weaknesses. Whatever the content of the letter, the school’s current overall effectiveness judgement will not change.

Similarly, if inspectors think that a school may be improving towards an outstanding judgement, Ofsted will publish a letter confirming that the school is still good, also setting out its strengths and priorities for further improvement. A section 5 inspection will then take place within one to two years, giving the school time to consolidate its strong practice.

The blog anticipates that ‘the majority of short inspections will confirm that the school remains good and, as now, Ofsted will return to carry out another short inspection after approximately three years’.

if this looks like a way to save money, then that is probably because it is. For many schools, it eases some of the pressure of a monitoring inspection because it gives them time to develop.

Force for improvement?

In the meantime, the profession has been anxiously awaiting a change to the grading system, with the money on ‘good enough’ or ‘not good enough’. Speaking at Wellington College in June, Spielman suggested that, while many would like Ofsted to move to a simple pass/fail system, ‘that is a decision which must squarely be decided on the basis of whether the current grading system meets our mission of being a force for improvement’. She has also confirmed that Ofsted intends to retain its ‘outstanding’ grade because, to remove it ‘would send the wrong message about aspiration and excellence in the system’.

However, she also said that she wants a rule change to allow Ofsted to routinely inspect outstanding schools.

We seem to have been here before.

More from Optimus

MATs: inspection and accountability

When inspection is not by Ofsted

Ofsted is coming: demonstrate a safeguarding culture

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