Research on Ofsted points to endemic problems in the schools system and inspection regime. Last week, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) released important findings about the fairness of Ofsted reports in England. They found a “systematic negative correlation” between schools with children from poorer backgrounds or lower prior attainment and positive Ofsted judgments. In other words, schools with children from better off backgrounds are more likely to get Good or Outstanding judgments and schools with children who have previously achieved well are also more likely to get Good or Outstanding judgments.
Schools with less than five per cent of students qualifying for Free School Meals were three times more likely to be rated Outstanding; schools with twenty-three percent of pupils qualifying for Free School Meals were highly likely to be rated Inadequate. It was also easier for schools with students from better off backgrounds to improve from Good to Outstanding. It is significant the EPI has pointed this out as it puts Ofsted under some pressure to review its working practices and justify itself to the Department for Education. On a local level, it may lead to parents, governors and community groups putting less store by Ofsted judgments or even disputing Ofsted judgments.
Do we need Ofsted to tell us that schools where the students’ parents are professional and middle class are successful, while schools with “deprived” cohorts do not? According to the EPI report, “Ofsted has not been as effective at consistent recognition of deteriorated academic performance as it has been at ensuring schools are inspected regularly.” Meaning Ofsted is better at inspecting regularly than it is at recognising when a school has gotten worse and updating judgments accordingly.
It’s no surprise to schoolworkers that Ofsted’s judgments can’t be trusted. Far from reflecting normal performance or school experience, schools and colleges bend over backwards trying to do what they think Ofsted want or want to see. This changes every few years, as a new Chief Inspector is appointed or the goalposts are changed by new criteria, new judgment outcomes and new government guidelines. This is on top of a changing curriculum, changing exam systems, not to mention a recruitment and retention crisis. Inspectors have an idea of what they are looking for in a school. Particularly the Chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw, whose infamous emphasis on discipline is clear in the ban on talking in the corridors in his old school.
Desperate to get out of special measures, the Heads of schools deemed Inadequate try to “turn around” schools in one or two years, changing uniforms, curricula and behaviour systems at the drop of a hat, with varying levels of success. Parents of students at Stockley Academy in west London recently protested at the Head insisting on expensive branded school bags. The Head was soon on his way, replaced by the third Head in a year. This is disastrous for children. The lack of stability, the obsession with results and the exam regime: compounded by a lack of oversight from weak Local Authorities and governors, coupled with over-zealous Executive Heads and academy sponsors. But more than anything else, schools need money.
Schools across England are facing 8% cuts, or 15% in some inner city areas, and despite valiant campaigns from a few, the fightback against these is nowhere near big enough to succeed. The schools system has been hollowed out by the Tories, and schoolworkers, parents and students must work together to get back some control.