There has been much comment in the past few days regarding Ofsted’s expectation that around half of existing Grade 1 schools will be downgraded when they are next inspected. I am unsure how accurate the estimation is because I am hearing that significantly more than half are being downgraded. Time will tell. But it is fair to say that nearly all school inspection frameworks I have been closely involved in (2003, 2005, January 2012 and September 2012) were intended to ‘raise the bar’. Paragraph 185 of the current EIF explains how challenging the Grade 1 bar has been set and it is helpful having this signalled from the outset. It is worth noting that the Good grade descriptor makes clear it is a ‘best fit’ approach whereas the Grade 1 descriptor states that for Grade 1 the school has to meet every aspect of ‘Good’ securely and each and every aspect of ‘outstanding’. So, the bar has well and truly been raised, at least at the top end.
A key element of the development of a framework is the thorough testing that is undertaken prior to its official launch. This is important to ensure that any obvious kinks in the process are identified and ironed out. It is vital that there is confidence in the framework before inspectors are trained in its implementation and I can tell you from first-hand experience that HMI were always the most challenging, critical and supportive. I am unsure to what extent the previously exempt Grade 1 schools were part of the trialling. I would have expected this because it will be a challenge for Ofsted to prove consistency particularly in the early weeks of the increased challenge when the push back comes along.
The emphasis of previous frameworks has been in establishing a secure and broad evidence base to determine an overall effectiveness grade. The breadth of evidence was important because it enabled inspectors to triangulate evidence gathered from across the school. The current EIF emphasises this point in paragraph 12:
‘The crucial element here is the connection between different pieces of evidence. Inspectors will not emphasise one specific type of evidence above all others. Instead, inspectors will focus on gathering evidence that is balanced and connected’.
I welcome this approach, but I continue to be concerned that the validity and usefulness of external examinations validated locally and taken in 2020 and 2021 are not fully assimilated into the evidence base. These results are significant in terms of pupil outcomes, and I would expect competent inspectors to be able to analyse these results and compare with additional evidence gathered during the inspection to create a secure evaluation of impact. The impression it gives is that schools have not been rigorous in their assessment of students in these two years. This is important for those young people as they seek employment and further education. I’ve not heard a strong voice from these sectors suggesting the young people are not adequately prepared for their employment and/or studies so isn’t it about time Ofsted reviewed this decision and allowed inspectors the opportunity to use all available evidence?
Reading so many negative and a few positive comments about recent Ofsted inspections made me revisit the first Framework I was involved in 2003. I compared it to the current EIF. It is startling how different they are. I was struck by the strong emphasis placed on ‘how well the school works in partnership with parents, other schools and the community’ in the 2003 version. With less apparent emphasis placed on these aspects within the EIF it is not really surprising that some school leaders are very disappointed that insufficient attention is being given to this work in recent inspections. I suspect many will feel insulted by the use of ‘stock phrases’ to cover the pandemic issue. I think parents/carers and government deserve much more than this.
I should add that the 2003 framework had a strong emphasis on the curriculum and in fact, from
memory, each framework has, but the EIF places such a strong emphasis on it that it feels as though there is little time for the evaluation of anything else. In some respects, the pandemic would have challenged many previous inspection frameworks but there was always a sense that the community the schools serve was a strong underlying theme. In essence, it explains much about a school’s context. If inspectors do not get to grips with that then they are likely to make less secure evaluations and this in turn will hinder judgement making.
So, it will be interesting to see how many schools are downgraded from Grade 1. I hope that those serving the most challenging communities are evaluated more fairly and more achieve the highest grade. Their energy, commitment and professionalism have for too long been undervalued and many more to be judged as ‘outstanding’. Let’s see.