An influential body representing most academies is calling for a “comprehensive review” of Ofsted’s grading system, urgent research into the “validity and reliability” of inspections and a “fairer” complaints process.
In a significant intervention, the Confederation of School Trusts has published wide-ranging proposals for a shakeup of the inspection system ahead of a new chief inspector’s appointment and general election next year.
Other proposals include addressing school leaders’ concerns performance is ‘underplayed’ in inspections, and reforming public performance information to avoid ‘patronising and possibly misleading parents’.
The trust lobby group stresses the paper is a “stimulus for discussion…rather than being firm CST positions”, however.
1. Scrap grades for all but ‘schools causing concern’
The paper argues that the “good news story” of most schools being rated ‘good’ or better means the government should “review whether the cost/benefit trade-off of its current approach to grading is right”.
CST says current rules oblige inspectors to report on but not grade schools, allowing “freedom” to reform it without further legislation. It suggests “focusing the use of grades where it is most necessary and most valid and reliable” – such as a binary grade, with the lower of the two reserved only for schools causing concern and requiring intervention.
For other schools, “a different grading system could be used or grading could be removed”.
2. Urgently research ‘reliability’ of inspection
CST highlights a recent study questioning the reliability of inspection outcomes, and the trust body calls for research to be done “urgently” and in line with past Ofsted commitments.
This should not be delayed until a new chief inspector’s appointment (due for early 2024), as that “unnecessarily delay the insight gleaned…and risks perpetuating any issues”. It should be used to inform inspection policy in turn.
3. Ensure independent oversight of complaints
Ofsted’s complaints process is “perceived by many leaders to be ineffective” or “pointless”. There are doubts about schools’ chances of complaints being upheld, and concern at the lack of opportunity to “impact on the judgement itself”.
The system should be “improved”, including independent oversight – with the capacity to re-open inspection judgements in appropriate circumstances.
4. Address concerns pupil achievement ‘underplayed’
The paper also calls on Ofsted to provide “reassurance to stakeholders who are concerned that pupil achievement is underplayed in some inspections”. The inspectorate should make clearer how achievement data is incorporated into inspection methodology.
But CST says the education inspection framework has “the right principle” in trying to “complement and offer a different insight” to performance data.
A Schools Week investigation in January found four ‘outstanding’ schools with some of the highest provisional progress 8 scores nationwide had been downgraded since 2021. Meanwhile one school where pupils achieved a third of a grade lower than expected was rated ‘outstanding’.
Ofsted should also “periodically review and publish an analysis” of the relationship between achievement data and inspection outcomes, CST suggested.
5. New online portal for school performance
The paper recommends government work with Ofsted and stakeholders to “consider how the complexity of school quality and performance can be captured more effectively”.
CST welcomed a “symbolic shift” in how government presents performance data last year, when the “find and compare schools” website was re-branded “find and check”.
It argues that parents require a range of information and to be “spoken with…rather than spoken at”. Otherwise the state can risk “patronising, and possibly
misleading, parents by generating overly simplistic or invalid views of school quality”.
Meanwhile assuming inspection outcomes are the last word is “potentially flawed” and risks “distorting behaviours in schools”. A new online portal for school quality and performance should be explored, “treating parents, schools and the state as partners in the process”.
6. Rethink curriculum publications
CST says it backs Ofsted’s work to “deepen understanding” through literature reviews and ‘state of the nation’ subject reports, but warns it can “develop a momentum of its own”.
The body appears to suggest Ofsted should issue fewer of them, stating the watchdog should “calibrate the pace and scope of its curriculum publications with the capacity issues schools are facing”.
Care must be taken too to “insulate” Ofsted’s observations from inspection practice so that “very specific aspects of curriculum design…don’t inappropriately determine inspection outcomes”.
Ofsted should also publish its curriculum aide-memoirs, given the “potential inequity” of inspectors working in schools having access to them while non-inspectors do not.
7. Don’t treat trusts as ‘external’ to schools
A final separate plea by CST is for Ofsted to address reports of “inconsistencies” in how inspectors engage with trust boards and local governing committees, and the “patchy” involvement of executive leaders, particularly those responsible for school improvement or curiculum.
There is a need for “clearer and more consistent engagement” with trust staff, ensuring they are not seen as “something external” to the school, with the process detailed more specifically in the handbook.