Four in five ‘outstanding’ schools lose top Ofsted grade

Watchdog says data from first full year after exemption lifted shows 'removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better'

Watchdog says data from first full year after exemption lifted shows 'removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better'

Amanda Spielman

More than four-fifths of ‘outstanding’ schools inspected last year lost their coveted top grade, Ofsted has said, after their exemption from inspection was finally removed.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman said the outcomes from the first full year of inspections since it was scrapped “show that removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better”. A fifth dropped at least two grades.

Schools rated ‘outstanding’ were exempt from re-inspection between 2012 and 2020, unless inspectors had concerns about their performance or safeguarding arrangements.

Former education secretary Michael Gove enacted the exemption to “free” top-rated schools from the “burden” of inspection.

But the exemption was lifted in 2020 after Ofsted warned that over a thousand schools had not been inspected in at least 10 years.

One in five drop at least two Ofsted grades

In a new report on the 2021-22 academic year, Ofsted said 308 of the 370 previously exempt schools that had a graded inspection were downgraded, equating to around 83 per cent.

The majority (62 per cent) became ‘good’, but over a fifth fell to ‘requires improvement’ (17 per cent) or ‘inadequate’ (4 per cent).

Spielman said regular inspection “gives parents confidence in the quality of their child’s school”.

Exempting outstanding schools “deprived parents of up-to-date information”, and “left a lot of schools without the constructive challenge that regular inspection provides”, she added.

“The exemption was a policy founded on the hope that high standards, once achieved, would never drop, and that freedom from inspection might drive them even higher. These outcomes show that removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better.”

Schools are being prioritised for inspection on the basis of how long they have gone without one, with Ofsted due to inspect all previously exempt schools by 2025.

Schools not visited for an average of 13 years

The watchdog said the average length of time since the last inspection of schools visited last year was 13 years, with some not visited for as long as 15 years.

This “may mean that schools inspected in 2021-22 are not typical of all exempt schools, and the pattern of inspection outcomes may change later”.

The figures build on a series of revelations by Schools Week into the fall from grace of schools previously ignored by Ofsted.

Last year, it was revealed how schools not inspected for 15 years had been downgraded in the first flurry of inspection reports. In January, FFT Education Datalab analysis found 84 per cent of previously exempt primaries inspected lost their ‘outstanding’ rating.

And in July, Schools Week revealed that only a third of ‘outstanding’ grammar schools inspected since 2021 kept their unconditional top grade.

However, Ofsted pointed out this week that selective schools were still more likely to remain ‘outstanding’ than non-selective schools.

6 in 10 ungraded inspections reveal concerns

Schools rated ‘outstanding’ after September 2015 usually receive ungraded inspections – meaning they cannot change their overall rating. But inspectors can flag concerns that a school may not be ‘outstanding’ anymore.

Last year, Ofsted carried out 130 ungraded inspections of previously exempt schools, identifying concerns in 59 per cent of them.

These schools “will have time to make improvements before receiving a graded inspection around 12 months later”.

Ofsted said most schools that lost their top grade were graded less than ‘outstanding’ for both their quality of education and leadership and management. A higher proportion of schools were judged ‘outstanding’ for behaviour and attitudes and personal development.

The watchdog said this relationship also existed for graded inspections more generally.

However, very few previously ‘outstanding’ schools were judged to have ineffective safeguarding (3 per cent).

Schools faced ‘significant change’ between inspections

Ofsted pointed out that “many” of the schools inspected had experienced “significant change” since their last inspections. When the exemption came into force, just 2 per cent of top-rated schools were academies. When it ended eight years later, that figure was 45 per cent.

The watchdog said academies were more likely than maintained schools to remain ‘outstanding’ last year, but sounded caution over figures for secondary schools, as only 16 under council oversight were inspected.

Faith schools were slightly more likely to remain ‘outstanding’ than non-faith schools, but the vast majority of faith schools inspected were Christian in denomination.

Deprived primary schools were more likely to remain ‘outstanding’, though Ofsted said there was “a complicated pattern of outcomes by deprivation level”.

The watchdog will report on its inspections again next year.

A Department for Education spokesperson said being judged ‘outstanding’ was “tougher than ever”.

They claimed that “despite raising the bar schools need to reach, the government has rapidly improved school standards, thanks to the tireless efforts of school leaders”.

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  1. sally magill

    This is because under the EIF framework from 2019 onwards, primary schools are now inspected as miniature secondary schools, with each ‘department/subject’ (one teacher teaching 12 subjects with non-specialists leading one or more subjects in your average primary school) assessed and graded at the same standard as High Schools, where departments are led by a team of specialists who are totally schooled in that subject and that subject alone from college/teacher training onwards. It is implausible that 80% of outstanding schools have declined – where is the backlash from the unions on the claims from OFSTED that it is because the schools have declined due to lack of scrutiny? The Quality of Education (in all subjects) must be EXCEPTIONAL to get OFSTED. It’s nigh on impossible!

    • I completely agree with the principle of schools being inspected regularly. For HMCI Amanda Spielman to announce the intention to reduce the number of schools judged as outstanding obviously skews the process however. As head of a ‘formerly exempt’ school ot has been incredibly stressful for the last two years knowing that we could ‘get the call’ any day and from an Ofsted team with an agenda to downgrade the school, actively seeking any tiny weakness. I know many colleagues in this situation and it is driving brilliant headteachers to quit. This framework is not fit for purpose.