It’s up to the government to change the Ofsted grading system

'Inspection is rarely something that schools look forward to', writes chief inspector

'Inspection is rarely something that schools look forward to', writes chief inspector

Amanda Spielman

16 Jun 2023, 9:00

Amanda Spielman explains why Ofsted is treading softly on proposals to change the way it works.

There has been considerable debate around Ofsted’s work since the sad death of Ruth Perry.

This week, after discussions with unions, sector representatives and the secretary of state, we announced a package of measures aimed at improving the way we work with schools.

Some of the changes are responding to anxieties around inspection, particularly related to schools exempt for a long time because they were graded outstanding.

Measures, such as giving schools a better idea of when they’ll next be inspected and explaining who can be told about the outcome, are designed to give greater clarity to headteachers.

Other measures, such as the proposed changes to our complaints process, are things we’ve been looking at for longer.

Safeguarding is one of the most important things we look at and this will not change.

However, we plan to return more quickly to schools graded inadequate overall due to ineffective safeguarding, where all other grades are good or better.

For context, in the past 18 months, only 12 schools have found themselves in this position, but we hope this change will allay concerns.

It’s also worth noting that nearly 99 per cent of schools are found to have effective safeguarding when we inspect; schools overwhelmingly get this right.

‘No desire to soft-pedal on safeguarding’

So, we’re certainly not moving the threshold for effective versus ineffective safeguarding. We know there’s no desire among school leaders for us to soft-pedal in this area.

Safeguarding is about making sure everyone working at a school is safe to work there, and that teachers know how to respond when they think children are at risk of harm.

The expectations are set out in statutory guidance (Keeping Children Safe in Education), we don’t look for anything more. 

I have listened to the reaction to our announcement this week and I know there are those who would have liked us to go much further and change our grading structure. I’d like to explain why we didn’t do that.

I recently described the debate about grading as legitimate – and it is. I’ve also said that inspection needs to work within the wider accountability system.

Ofsted is just one part of that system. We inspect as we find and then the government decides, based on the outcome, whether a school needs any support or intervention.

These consequences of inspection undoubtedly raise the stakes for schools and are baked into the grading debate.

But as grades are an integral part of how it regulates the sector, any changes would rightly be a matter for the government.

‘Consistency of grading system has benefits’

It’s also worth saying that the clarity and consistency of the grading system, while unpopular in some quarters, has other benefits.

We use it to describe all four sub-judgments as well as the overall judgment.

I believe that this suite of judgments, with the report itself, presents a rounded picture of a school.

Parents know that all schools are judged in the same way, so comparisons can be made – and the same is true for the government.

It can compare the grade profiles of schools in, say, Brighton and Blackpool, and make broader decisions about how to allocate resources.

It’s undoubtedly a difficult time to be a school leader, with a range of challenges including the hangover from Covid and ongoing pay disputes.

And in this context, an Ofsted inspection is rarely going to be something that schools look forward to.

But our inspectors are all serving or former school leaders who understand the pressures of school life and have been through the inspection process in their former roles.

They bring that experience to their work with us.

Our priority must always be children’s education and safety, but at the same time, we will always do what we can to make inspection as positive an experience for schools as it can be. And of course, that means we will continue listening to you.

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