Ofsted: Ditching grading system for pass/fail could cause more 'gaming'

Ofsted has released a new report in defence of its under-fire grading system – warning a move to a pass/fail system could lead to more “gaming” in the sector.

Sector leaders have long argued for Ofsted to ditch its four-point grade system. Earlier this month, a joint open letter from the influential Headteachers’ Roundtable and campaigning group Worth Less? described the system as “hugely problematic” and without “any independent empirical evidence base for the reliability of the grades produced”.

However, in a new report published today, Retaining the current grading system in education, Ofsted said that changing the grading system to a pass/fail system – or above/below the line judgement – could make the system more reliant on attainment and progress measures.

This could, “in turn, increase behaviours such as off-rolling and gaming the exam system” or narrowing the curriculum, the report stated.

However the inspectorate acknowledged concerns about the current grading system are “to some extent valid”. That included allegations of the system leading to “an enormous amount of pressure” on schools and headteachers, the “high-stakes nature of accountability” prompting some providers to engage in negative behaviours like gaming league tables, and concerns over the exemption that means ‘outstanding’ schools are not inspected for 10 years.

But the report argued that changing the current system could lead to parents relying too heavily on attainment data, which risks being confusing and not explaining what the school itself was actually like for pupils, making it difficult to distinguish between schools.

The report added the four-point grading system had been rolled out across other public bodies, showing that Ofsted was seen as an “examplar of best practice inspection”.

Ofsted also flagged its annual parents survey, also released today, showing that 90 per cent of parents know the Ofsted rating of their child’s school or childcare provider and six in 10 feel Ofsted is a “force for improvement and a trusted judge of standards”.

However, the report acknowledged that parents have never been “directly asked about the four-point grading system”.

Ofsted’s report also said that “social media might suggest that the teaching profession is opposed to the current grading system”, but insisted that YouGov’s teacher attitude survey shows views are “mixed”. In the survey, 40 per cent stated a preference for an above/below the line system, while 24 per cent disagreed.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said parents use the inspectorate’s reports to choose the right schools for their child and understand a school’s strengths and weaknesses.

“The grades are a reliable measure of quality,” she added. “They are simple, they are well understood and they work for parents.”