Ofsted grades keep getting better after Oliver takes helm

Watchdog puts findings down to continued 'upward trend in inspection outcomes over the last few years'

Watchdog puts findings down to continued 'upward trend in inspection outcomes over the last few years'


Sir Martyn Oliver has overseen big changes in how Ofsted conducts inspections since taking the job in January. Have grades changed too? Schools Week investigates …

Far fewer Ofsted grades lower than ‘good’ have been dished out so far during his tenure, new analysis shows.

But Ofsted said this was a continued “upward trend in inspection outcomes over the last few years”, and is not a new pattern.

However critics have said grading standards should be “consistent” across the same frameworks – so it is not unfair on schools inspected early on.

Schools Week analysed inspection data across the first three months of this year, the latest available, and compared it to the same period in previous years. Oliver joined the inspectorate in January.

‘Difficult to draw firm conclusion’

Of the 373 schools that were inspected and had a report published between January 1 and March 31 this year,11 per cent were rated less than ‘good’. Just three ‘inadequates’ (less than 1 per cent) were issued.

Compared to the same period last year, 20 per cent of the 503 schools were rated less than ‘good’ – of which 11 (2 per cent) were ‘inadequate’.

The difference is also slightly larger when previously ‘outstanding’ schools – which did not used to be inspected – are omitted from the analysis.

Ian Hartwright, head of policy at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is difficult to draw any firm conclusion about different grade profiles across the selected periods, much less whether there are any indicators about the impact of the new chief inspector on the grade distributions across schools.”

But it does appear to confirm a trend of better grades is continuing under Oliver.

In the first three months of 2020, prior to inspections being scrapped for Covid, 38 per cent of schools were rated less than ‘good’.

Experts said a big factor will be schools having more time to get used to the 2019 framework – which changed inspections to focus less on results and more on curriculum.

Recent rises up the international league tables also point to England’s schools delivering better outcomes, too.

‘Has Ofsted lost its nerve?’

Adrian Gray, an education consultant and former Ofsted inspector who has published his own analysis on the change in grades, said: “We don’t really know what’s going on, but the pattern is really clear: you get a better grade now than you did four years ago.

“I suppose the big question is has Ofsted gone soft, or has it lost its nerve?”

Our analysis found 16 per cent of schools inspected and with a published report in the first three months of this year got ‘outstanding’. This is double the 8 per cent in the same period last year.

However, when the analysis is repeated with previously ‘outstanding’ schools omitted, the difference is less severe (9 per cent this year compared to 6 per cent).

But Gray said the grading “standard should be consistent across the whole lifetime of the framework”.

Julie Price Grimshaw, a former inspector and frequent critic of the watchdog, said if Ofsted “had suddenly become more lenient”, that was “really unfair” on schools inspected earlier on and would make a “mockery” of the grading system.

The difference appears to be driven by primaries. In the first three months last year, 20 per cent of primary schools were less than ‘good’, compared to just 8 per cent this year, our analysis found.

For secondaries, it was 21 per cent last year and 20 per cent this.

In primaries, 17 per cent were also ‘outstanding’ in the three months this year, compared to just 6 per cent last year.

‘Major shift’ in primary grades

Gray said the data and his own analysis showed an “astonishing increase in outstanding primaries” that marked a “major shift”.

Reflecting on the findings, John Jerrim, professor of education and social statistics at UCL, said if there was a genuine shift, it is “probably more to do with human behaviour and how inspectors might act”.

He cited the death of Caversham Primary School headteacher Ruth Perry and suggested this could be weighing on the minds of inspectors.

A coroner ruled she died in January last year by suicide, contributed to by an Ofsted inspection.

He added: “If I was an inspector, I’d have been thinking, ‘God, if I’m going to give a bad judgment here, I need to be really damn sure, way more sure than I would be previously’.”

Grades rises ‘not new’

However Ofsted said any suggestion that this is a new trend was not accurate.

“We have been seeing an upward trend in inspection outcomes over the last few years,” a spokesperson added.

“This is due to a variety of factors, including our return to inspecting previously exempt outstanding schools. This improvement is good news for children – as part of our ‘Big Listen’ we are asking parents, professionals and children for their thoughts on the national profile of grades.”

Analysis provided by the watchdog showed that 16 per cent of all schools this year were rated ‘outstanding’, compared to 5 per cent in 2021-22.

However, because ‘outstanding’ schools are now being reinspected, the overall number with the top grade has fallen overall, from 20 per cent in 2019 to 15 per cent now.

Just over a third of those schools kept the top grade after being reinspected.

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