Ofsted shuns own style guide to label pupils ‘lower ability’

Experts warn the 'unhelpful' term can become a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'

Experts warn the 'unhelpful' term can become a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'

21 Jan 2022, 17:00

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Ofsted reports that describe pupils as “lower ability” have been criticised for “perpetuating the myth” that certain children are innately inferior.

Experts say such phrasing disproportionately impacts pupils from poorer backgrounds and have called on the inspectorate to stop using the terminology.

Ofsted admits the description goes against its own style guide, which says inspectors should refer to pupils with “lower prior attainment” rather than “lower ability”.

Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of Schools and College Leaders, said it was “disappointed” to hear Ofsted reports describe pupils in a way that implied an “immutable value judgment”.

‘It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy’

Pie Corbett, the founder of the Talk for Writing teaching framework, told Schools Week that “lower ability” was an “old-fashioned phrase that is unhelpful in education” and could become a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

The education consultant and former Ofsted inspector added it would be impossible for inspectors to determine ability as “everyone can get better”.

When Jane Jones, Ofsted’s former national lead for mathematics, contributed to the Mr Barton Maths Podcast in 2018, she said the phrases “most/least able” were shorthand for the highest and lowest prior attainment.

However, she admitted Ofsted could not measure ability and the phrasing was problematic as it implied “ability is innate and you can’t do anything about it” instead of a principle where “all pupils can succeed”.

Corbett added use of the phrase lower-ability “perpetuates the myth in schools that some kids are born with innate talent and some aren’t”.

Ofsted special school

The inspectorate appeared to have moved away from using “ability” after the Education Inspection Framework was introduced in 2019.

Its previous school inspection handbook noted inspectors “pay particular attention” to the “most able pupils”.

The new handbook dropped such phrasing.

But in a report for Coalway Community Infant School, in Gloucestershire, published on Friday, inspectors said the school “lacks ambition for some lower ability pupils and some pupils with SEND”.

It also said pupils were set work that was “too easy”, which “leads to low expectations for some pupils of lower ability”. The school declined to comment.

Steve Lomax, the leader of the GLOW Maths Hub and Teaching School in Cheltenham, said Ofsted’s prominence lead to the terminology becoming “the language of schools”.

This could lead to learners “given provision that is limiting. You’re almost fixing outcomes and expectations.”

Hopefully a ‘slip of the pen’

Schools Week found more than 20 examples of the phrase used in reports since 2019.

Telscombe Cliffs Community Primary School in East Sussex was told “teachers do not plan effectively for the lower ability pupils”.

In 2020 inspectors said books “read by lower ability readers” at Atkinson House
special school in Northumberland were in poor condition.

McCulloch said the union believed this was “a slip of the pen in individual reports, but more care does need to be taken”.

Corbett said that poorer pupils from working-class backgrounds were “very often” the children highlighted as “lower ability”.

A report commissioned by the National Education Union in 2017 found “ability grouping” was “often based on the child’s background” and therefore “has a detrimental impact on social mobility”.

Experts say descriptive terminology such as low or high attainers and achievers should be used instead.

Shirley Clarke, a formative assessment expert and consultant, said: “Ability implies permanence … low achiever and high achiever is much more appropriate as it implies at this moment.”

The experts say Ofsted should replace the phrase with more appropriate language.

“It would be nice if there could be some very clear, explicit guidance given to all Ofsted inspectors about some of the most important language that they must use and must not use,” Clarke said.

Ofsted would only say: “Our style guide suggests inspectors refer to ‘pupils with lower prior attainment’ in reports, rather than ‘lower ability’ so there should be very few that use this terminology.”

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