Ofsted wants to scrap inspection exemption for 'outstanding' schools

The government is under pressure from Ofsted to authorise more regular inspections of ‘outstanding’ schools, following complaints to the inspectorate from parents.

Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, believes the quality of education at some schools currently exempt from inspection may have deteriorated, and has warned the Department for Education that the rule that protects them from more regular scrutiny is no longer sustainable.

The inspection exemption for ‘outstanding’ schools was introduced by Michael Gove in 2011 as a way to devote more of inspectors’ time to failing schools and “free” top-rated schools from the burden of Ofsted.

A lot of parents question why there is a significant group of schools that we haven’t been into for a very long time in some cases

Last year, a Schools Week investigation revealed that more than 100 schools had been ignored by Ofsted for over a decade.

But a damning new report from the National Audit Office has today revealed that the number of top-rated schools left uninspected for over a decade has now reached 296. Ofsted is now lobbying for a change to the law, amid concerns that parents are “increasingly” put off schools which go for years without an updated judgment.

Luke Tryl, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, said Spielman has been “quite clear in discussion with government that we don’t think that exemption is sustainable”.

“One of the things we do find is that a lot of parents question why there is a significant group of schools that we haven’t been into for a very long time in some cases, and in particular that is the schools graded outstanding which are exempt,” he said.

However, there is still some debate over the exact length of time that should be left between inspections of the highest-rated schools. Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director of education, said it should be no more than seven years.

“Our general view is that if you’re a parent, you want to know that your school has been inspected at least once in the career of your child at that school. Typically in a primary school that would be every six years or seven years, and in a typical secondary, five to seven years.”

Tryl claimed the government’s decision would be over “what level of assurance they want to give parents about the quality of the school”.

“We don’t think the exemption is working at the moment,” he said. “We know from our focus groups and work that it is one of the biggest factors undermining people’s confidence in the reliability of our judgments.”

Under the current system, ‘outstanding’ schools are left to get on with their work, but can be visited if safeguarding or other serious concerns are raised.

For example, Ofsted’s investigation into the Trojan Horse scandal, a plot by religious extremists to take over schools in Birmingham began with the inspection of schools with the top grade, but where parents had complained.

Matthew Coffey, Ofsted’s chief operating officer, said this showed the inspectorate would “not hesitate” to visit schools where concerns are raised.

“Let’s just take Trojan Horse for example,” he said. “The first three schools that were inspected were all outstanding schools and were all inspected on the back of complaints we received from parents.”

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said the government already expects Ofsted to intervene where it believes an ‘outstanding’ school is declining.

“If Ofsted has reason to believe a school is no longer meeting its previous high standards, we would expect it to use its powers to carry out a full inspection –  this has always been the case – and remains so,” he said.