The broken link between exam results and Ofsted ratings

Schools Week analyses the relationship between Progress 8 scores and inspectors’ ratings

Schools Week analyses the relationship between Progress 8 scores and inspectors’ ratings

27 Jan 2023, 5:00

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Ofsted promised that its 2019 framework would look more closely at what schools taught pupils, rather than just exam results.

Is that now reflected in its judgments? Amy Walker analyses the relationship between Progress 8 scores and inspectors’ ratings

Ofsted has rated a school in which pupils achieved a third of a grade lower than expected ‘outstanding’, while schools in which youngsters scored a full grade more have lost their top grade.

The watchdog said its new framework in 2019 would be an “evolutionary shift” looking more closely at what schools taught, rather than just exam results.

Things got complicated when exams were cancelled during Covid, leaving inspectors without access to performance data during the 2021-22 academic year. They were, in effect, inspecting “results blind”.

It is highly unusual…we have bucked the trend

Since inspections restarted in 2021, Schools Week found four downgraded ‘outstanding’ schools with provisional Progress 8 scores among the highest 100 in the country – putting them in the top 3 per cent.

Meanwhile, eight schools rated ‘good’ were in the bottom 100 schools in the country for their Progress 8 scores.

Such “outlier” ratings seem to be growing since the inspections’ 2019 overhaul.

Analysis reveals the link between results and Ofsted outcomes also dipped when national data was not available, but has since bounced back.

‘There’s more to education than outcomes’

Redden Court School in Essex was rated ‘outstanding’ in November. The school’s Progress 8 score for last year was -0.38, compared with the -0.03 national average.

Anthony Henry, the school’s head, said it was an “unusual ‘outstanding’ because it is usually the school in the headlines for their exam results that are judged best in the country”.

“It is highly unusual for a mainstream school with such high needs to be recognised in this way, but we have bucked the trend.”

Six per cent of pupils have education, health and care plans (EHCPs), compared with 2.3 per cent nationally. A fifth of pupils require special needs support.

Inspectors said leaders ensured all pupils studied a “curriculum that is broad and ambitious”. Teachers also knew the needs of pupils with SEND “very well”.

The school employs six teachers who exclusively teach children with additional needs, including in “nurture groups” of just five pupils.

Henry said personal development was a priority. “What is equally important as outcomes is that these young people really develop and leave here knowing who they are and able to make a positive contribution to society.”

He said Ofsted has “now got a softer ear to listen to the narrative around how you’ve arrived at where you are”.

“They’ve realised it’s important that students have good outcomes but there are a lot more ingredients to baking a really nice cake than just those outcomes.”

More schools with lower outcomes get ‘good’

Schools Week looked at the mainstream schools with the 100 lowest provisional Progress 8 scores last year, when national exams returned after Covid. (We didn’t include UTC or studio schools.)

Of the 39 inspected since visits resumed in 2021, eight were rated ‘good’. All eight had Progress 8 scores below -0.5 and five had results below -1 – meaning pupils, on average, achieved a full grade less than expected.

Hartsdown Academy, in Kent, was rated ‘good’ after a December 2021 inspection. Its Progress 8 score for last year was -1.33.

Inspectors said leaders worked hard to “develop an ambitious curriculum that caters for all pupils” with a wide range of subjects at key stage 3 that “prepares pupils well” for life beyond school.

Kirkby High School in Merseyside was rated ‘good’ after an inspection in July. Its Progress 8 score was -1.14.

Inspectors said leaders were able to “identify the needs of pupils with SEND quickly and effectively”.

Both schools did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Outlier’ judgments a feature of move away from grades

All but one of the eight ‘good’ schools had a higher-than-average percentage of pupils with EHCPs. Several reports referenced the inclusiveness of the school’s curriculum.

Analysis suggests such ‘outlier’ judgments are a feature of Ofsted moving its focus away from grades.

Mohsen Ojja
Mohsen Ojja

Between 2017 and March 2018, just 1 per cent of schools rated ‘good’ had Progress 8 scores of below -0.5.

Between September 2019 and March 2020 – after the introduction of new inspections – the figure grew to 8 per cent.

Early data for the current academic year shows 10 per cent of schools rated ‘good’ between September and December had Progress 8 scores below -0.5.

Mohsen Ojja, the chief executive of the Anthem Schools Trust, said: “If Ofsted produces a report that says a school’s education is ‘good’, but I look at the league tables and the Progress scores are below the national average, I would be asking myself how that school could be ‘good’?”

“The whole point of exam data is that it’s external, it’s validated, and it’s standardised… Children need outcomes and a great education. One should not be superseding the other one.”

‘Outstanding’ downgrade was ‘astounding’

But the picture is different among the highest-performing schools.

The previously ‘outstanding’ Holy Cross School in Surrey, was downgraded to ‘good’ after a May inspection last year. Its Progress 8 score for that year – published a few months later – was 1.1.

That meant pupils achieved a grade higher, on average, than expected. The school ranks 32nd in the country – out of more than 3,500 secondaries – in terms of progress.

Dervla McConn-Finch, the school’s head, said the outcome had been “based on an unnecessarily narrowly focused and highly subjective framework, using no triangulated benchmarking data, in a very limited timeframe. It makes very little sense.”

Areas of improvement identified by Ofsted included that some pupils thought staff were not “good at sorting out problems” such as bullying.

It also noted that leaders did not “routinely monitor” how effectively staff used “identified strategies” to support pupils with SEND.

The percentage of pupils at The Holy Cross with an EHCP is in line with the national average at 2.2 per cent.

‘Parents will just laugh’

The Henrietta Barnett School in north London ranks 54th in the country in terms of Progress 8 with a score of 0.98. It was also downgraded to ‘good’ last May.

Inspectors noted that the quality and “impact assessment practice” varied across subjects. Teachers “occasionally” did not check gaps in pupils’ understanding “sharply enough”.

Swakeleys School for Girls in west London – with a Progress 8 score of 0.93 – was also rated ‘good’.

Inspectors said teachers sometimes did not ensure pupils tackled “more challenging tasks”. They also did not “engage well enough with pupils to understand their opinions”, leading to some lacking confidence in their ability to deal with bullying. 

Commenting on such downgrades, Mouhssin Ismail, a regional director at Star Academies trust and the former head of the top-performing Newham Collegiate sixth form in east London, tweeted that “parents will just laugh”.

But McConn-Finch said that despite the “disappointing” rating, “the enduring popularity of our continually oversubscribed school” demonstrated how much parents valued its curriculum, teaching and results.

‘Leaders still don’t understand the new framework’

Jeffrey Quaye
Dr Jeffrey Quaye

Dr Jeffery Quaye, the national director for education and standards at Aspirations Academies Trust and a school inspector for ten years, said that good outcomes did not necessarily reflect a good curriculum.

While teaching in general might be good, there might be “significant areas of the subjects they haven’t given the same attention to”.

“A lot of leaders…still need to understand what the new framework is really about. If all you think is Progress 8 scores make you ‘outstanding’, then you’re going to have a shock when you’re told you’re a ‘good’ school.”

So has the relationship between a school’s outcomes and Ofsted grades changed?

In 2018-19, under the old framework, the correlation “coefficient” between Progress scores and inspection outcomes was 0.59. (1 indicates a perfect link, and 0 indicates no link).

Situation may change with availability of data

Ofsted’s annual report shows this fell to just 0.46 across the 2021-22 academic year when there were no national results to consider.

Datalab analysis of inspections from September to November 9 last year show the correlation rose to 0.66.

Progress 8 scores were published by the Department for Education in October. However, Ofsted said inspectors only accessed inspection data summer reports (IDSR), which had Progress 8 scores from mid-November.

Dave Thomson, Datalab’s chief statistician, said the figures showed Ofsted outcomes and Progress 8 were “related, but not strongly related”.

But there might be a stronger correlation between the two in future because inspectors would have had access to data.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Ofsted judgments focus on how well constructed and implemented a school’s curriculum is. We’d expect outcomes to correlate well with this, but good outcomes alone are not necessarily evidence of a curriculum with no issues.”

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