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Stratford-upon-Avon School headteacher asks if Ofsted's £24m could be better spent

IN 1992 the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) was created to inspect schools and help improve the quality of education provided. However, despite 87 per cent of all schools being judged good or outstanding, the government recently pledged to inspect all schools by summer 2025 to assess how well education is recovering from the pandemic. Whilst it is not unreasonable to have a system of external checks, instead of spending £24million on more inspections, the government should prioritise funding schools to do what is best in their context.

Neil Wallace, headteacher at Stratford-upon-Avon School Photo: Mark Williamson
Neil Wallace, headteacher at Stratford-upon-Avon School Photo: Mark Williamson

Every parent wants their child to attend a good school and the overwhelming majority are. As Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, observed: “If your answer is ‘hold more inspections’, then you’re asking the wrong question”. The problem with Ofsted is the unwitting consequences of the current high-stakes accountability regime. The margins can be fine; the consequences transformational or devastating.

Ofsted reports can be perceptive. I’m so proud of the first word, indeed opening sentences, of our most recent Ofsted report: “Everyone at Stratford Upon Avon School is committed to ensuring that pupils feel safe, happy and successful. This is achieved very well”.

However, when a whole report is summarised by a one- or two-word headline judgement based on a short visit, the impressions can be misleading. Invariably, once a school has been deemed ‘Outstanding’ a banner appears outside the school gates, the reputation spreads, and all seems well. However outstanding schools have, until recently, been exempt from routine inspections for years. Performance can change over time and, on eventual re-inspection, some schools can and do see their ‘Outstanding’ ratings downgraded. Meanwhile, a local primary has finally been rated ‘Good’, after carrying the ‘Requires Improvement’ label for the last six years. A harsh Ofsted judgement can stigmatise a school, creating a vicious circle affecting the reputation and recruitment of staff and students. Are these labels really necessary?

A YouGov study (2018) reported that nearly nine out of ten parents knew the rating their child’s school received at the last inspection. What can be overlooked is that some students will receive an outstanding education in a school without an ‘Outstanding’ badge; just as some students will not receive an outstanding education in an ‘Outstanding’ school. Unfortunately, inspections place an enormous amount of pressure on school staff which can be counterproductive with the high-stakes nature of accountability encouraging some schools to ‘game’ the system by ‘off-rolling’ certain pupils or focussing excessively on key subjects or certain pupils to bolster their league table position.

If ever there were an opportunity to find the right answer to the right question, surely that time is now. Schools have performed wonders in managing to support and educate their students throughout the pandemic. High-stakes external examinations were cancelled, yet students still transitioned successfully to secondary school, sixth-form, university or the world of work. Things could be done differently. Ofsted simply needs to explain:

• Is it a good school?

• What distinctive features make it good?

• If not, what is needed to become good?

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