Ofsted says it is ‘very pleased – but not complacent’ at the way its new style school inspections are going.

During the autumn term of 2005 it carried out 2,054 of the new, shorter inspections – almost as many as in the whole of the 2004-05 academic year under the previous system. More than 60% of the schools inspected were judged to be good or outstanding – the top two grades on the new four point scale. (The ‘outstanding’ grade one judgement went to 11% with 50% picking up a grade two ‘good’ rating.)

Another 30% of schools fell into the ‘satisfactory’ grade three and slightly over 9% were given grade four and judged ‘inadequate’. Of this group of 192 schools, 83 were made subject to special measures. Because of the increased number of inspections, this figure was a considerable increase on the same term in previous years. When taken as a percentage, it still represented an increase on the previous two years.

At the end of 2005 there were a total of 222 primary and secondary schools in special measures, compared to 213 at the end of August. During the autumn term 116 schools were judged to require significant improvement and given the new Notice to Improve.

Acknowledging these figures, the new chief inspector of schools, Maurice Smith said ‘the new inspection arrangements have raised the bar, and rightly so, but not out of reach’.

In a speech to headteachers at The Lowry in Salford, he reported that, ‘Overall, the consensus from schools is that the new inspection arrangements are a great improvement, reducing the cost, stress and bureaucracy associated with inspection. Typically, schools like the lighter touch but remain in no doubt that the processes and the judgements are rigorous. We wondered about schools’ reaction to the very short notice but, almost without exception, it has been positive.’
He also said that most headteachers thought the inspection judgements were ‘fair and accurate’ and that nearly all of them agreed that the right issues for improvement had been identified.

However, the Association of School and College Leaders was more critical of the new framework, saying that, ‘While the new school inspection framework is an improvement over the old model, there are still serious flaws in the system.’ After getting feedback from 80 of the 200 secondary schools inspected, it found that, while nearly all secondary school leaders welcomed the new, shorter inspection, many still had serious concerns about inspectors’ ability to make accurate judgements.

There was a strong perception that some inspectors relied too heavily on statistics rather than what they experienced during the school visit. ASCL reported that heads felt there was a tendency for inspectors to make generalisations about the school from a very slim evidence base and that judgements which differed from the school’s own self evaluation were sometimes based on inadequate evidence.

Concerns were also raised that inspectors were ‘forming pre-judgements’ before visiting the schools based solely on the performance data, which the inspection then merely set out to justify.
The ASCL general secretary, Dr John Dunford, added his voice to those worried about an overemphasis on performance data. ‘We are concerned that Ofsted is continually putting schools under more pressure, making it more difficult for them to be judged as successful,’ he said. ‘This is illustrated by the gradually increasing proportion of schools in failure categories,’ he added.

‘The new emphasis on performance data, unless it is used more intelligently by inspectors, will drive yet more schools into the failure category, even where they do not deserve it. Inspectors have been relying too heavily on performance data which does not give them an accurate picture of schools’ achievements.’

In his speech, Maurice Smith appeared to be pointing towards an even greater reliance on performance data when he put forward proposals for still lighter touch inspections. Trials of this new ‘proportionate approach’ are due to start this month (March), with the intention of implementing the changes fully from September.

Next steps: more changes Ofsted is considering

  • Schools that perform particularly well would receive an even lighter, but still rigorous, inspection. These inspections could involve one inspector analysing the school’s self evaluation and performance data, spending one day in the school and writing a report to provide parents with information.
  • Schools in special measures would continue to be monitored, but this would be carried out in a way that is tailored precisely to the needs and development of the school.
  • Schools given a Notice to Improve may receive a return visit in the period before their reinspection becomes due to check their progress and ensure that the improvements needed are being made.
  • Ofsted may look at progress made by some schools judged satisfactory overall (grade 3) where there is some underperformance.

This article first appeared in School Governor Update – April 2006