Axe 'reductionist' Ofsted grades for narrative judgements?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Ofsted inspection should lead to a “narrative description” of a school’s strengths and weaknesses across different areas and not graded judgements, which are “reductionist” and “misleading”.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) says it is concerned that Ofsted is “losing the trust of the profession” and has published a paper setting out ideas for both immediate and longer term reform.

The paper suggests that the implementation of the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) has been “flawed”. It states: “Too many school leaders feel that the framework allows for overly subjective judgements to be made, that the quality of inspection teams is too variable, and that inspection activity sometimes goes beyond that set out in the handbook.”

As such, ideas within the 13-page document include the immediate removal of the overall graded judgement followed in the longer term by the removal of the four individual graded judgements.

It suggests that Ofsted publishes the “aide-memoires” that it provides for its inspectors to remind them of key aspects of the EIF, arguing that often these documents go further than the information available to schools in the framework. It also suggests the creation of new Ofsted standards in the longer term to replace the graded criteria.

Other proposals include telling schools in which academic year they will be inspected and piloting of multi-academy trust inspections.

And the paper calls for an immediate review into how inspectors use pupil-voice after reports that pupil comments relating to child-on-child sexual abuse and harassment are being used “disproportionately” to reach judgements.

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The paper is not formal ASCL policy, but instead is intended to begin a debate about Ofsted inspection that the union wants to see take place in the coming months. The proposals for immediate change are:

  • Remove overall graded judgements.
  • Tell schools in which academic year they will be inspected, and review the inspection cycle timeframe.
  • Publish Ofsted inspector training and associated training materials (including the aide-memoires).
  • Undertake an internal review of how pupil voice is used during inspection.
  • Update the inspection handbook and reporting to better reflect the role of trusts in school effectiveness.

The paper states that the overall judgements given to schools are “too reductionist, and significantly contribute to the high-stakes nature of inspection”.

It points out that in the Bailiwick of Guernsey, where Ofsted operates, it uses the EIF but does not give an overall grade and so such a move would not be without precedent. It adds: “We propose a similar model being applied in England. It is wrong and misleading to attempt to distil all the work and school improvement a school or college does into a single phrase.”

It then wants to see a longer term plan to remove all grades, which ASCL suggests will “end the unhelpful and misleading practice of reducing a school or college’s performance in key areas to a single word or phrase”.

The paper adds: “A narrative description of the school or college’s strengths and weaknesses in each area would give parents and other stakeholders a more nuanced understanding of the school or college’s effectiveness.

“This would build resilience and flexibility into the inspection process, as it would remove the need to define ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ practice, and instead focus on what the school or college does well, and where it could improve.”

The paper also suggests that publishing the aide-memoires Ofsted provides to inspectors would level the playing field for schools: “Much of the content of these documents goes beyond the published EIF and handbooks. It is not right to hold schools and colleges accountable against a ‘meta’ or unpublished framework, as we believe these aide-memoires constitute.

“Furthermore, school leaders who are Ofsted inspectors have access to these documents, whereas other school leaders do not.”

ASCL is also concerned at the way inspectors use pupil voice when investigating child-on-child harassment and abuse.

It welcomes the focus on this issue since Ofsted’s review in 2021 found widespread problems in schools, but it wants to see an internal review at the inspectorate into how pupil voice affects judgements and how this evidence is triangulated.

The paper explains: “Since summer 2021, school leaders have reported that comments made by a small minority of pupils have sometimes been used disproportionately to reach judgements. In many cases, these comments do not appear to have been triangulated by other evidence.”

In the longer term, the paper proposes a new set of “holistic standards” to replace graded criteria. These would be set in consultation with an independent working group. Complementing this would be a proposed new accountability dashboard offering a more balanced “scorecard” for schools, and new separate handbooks for each phase of education instead of one EIF for all early years, school, and college settings. All 10 longer term proposals are listed at the end of the article.

The paper has been produced following consultation with ASCL’s council. ASCL will be “actively seeking further views” on the future of inspection throughout 2023.

Launching the paper, Tom Middlehurst, curriculum, assessment, and inspection specialist at ASCL, said: “Many school and college leaders feel the framework is flawed and Ofsted risks losing the trust of the profession. We think that, if implemented, the changes put forward in this paper could help win back that trust and produce an inspection system that is just, reliable and in the best interests of children and young people.”

General secretary Geoff Barton added: “We know from speaking to members that the punitive inspection system is contributing to the recruitment and retention crisis in education by adding to the pressure school leaders are under, and by making it more difficult to recruit high-quality staff in the schools which most need them.

“Graded judgements are a woefully blunt tool with which to measure performance, failing to account for the different circumstances under which schools operate. Negative judgements come with huge stigma attached and create a vicious circle that makes improvement more difficult.”

The 10 longer term proposals for Ofsted reform included in the paper are:

  • Continue to focus in future frameworks on the quality of education, with the national curriculum as the only document which sets out the government’s curriculum requirements or expectations.
  • Remove all graded judgements.
  • Publish new Ofsted ‘standards’ rather than graded criteria.
  • Introduce a new ‘accountability dashboard’ or ‘balanced scorecard’, which should form the core of the inspection process and be the sole dashboard for accountability.
  • Require inspectors to notify DfE regional directors immediately if they come across major safeguarding risks, breakdowns in leadership and management, or an unacceptable quality of education, so that the regional directors can respond quickly and appropriately.
  • Introduce tighter and more transparent commissioning of support for schools or colleges which need it.
  • Produce more nuanced inspection reports, which better reflect a school or college’s ethos and culture.
  • Produce separate handbooks, frameworks and standards for different phases, and require lead inspectors to have relevant leadership experience of the phase they are inspecting.
  • Remove safeguarding and health and safety from the inspection standards, replacing them with a light-touch annual audit.
  • Enable Ofsted to formally inspect trusts and groups of schools, with approaches to inspection of trusts thoroughly piloted ahead of implementation.

Ofsted’s annual report in December revealed that 88% of all state-funded schools are now judged by inspectors to be good or outstanding – up almost 2% from 2021. For secondary schools, 80% fall into this category compared with 89% of primary schools and special schools.

  1. You can download ASCL’s discussion paper, The future of inspection, publishing in January 2023, via

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