From education to employment

Defence that Doesn’t Make the Grade

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

In this article, Chris Thomson takes a close look at what Amanda Spielman’s recent defence of Ofsted Inspection may reveal.

Ofsted fears inspection.

I don’t mean it fears being inspected itself; nor do I mean it fears the kind of backlash that has prompted Amanda Spielman’s article of 21 April, HMCI commentary: improving how we work. I mean that Ofsted fears the very inspections it carries out.

This is a very odd thing to say especially at the present moment. As everyone by now knows it’s principals and headteachers who are anxious about inspectors’ judgements on their colleges and schools. What on earth would Ofsted have to be worried about?

But despite its absurdity it is the abiding impression I’m left with after studying HMCI commentary: improving how we work. The problem with the HMCI’s article is that on the question of grading it begs more questions than it answers.

The HMCI says that keeping children safe is so important that a school can be graded inadequate if safeguarding is poor – even if everything else in a school is done well and also that government uses Ofsted’s overall grade to determine how best to support improvement.

These statements militate against each other

One can’t help noticing that these statements militate against each other. If the overall grades are used for planning they must be unambiguous. You have to be able to distinguish inadequate grades that mean poor safeguarding from those that mean poor educational standards from those which mean both. It’s a pretty safe bet, then, that someone at Ofsted is charged with clarifying this.

In other words with unpicking the single-word grade. And almost certainly turning single-word judgements into single figures so as to make them more manageable for planning purposes. I should be amazed if this wasn’t happening because it’s a reporting necessity. When called before the Select Committee any HMCI will want to be well prepared – with (reliable) statistics.

Do parents find the grading useful?

The HMCI goes on to suggest that many parents find the grading system useful, whether that’s in choosing a school or to understand the one their child attends. I have no way of estimating the degree of attention given by parents to Ofsted grades but it must be doubted the grades can possibly be useful in understanding a school, particularly in the context of ambiguous single-word grades.

Imagine the position of a parent who tells inspectors I am impressed with how happy my child is at the school. The staff are brilliant and caring, inspiring them to be the very best they can be* and who subsequently discovers the school has been judged inadequate. You must feel perplexed rather than enlightened.

And even studying the report will bring you little clarity. Because Ofsted give judgements but very little explanation for, or evidence of them you will gather what the judgements are but you won’t have the least idea about how or why they’ve been arrived at. The truth is you won’t understand the least thing about your school from the Report; all you can understand is what the inspectors have said of it.

Ofsted’s role?

And then we’re told something rather unexpected. The HMCI writes:

Ofsted inspects, showcases good practice and, where necessary, diagnoses if there are significant issues at a school. That’s where the role we have been given stops. School improvement is the role of schools themselves, and school trusts, facilitated and supported by government. It can take many forms, and government uses Ofsted’s overall grade to determine how best to support improvement.

What’s curious here is the sentence That’s where the role we have been given stops. The paragraph makes perfect sense without it so why, one wonders, this unrequired emphasis? And why the role we have been given and not just our role? It sounds as if responsibility is very deliberately being doffed here even to the extent that Ofsted’s fundamental duties are laid at someone else’s door.

So what is going on?

Some things border on contradiction. Some things are not only unpersuasive but must have seemed so to the writer. And some things are almost  vehemently insisted on although not really to the point.

If you’re looking for a common thread you may, like me, conclude that it’s all to do with safeguarding. Nothing to do with the present controversy the HMCI’s article is intended to calm; but rather Ofsted’s real fear about safeguarding. Imagine some terrible accident splashed across the front pages of the papers, waking up to hear about it in the headlines of the Today programme….an accident at a school which – of course – Ofsted will have inspected.

I suspect this is the fear lurking just beneath the surface of improving how we work? In that terrible eventuality how would Ofsted seek to protect itself from journalists’ questions? Perhaps by pointing out that in grading, safeguarding is given priority over every other aspect of a school or college’s work; by having the statistics to hand which single-word grading facilitates; by gently insisting you’re only doing what you’ve been told to; and by being very clear that Ofsted has no responsibility whatsoever for school improvement?

Could it be that a fundamental rationale of the Ofsted inspection régime is to shield Ofsted as well as possible from collateral damage, to protect itself (amending a phrase of H.L.Mencken’s) from the haunting fear that in some school, somewhere, at some point, a terrible safeguarding accident is bound to happen – and then what?

And if the grading system is designed, in part at least, to serve the interests of those who invented it, is there not a risk that it may not do the best possible job for what the HMCI calls the wider school system: schools, colleges, parents and above all young people?

But if I’m claiming the HMCI’s article is less than transparent it behoves me not to commit the same error. So for the record: my background is Eng. Lit…… perhaps I am just reading things into a perfectly innocent piece of English prose?

Chris Thomson
By Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

*Ofsted: Inspection of Caversham Primary School, 15 and 16 November 2022

Related Articles