Ofsted to keep grading system despite criticism

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’ grading system is here to stay despite on-going concerns over reliability and validity of inspectors’ judgements. Pete Henshaw takes a look

Ofsted has rejected criticism of its four-point school grading system and confirmed it will continue to be used under the new Education Inspection Framework (EIF) from September.

A 13-page paper published by the inspectorate acknowledges some of the criticisms of the grading approach, which rates schools as “inadequate”, “requires improvement”, “good” or “outstanding”.

However, Ofsted concludes that “on balance, the arguments for change do not yet counterbalance the arguments for keeping the current system”.

The paper – Retaining the current grading system in education (Ofsted, 2019) – argues that moving to another type of grading system, or scrapping grades altogether and perhaps relying solely on attainment or progress data, for example, could have unintended consequences and worsen behaviours such as off-rolling or gaming.

The common criticism of the four-point grading system is that with such high stakes, the regime places an enormous amount of pressure on schools and school leaders and has led to workload-heavy practices such as “mocksteds” and behaviour such as league table gaming. A second criticism centres on the reliability of inspection grades, as well as the difficulty of summing up everything that a school does – especially large secondaries or colleges – in one grade.

A recent report from education think-tank EDSK, run by former government education advisor Tom Richmond, said that overall Ofsted ratings for schools should be axed “due to a lack of reliability and validity in their judgements” (EDSK, April 2019).

The report – Requires improvement – points to a range of research, including the 2013 Measures of Effective Teaching project in America and the subsequent work of Professor Robert Coe at Durham University, showing the extent to which different inspectors can reach different judgements about the same lessons or teaching (see SecEd, 2013).

It also references a damning Policy Exchange report in 2014 that raised concerns about inspectors who cannot analyse data, unreliable lesson judgements, and unaccountable inspection teams (see SecEd, 2014).

In 2014, Policy Exchange concluded that when comparing a lesson observation judgement of teacher quality against its “actual quality” as defined by the value-added progress made by pupils, judgements were wrong 51 per cent of the time.

It was this swathe of research that led to Ofsted banning its inspectors from giving lessons grades, although observations remain a fundamental part of the inspection process.

Mr Richmond argues that concerns about reliability between different Ofsted inspectors’ judgements were raised as far back as 1996 and have never been satisfactorily addressed.

He writes: “Ofsted’s approach to judging teachers and schools is not based on research evidence from this country or abroad, nor have the reliability and validity of their judgements ever been satisfactorily tested and assured.”

Ofsted’s paper does not tackle such issues of reliability or validity of inspection outcomes, although it does point to its recent YouGov polling of parents, which found that 74 per cent believe inspection judgements are reliable and eight in 10 find the information useful.

The paper adds: “Inspection judgements provide parents with a useful headline indicator of provider quality, which is different from, but complements performance data.”

Mr Richmond’s report recommends that a new one-page School Information Card (SIC) should be introduced, to be published on an annual basis for every school and detailing 12 indicators: four performance measures, the four Ofsted judgements, and four measures of wider school life, evidenced by things like staff and student surveys.

He added: “By moving away from the notion of ‘grading’ schools and towards empowering parents with better information, the education community will reap the benefits of having a self-improving school system that includes Ofsted, but without teachers and leaders having to experience the burdens that inspections generate at present.”

For now though, Ofsted has rejected proposals for change, including scrapping grades or moving to a pass/fail system. Its paper says that the four-point system underpins legislation and warns of the “unintended consequences of change”.

It states: “Moving to a below/above the line system would make the decision to place a provider below the line potentially even more high-stakes than the current good/requires improvement cut-off, because all the providers placed below the line would be in a single ‘failed’ category.

“Not grading or moving to a below/above the line system could lead to the system becoming even more reliant on attainment or progress outcomes as the main measure. This in turn could increase behaviours such as off-rolling and gaming the exam system.”

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman added: “Parents use our reports to ... better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their child’s school. The grades are a reliable measure of quality. They are simple, they are well understood and they work for parents.”

Which all means that the familiar Ofsted grades for overall school effectiveness, as well as across the EIF’s four new proposed categories of inspection – quality of education, leadership and management, behaviour and attitudes, and personal development – look set to stay for some time to come.


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