Ofsted outstanding? The exemption debate heats up

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The chief inspector of schools in England wants to see an end to the exemption from inspection enjoyed by those rated as ‘outstanding’. Chris Parr looks at the debate thus far...

It was in 2011 that Michael Gove, then the education secretary, introduced rules that granted schools in England rated as “outstanding” an exception from further Ofsted inspections.

The rationale was that Her Majesty’s inspectors would be better off spending their time at schools deemed to be “failing”. Since then, however, the policy has attracted a steady stream of critics, perhaps most notably in the form of the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts which, in September last year, described the exemption as “unacceptable” (CPA, 2018).

“Some pupils go through the whole of primary and/or secondary school without any independent assessment of their school’s effectiveness,” the committee found, pointing out that, as of August 2017, some 1,620 schools had not been inspected for six years or more, including 296 schools that had not been inspected for at least a decade.

“It is reasonable to assume that not all these schools remain at the same level of performance after so many years,” the committee concluded, before asking the Department for Education (DfE) to “re-examine the rationale” for the exemption, and “report back to us on its assessment in December 2018”.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister did just that, writing to Ofsted on December 3 (DfE, 2018) and ordering the inspectorate to “increase its inspection of exempt outstanding schools and colleges over the coming year to 10 per cent”.

Then, last month, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman voiced her view that the exemption should be rescinded altogether after figures revealed the extent to which the inspections of outstanding schools had resulted in a downgraded rating.

Ofsted inspected 305 outstanding primary and secondary schools between September 2018 and March 2019, and only 49 remained outstanding. Some 166 were downgraded to “good”, while 76 were found to require improvement, and 14 were rated inadequate.

“(These) figures are not particularly surprising, but they should still set alarm bells ringing,” Ms Spielman said in a statement issued alongside the statistics.

“Some of (these schools) have not been inspected for over a decade, and when our inspectors go back in, they sometimes find standards have significantly declined ... for the outstanding grade to be properly meaningful and a genuine beacon of excellence, the exemption should be lifted and Ofsted resourced to routinely inspect these schools.”

Meanwhile, a blog in May by school inspector Dan Lambert, who was previously a headteacher, reinforced the inspectorate’s opposition to the exemptions.

“We believe that the exemption has had its day and the time is ripe for the DfE to revisit the policy,” he wrote.
“Ofsted has no legal basis to include these schools in our cycle of routine inspections. This is difficult for many to understand. Indeed, I have found myself writing to parents to say that, as the law stands, we have no firm plans to inspect their child’s school, ever.”

Outstanding schools are regularly “risk-assessed”, he added, and the inspectorate takes the length of time it has been since a school was last inspected into account as part of our risk assessment. However, only the education secretary can sanction a full re-assessment.

“We will continue to make the case that we’d like to routinely inspect these schools,” Mr Lambert continued.

“But, in the meantime, parents can rest assured that, within the restrictions set for us by government, we are doing all that we can to make sure that outstanding schools really are just that.”

Ms Spielman and her Ofsted colleagues are not the only ones calling for the return of routine inspection for outstanding schools – even Sam Freedman, an advisor to Michael Gove at the time the policy was introduced, is now against it.

“Stopping automatic inspection of outstanding schools was (partly) my fault and I very much regret it,” he wrote on Twitter, adding: “Dumb policy.”

Alex Ford, a senior lecturer in the Institute of Childhood and Education at Leeds Trinity University, told SecEd that Ofsted was now in “a very interesting situation”.

He explained: “They cannot mandate the routine inspection of ‘outstanding’ schools, nor indeed full inspection of ‘good’ schools. This means that a significant number of schools have not been inspected for over a decade – enough time for a complete change of students and a good proportion of staff.” Many of these schools do “a brilliant job”, he added, but said that a “significant number” will have been assessed as outstanding under previous inspection guidelines.

He continued: “The lack of routine inspection means the continuation of problematic practices in some schools – things like excessive marking policies, data collection policies, and generic pedagogy approaches. Old outstanding and new outstanding are simply not comparable. More than this, none of the other gradings are either. How the DfE can continue to offer exemption in such circumstances is somewhat baffling.”

Responding to the Ofsted figures, the DfE said it was “important to note that most outstanding schools which are re-inspected are done so due to a concern being raised”.

A spokesperson added: “Given this trigger, it is expected that some of the schools will have declined, which shows that the risk assessment approach is working.”

Triggers that can currently lead to an outstanding school being re-assessed include a decline in exam results, a parental complaint, or the emergence of safeguarding concerns.

Mr Gibb, who is still schools minister, said: “These statistics show just how much better our school system is compared to nine years ago, with 85 per cent of pupils attending schools rated good or outstanding compared to 66 per cent in 2010.”

  • Chris Parr is a freelance journalist.

Further information

  • Ofsted’s inspection of schools, Committee of Public Accounts (CPA), September 2018:
  • School inspections: Nick Gibb letter to Ofsted, DfE, December 2018: http://bit.ly/2XAeWdU
  • Ofsted chief inspector repeats call for outstanding school exemption to be lifted as more schools lose top Ofsted grade, Ofsted statement, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2ICTY66
  • Dan Lambert HMI on the inspection of exempt outstanding schools, Dan Lambert/Ofsted, May 2019: http://bit.ly/2KA5AZG


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