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DfE rejects calls to scrap single-phrase Ofsted judgments

Scrapping single-phrase Ofsted judgments would lead to civil servants, politicians and the media “drawing their own conclusions” about schools from the narrative in reports, the government has warned.

The Department for Education this week rejected calls from the Parliamentary education committee for the four overall effectiveness judgments to be scrapped.

MPs said in January that a more “nuanced” alternative to the “totemic” judgments should be developed as a “priority”, following the death of headteacher Ruth perry.

A coroner ruled in December that an Ofsted inspection at Caversham Primary School contributed to her suicide.

In its formal response to the committee, the DfE said that “the government will continue to listen to views and look at alternative systems, including the various approaches taken internationally”.

But they added “the government’s view is that there are significant benefits from having an Ofsted overall effectiveness grade”.

“In our view the priority is to look for ways to improve the current system rather than developing an alternative to it. This includes considering with Ofsted the presentation of its findings and grades, and opportunities to highlight some of the detail sitting under the summary.”

‘Consider the risks’ of scrapping grades

The DfE added that it was “important to consider the risks of a system without an overall effectiveness grade”.

Views and decisions about schools and their performance “would continue to be made, and there would continue to be consequences to inspection”.

“The government’s view is that it is preferable to have those views, decisions and consequences linked directly to the independent inspectorate’s overall findings rather than the interpretations by civil servants, politicians and the media looking through the narrative of reports and drawing their own conclusions.”

Robin Walker MP

The department said the overall effectiveness judgment was an “important feature” of reports, with “strong parental awareness”.

It also “enables us to look across inspection outcomes around the country and observe overall changes in the national position”.

“For example, we are able to say that 9 in 10 schools in England have been assessed by Ofsted to be providing a good or outstanding education for their pupils. We are able to recognise the hard work and professionalism of school leaders, teachers and staff, and to celebrate that achievement.”

Committee chair Robin Walker said it was “welcome to hear from DfE that it is open to ideas about how the single-word judgements system could be improved upon”.

Responses kick can down road

MPs also called on the DfE to work with Ofsted to “enable the inspectorate to reduce the frequency of inspections to approximately five to six years for ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools and three to four years for schools judged ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’”.

But the DfE said it “does not agree that it would be right to reduce the frequency of Ofsted school inspections at this time, and especially in cases when schools have been judged to require improvement or to be inadequate”.

“Independent inspection is a vital mechanism to give parents the assurance that the necessary steps are being taken to bring about rapid improvement where it is needed for the benefit of pupils’ education and safety.”

But many of its responses kick decisions on whether to enact certain reforms down the road, as they await the outcome of Ofsted’s “Big Listen” consultation.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT leaders’ union, said the DfE’s response “completely fails to recognise the strong consensus that Ofsted’s inspection model is broken”.

“The government’s defence of discredited, simplistic, and reductive single-word or phrase judgements simply perpetuates an inhumane and unreliable inspection system that is driving a mental health and well-being crisis across England’s schools.”

ASCL leader Pepe Di’Iasio called the response “deeply disappointing”.

“Its solution is to ‘consider’ the presentation of Ofsted reports rather than the system itself. This is despite all the evidence that these single-phrase judgements are the source of sky-high stress and anxiety, damaging the wellbeing of leaders and teachers, sapping morale and causing many people to leave the profession.”

DfE responses to other key recommendations

Consider a small increase in the notice period for inspections

“We welcome Ofsted’s commitment to consider the views of schools, parents and others on the matter of notification through the Big Listen, and its indication that it is prepared to consider potential changes to its notice arrangements should that be appropriate following the Big Listen.”

Assess whether the decision to impose academy orders on schools that have received ‘requires improvement’ ratings on more than one occasion is proportionate

“The government keeps the implementation of its policy on intervening in schools with consecutive judgements below good under review and will have regard to stakeholders’ views, including in particular through the outcome of the Big Listen.”

Consult on the best approach to increasing the regularity of safeguarding inspections through a less intensive compliance audit

“We will launch a call for evidence shortly and will use this process to build our evidence base by asking a series of questions to enable us to map current practice on quality assurance. This will give us a better understanding of how settings test their own compliance against KCSIE, which other organisations they work with to do that, how often, and what tools are used. This could be a pre-cursor to any future consultation.

Explore the option of setting up an independent body with the powers to investigate inspection judgements through scrutiny of the evidence base

“We will continue to engage with Ofsted on its arrangements and whether there are opportunities to further enhance the system through increased independent input. In doing so we will take account of the outcome of the Big Listen.”

Authorise Ofsted to develop a framework for the inspection of MATs

“The Department continues to actively consider how we might strengthen this link between accountability and autonomy for MATs and other school groupings. This might include the role of Ofsted. We look forward to hearing views on this issue through Ofsted’s Big Listen, including the perspectives of parents.”

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