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How would Labour’s Ofsted ‘report cards’ work?

Scrapping single-word Ofsted judgments is one of Labour’s key schools policies. It has won backing from the sector, but coming up with a new plan that keeps the sector onside will not be so easy. Schools Week investigates…

With a 20-point lead in the opinion polls ahead of the general election next month, Labour looks set to form the next government.

Its manifesto, published yesterday, promises to “enhance the inspection regime by replacing a single headline grade with a new report card system telling parents clearly how schools are performing”.

Sir Keir Starmer has talked about Ofsted reform since 2021, with the report card policy announced in March last year. But there are still few details on how it could work.

What could report cards look like?

While a school’s overall grade still features prominently in school performance tables and is the measure used for government intervention, Ofsted tweaked its website recently to ensure that sub-judgments are displayed more prominently.

Loic Menzies

Loic Menzies, visiting fellow at Sheffield Institute of Education, said an “evolutionary” approach could see these, or similar, subcategories used in a scorecard. Each could have a descriptive drop-down paragraph attached, with no overall score.

Instead, it would state whether a school had “met expectations” in each area.

Andrew O’Neill, headteacher at All Saints Catholic College in west London, said an online dashboard would work best – offering a “broad overview of the school that you are looking at in a single glance”.

But this should be “backed by an enhanced interface that allows you to drill down further to get more detailed information about the school that you are looking at, as well as a broad comparison to how similar schools fare”,

Seamus Murphy, CEO of Turner Schools, warned that any approach which just takes all the information currently hosted on the Get Information About Schools website and “reproduces this in a fancier format [will leave] parents none the wiser”.

The Department for Education last year snubbed calls to scrap single-word judgments, saying it could lead people to “drawing their own conclusions” about schools from the narrative in reports.

But Frank Norris, a former Ofsted inspector and trust boss, welcomed parents using a report card to “create an algorithm that works for them”.

The parent of a child with SEND, for instance, might want to analyse a different set of data than someone with other needs.

What metrics could they include?

Murphy said a report card could better “capture the nuances” and “show the work schools do with children who face additional barriers such as SEND or poverty”.

Natalie Perera
Natalie Perera

Norris suggested the report card metrics could “flex” between years to reflect changing priorities.

The Education Policy Institute think tank launched an online tool in February which allows councils and academy trusts to be compared on measures such as inclusion, admissions, exclusions and attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

Natalie Perera, the EPI chief executive, said this “provides a really helpful blueprint” for the next government.

Sir David Carter, former national schools commissioner, added that a report card ought to look at “leadership priorities” such as attendance data, recruitment and retention and the “performance of disadvantaged children and the degree to which such a gap is closing”.

But Perera warned that any government “needs to be really clear about what the purpose is, how it will be used and what the consequences are if schools don’t meet a certain benchmark”.

Sir David Carter
Sir David Carter

Parentkind recently surveyed 1,017 parents in England with children aged four to 18, as part of its submission to the inspectorate’s “Big Listen” consultation.

Parents’ priorities are quality of teaching, how well the school is led and managed and how happy children are, followed by mental health support and pupil behaviour, he said.

In a report card, this translated as comments on what a school does well and where it could improve.

Does this work for parents?

But “what came out loud and clear was that they wanted an overall evaluation of the school”, Elsom added.

The ParentKind poll, yet to be published but shared with Schools Week, found parents were “significantly more supportive of proposals that retain an overall evaluation of the school in reports” (79 per cent, compared to 52 per cent with no overall evaluation)”.

Elsom said parents are clear they “don’t need a score, grade or single word for that to happen”.

Menzies said more of a “scorecard” approach could see categories having their own rating.

But this “traffic lighting option” would lead to people just aggregating the scores to produce their own overall score, he added.

O’Neill said that such an approach would defeat the point of the policy. “From my perspective, it is quality contextual data that demonstrates what the school is like, but also fundamentally how inclusive that school is.”

However, getting parents to read reports more fully would require a behavioural shift.

The ParentKind poll found 53 per cent of parents read the full Ofsted report for their child’s school, with almost four in 10 just checking the overall grade.

How would the interventions work?

And, if you have no overall grade, what do you hook government interventions to?

Frank Norris
Frank Norris

Local authority-maintained schools rated ‘inadequate’ are required by law to become academies.

In a report for the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank last year, Menzies said that single-word grades drive a “football manager hire and fire” culture in schools, which needs to end.

He proposed that “narrative-driven” reports for parents could be accompanied by a “simple” dashboard on pupil progress data.

But a second report, with “more detailed information”, would be prepared for the school and the regulator which would then be the basis for deciding on intervention.

Norris suggested the current four point-scale grading system could be replaced by a dual model whereby a school either “meets the expected standard” or is “special measures and requires additional support”.

How long will it take?

Labour has promised to consult the sector on the plans.

Norris said changes would most likely require a new framework, placing the timeframe between a year and 18 months. Other experts agreed that any changes would be unlikely before September 2025.

They might also have to change legislation, which currently requires Ofsted to identify schools that either require special measures or need “significant improvement”.

However, the current grade descriptions are not set out in law. So, what happens before any changes are enacted?

The NAHT union wants Ofsted to “revert to a model of interim ungraded inspections for all schools, except those identified as causing concern”, similar to the practice during Covid.

A simple report or “short letter” could then be issued, focused on evaluating and reporting a school’s strengths and areas for development.

Ian Hartwright, the NAHT school leaders’ union’s head of policy, said the step was needed because it was essential that any changes are made with “plenty of time for the system to adjust, and they don’t put further pressure and work on already overstretched leaders”.

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