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Trusts ‘not convinced’ Ofsted judgments are ‘appropriate’

An organisation representing academy trusts has said it is “not convinced” single-phrase Ofsted judgments are “appropriate or optimal for stakeholders or regulators”.

In its response to the Big Listen consultation, which closed last week, the Confederation of School Trusts called for “review and potential reform” of judgments by Ofsted.

The CST also warned the watchdog that the implementation of inspections of trusts “should not be rushed”, adding there may be “merit” to proposals for a separate safeguarding judgment.

Ofsted launched the consultation after a coroner ruled headteacher Perry died of “suicide, contributed to by an…inspection carried out in November 2022”.

The consultation has sought views on four “priorities”: how the body reports on findings, carries out inspections, the impact these checks have and the watchdog’s culture.

Calls for ‘more sophisticated’ Ofsted approach

In a summary of its evidence sent to members, CST said it was “not convinced that the current system of single-phrase judgements is appropriate or optimal for stakeholders or regulators, and we reiterate our previous calls for review and potential reform”.

In the formal response, Steve Rollett, CST’s deputy CEO, reiterated his group’s stance that “some aspects of evaluation do not lend themselves to valid and reliable graded judgements”.

“The understanding that inspection is a snapshot in time and differing interpretations could be made risks being lost when we privilege ‘clear judgment’ over all else.”

He added that Ofsted’s regulator role could require “some indicator from inspectors” when they encountered those in need of greater “support or significant intervention”.

Meanwhile, a “more sophisticated approach” could encourage “parents to be curious about schools in their area, to build relationships with those schools, and to use the important but transient findings…in a cautiously informed way”.

‘Don’t rush’ move to MAT inspections

Ofsted asked in its consultation whether it should have the power to inspect groups of schools, such as trusts or dioceses.

Currently Ofsted only carries out “summary evaluations” of MATs, including batch visits to some of their schools, but does not directly inspect the central organisation.

Steve Rollett

In its evidence summary, the CST said it “acknowledged the case for inspection of school groups but believes this is more complex than some of the commentary about this topic often suggests”.

“We believe this is challenging work for a number of reasons and should not be rushed.”

Rollett said “movement towards trust inspection is inevitable and many within the sector are warm to the notion”.

But CST is not convinced Ofsted has “the workforce with the expertise and legitimacy to inspect groups, especially school trusts”.

Recruiting inspectors “with experience of working in senior positions in school groups might be challenging”.

Separate safeguarding judgment ‘may have merit’

In the summary of its evidence, CST said “there may be merit in the Big Listen’s suggestion of a separate safeguarding judgment” during inspections.

But the “implementation of this is not straightforward. Assurance must be balanced with burden.”

The group’s submission pointed out the watchdog “already does this through a written statement that indicates whether safeguarding is effective or not, so in some ways this would not be a huge change”.

However, “there is a question about how stakeholders would make sense of, for example, a school that was judged ‘good’ for leadership and management and overall effectiveness but judged not to be effective at safeguarding”.

It “seems most plausible that it would be a binary judgement that indicates to stakeholders whether safeguarding is deemed effective,” CST continued.

“We are not specifically calling here for binary judgments but indicating that the current system of single-phrase judgements is not inevitable and as such should not be ‘off limits’ if sensible reform could be beneficial.”

Focus on Ofsted’s ‘culture’

Rollett said Ofsted’s culture “should be a significant focus of inspection reform”.

“In particular, we remain concerned about the conduct of a minority of inspectors who engage with leaders in a way that can be dismissive or insensitive.”

CST has “heard from a number of leaders who tell us that at the end of day one inspectors have revealed that a particular issue could lead to an unfavourable judgement”.

They described officials as appearing “unduly sceptical and critical, indicating the possibility of a difficult outcome” – even though the problem is resolved on day two “more often than not”.

The academy body thinks “there may be more Ofsted can do…to avoid a culture of inspection which leans into an undue sense of jeopardy as a proxy for rigour”.

Accountability pressures drive off-rolling

CST also warned that it “seems to be the case that the pressures of the accountability system, which includes but is not limited to inspection, have played a role in the off-rolling of pupils in some instances”.

This comes after leaders’ unions NAHT and ASCL reiterated their calls for the single-phrase judgments to be scrapped last Thursday.

In their submission for the Big Listen, they argued Ofsted must embrace “far-reaching reform” which “cannot come soon enough”.

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