In past blog articles we’ve taken a close look at just what it means to be an ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ school, as defined by the all-powerful Ofsted organisation. If you’ve been reading with us, then you’ll appreciate that these grades are anything but clear cut.

In this, our third instalment on Ofsted grades, we hone in on the differences that are today faced by schools aiming for that coveted outstanding rating.

2012: A complete Ofsted overhaul

As of 2012 the educational sector was faced with fresh turmoil as schools braced themselves for a round of inspections that would be unlike any of those faced previously. The changes came about as part of an extensive consultation (which you can read in full here), which involved more than 5000 respondents.

“All schools and colleges can, and should, provide at least a good level of education. Parents and employers, children and learners, expect nothing less. That is why we are introducing these changes to the way we inspect. Inspectors will be clear about what needs to improve, and will return sooner to those that are not yet good to check their progress”.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, HMCI

A summary of the main changes

A polarised grading landscape

Before 2012, the Ofsted system had consisted of the following four markers: Outstanding (Grade One), Good (Grade Two), Satisfactory (Grade Three) and Inadequate (Grade Four).

Following the consultation, the ‘Satisfactory’ rating was completely removed and replaced instead with ‘Requires Improvement’.

More inspections for those who require improvement

Also announced was the fact that schools that were then deemed to require improvement would then be re-inspected within 12 to 18 months.

To be rated as ‘Outstanding’, schools must provide outstanding lessons

This seems a pretty sensible point – yet up until 2012, gaining ‘Outstanding’ status didn’t actually require the meeting of ‘Outstanding’ teaching criteria. The five various areas of inspection previously meant that schools could, in theory, achieve an ‘Outstanding’ grade whilst not being deemed to make the grade when it came to their teaching (these four other areas included: overall effectiveness; effectiveness of leadership and management; personal development, behaviour and welfare and outcomes for pupils).

As of 2012, schools were required to meet the ‘Outstanding’ criteria in quality of teaching, learning and assessment to attain the certification. In all, there are 12 pointers amongst the grade descriptors for ‘Outstanding’ teaching, learning and assessment, three highlights of which include:

“Teachers check pupils’ understanding systematically and effectively in lessons, offering clearly directed and timely support”.

“Teachers set challenging homework, in line with the school’s policy and as appropriate for the age and stage of pupils, that consolidates learning, deepens understanding and prepares pupils very well for work to come”.

“Pupils are eager to know how to improve their learning. They capitalise on opportunities to use feedback, written or oral, to improve”.

A sensible step indeed – or so it would seem. Yet as we’re about to explore, often all is not as it seems when it comes to the top level Ofsted certification…

Pre 2012 – Consistent improvements were already being made

Following the 2012 enacted changes, the Government has reported unprecedented numbers of schools being rated as good or outstanding. Today, 1.4 million more pupils are deemed to be in ‘the best’ schools, compared to five years ago.

Yet schools were joining the upper echelons of Ofsted’s spectrum year on year, even before the Ofsted shake up…

“In 2009-10, it was 65% and then in 2010-11 and 2011-12 it had risen to 70% and then jumped again in 2012-13 to 78% and by August 2014 it had reached 81%”.

A definitive lack of stats on solely ‘Outstanding’ schools

“The overall proportion of schools rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ has risen by 16 percentage points since 2010, with 84% of schools now achieving top Ofsted ratings”.

This statistic was provided as part of a 2015 update as to the Government’s achievements in education – yet this report is illuminating – and misses any figures at all that defines between good and outstanding, instead lumping them all together. Given that the 2012 changes saw the satisfactory grade removed, and an expectation put in place that schools should be ‘Good’, this lack of break down seems nonsensical. It is, however, commonplace, with reports into the matter seemingly always putting the two grades together.

In one of the few references solely to the ‘Outstanding’ grade, it was reported that only 12% of schools achieved the certification (Politics Home); notably this article was one that focused on the current Ofsted Chief Inspector’s thoughts on the ‘Outstanding’ level itself.

“If I was staying, I would have written a letter to the secretary of state to say, ‘if the outstanding grade is to be kept – and my advice to you is keep it – then we need to inspect all outstanding schools on a routine basis in the way that we inspect all other schools’. One of the first things Michael Gove did was to bring exemption [from further inspections] to outstanding schools, which is a dangerous thing to do, because some outstanding schools are [only] just outstanding and can easily decline.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted Chief Inspector

Which roundly brings us to the point of the routine, or complete lack thereof, for inspecting ‘Outstanding’ schools.

Outstanding – Does it truly mean that a school remains ‘Outstanding’?

One of the many anomalies of the Ofsted marking system is that ‘Outstanding’ schools are no longer routinely inspected. In layman’s terms, it’s then far tougher to reach the lofty heights of the ‘Outstanding’ grade, than it is to stay there. To provide some context as to just how many schools this affects, consider this:

“90% of ‘Outstanding’ schools were not inspected in the last year – and, even more intriguing, some haven’t been inspected since as far back as 2006/2007”

What’s more, schools that are inspected can suddenly slip – and are not immune to serious falls – such as was highlighted by the controversial ‘Trojan Horse’ schools in Birmingham, where re-inspections saw some schools falling from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Inadequate’.

All of which makes for a seriously murky picture as to just what an ‘Outstanding’ school is, or indeed, has ever been. This is only made all the more of a political hot potato as both the current and future Ofsted Chief Inspectors have outlined their concerns over the grading.

“I am quite uncomfortable about some of the effects I have seen it having in the system… I am open to a discussion about it.”  

Amanda Spielman, Future Ofsted Chief Inspector

It then seems that defining just what an ‘Outstanding’ school is, has never been an easy task – and just what it will mean in a further five years is literally open to any and all possibilities.