Francesca Fraser is a researcher at Onward.
When inspectors visited the ‘Outstanding’ Ash Church of England Primary School in Somerset this September, it was the first time it had been inspected in 15 years.
Whilst recognising the efforts being made by the headteacher to improve the school, they reported “In some subjects, the curriculum is not well planned. Lessons are not well organised … Teachers’ expectations of what pupils can achieve are too low, including in the early years”.
Subsequently, the school was downgraded from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Requires Improvement’.
Headteachers and unions are up in arms that other schools may suffer Ash Church of England Primary School’s fate. When Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, warned that as many as half of outstanding schools might be downgraded following the return to routine inspections, many in the education system accused her of adding insult to the injury of disruption and hardships of the last eighteen months.
But what is more important: that schools maintain their ‘Outstanding’ status, or those with room to improve are shown how?
Such misplaced anger says much about the priorities of some in education. No one would argue that the school system has not been through hell over the last two years. Schools have endured restrictions, disruption and closure, often at the behest of policymakers and always at the mercy of an unpredictable disease. Teachers and heads deserve our support and gratitude.
But schools exist to serve pupils and families, and it is them – not schools – that stand to benefit from scrutiny.
A report by the Education Policy Institute for the Department for Education on progress during the last academic year demonstrates this clearly. By the end of the 2021 summer term secondary pupils were still, on average, 1.2 months behind levels of learning they should have received. Meanwhile, the gap in learning loss between disadvantaged secondary pupils relative to their peers was estimated at an additional 1.6 months for reading.
The truth is that children cannot afford another year of pandemic-related dither. Schools and teaching unions should be desperate for any intervention that may support them in making the necessary changes to reduce this learning deficit. We should be using every tool at our disposal to improve the opportunities afforded to school children, including the inspection regime.
And crucially, this focus must not be limited to the schools that are already flagged as being underperforming – as the case of Ash Primary shows. By giving previously outstanding schools a free pass, we are putting pressure on those that are already having the hardest ride while allowing those that were deemed good enough over a decade ago to go unchecked, potentially at the expense of pupils’ progression.
It is not just the effect of the pandemic which necessitates better accountability for outstanding schools, especially given evidence that some are not always delivering on their responsibility to the wider community. Consider pupil intake: outstanding schools consistently take on the lowest levels of pupils on free school meals, and this is true even if you compare schools in similarly income deprived areas.
A supportive Ofsted judgement should not override a school’s duty to those that could benefit from their help most.
This is clearly not the case for all high performing schools. Partly thanks to the reforms of the last decade, the UK is lucky to have many schools that are truly exceptional. In these cases schools should not be afraid of inspection either, as scrutiny should only serve to reaffirm their excellence. Where there are weaknesses, it is important that parents are made aware of them and schools are able to address them, the alternative is unlikely to be at anyone’s benefit.
But we shouldn’t stop here. If we are to truly have the ‘honest conversation’ that the Chief Inspector hopes to have around school standards, we cannot ignore the academy chains that are increasingly crucial in how we organise our school system and drive up standards. This is in part due to the likes of Outwood Grange, Reach, or Star Academy, who have successfully expanded their trusts into new areas in need of great schools and have demonstrated the possibilities of the Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) model.
Various funds have been introduced to capitalise on these success stories, most recently the Trust Capacity Fund, with some positive results. However the perennial problem with this approach is there is little to identify which MATs should be encouraged to expand and at what pace. What works for one trust will not always work for another.
This system risks failing to deliver for the schools and pupils that these expansion funds are targeted towards, creating disruption over solution. Meanwhile, it regularly fails to incentivise the very academies that we all wish to expand. Funding can be short-term, and too limited given the size of the challenge presented to them. Taking a school with successive poor judgements and a demoralised school body and turning it into something successful takes time and money.
These two birds can be solved with one stone. As Jonathan Gullis MP’s Ten Minute Rule Bill currently before Parliament proposes, we should give Ofsted the powers to inspect MATs, not just the individual schools within their control. These inspections should go further than considering Progress 8 and attainment scores and recognise the wider good that MATs can do, in providing professional development, creating great leaders, and inspiring pupils through curriculum and enrichment.
And when trusts are genuinely doing all these things, and are in a place where they can expand their influence and pedagogy, we should give them generous funding over multiple years to use their transformative approach elsewhere.This should create a system of accountability, akin to inspecting outstanding schools, where great deeds are recognised and built upon while encouraging others to take up this mantle.
Teachers wouldn’t let even the best students mark their own homework, especially not for fifteen years in a row. Let’s learn a lesson from them.