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Time to get rid of ‘Outstanding’ schools?

It’s rare, especially in these fractious times, that a policy announcement is greeted with almost universal approval, but we’ve had that in education this week. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson confirmed that the inspection exemption for the almost 4,000 schools with a current Outstanding Ofsted judgement will be lifted in September, subject to consultation and a Parliamentary vote. They will now be on the same 5-year cycle as schools judged ‘Good’.

This move appears to have the support of almost all sectors of the education community including DfE, Ofsted, professional associations, the majority of teachers – even the schools who will now be subject to the same Ofsted pressures as the rest of us have welcomed it.

It’s not hard to see why this move is both popular and necessary. When some schools have not been inspected for over a decade, and may have had a complete turnover of staff in the meantime, the judgement lacked any credibility. It’s also becoming clear at the moment that a judgement under a previous framework does not automatically transfer to the new framework. The small proportion of outstanding schools that have been inspected in the recent past have primarily been identified through a desktop analysis of data – under the new framework, this is a much less reliable indicator of inspection outcome.

However, just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean that it will be completely straightforward to put it into practice, and we should be prepared for some unintended consequences.

Firstly, we should be prepared for a steady decline in the proportion of outstanding schools. Unless all the current cohort retain their judgement, this is entirely predictable, not an indicator that standards are declining. However, it’s the sort of thing that makes politicians twitchy, and gives journalists the chance to concoct a story out of nothing.

Secondly, it will become increasingly difficult to demonstrate consistency across the system for the outstanding judgement. Without any external data to moderate judgements and with such a high bar, it will be very hard for both practitioners and parents to understand what outstanding signifies. For example, one school might lose its outstanding label because of a small proportion of off-task behaviour, another for over-zealous behaviour policies. Be ready for a steady stream of outraged schools challenging the basis for their downgraded judgement.

Surely the time has now come to revisit the value of the Outstanding judgement. I know this was considered in the last framework but this week’s announcement changes the context.

Apart from anything else, the word itself is not helpful to system-wide improvement. By definition, only a small proportion of schools can be outstanding – if everyone reaches the benchmark, they no longer ‘stand out’. It’s become something that divides and excludes schools, and discourages the system-wide co-operation that is so vital.

What benefit is the outstanding judgement bringing to the system? I know that some will be reluctant to give up their competitive advantage, but why not have a system where all schools can aspire to excellence? An inspection system that recognises that all schools have strengths and weaknesses, and doesn’t put a favoured few on a pedestal.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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