Sir Michael WilshawThe government and the DFE have made it clear that they are not prepared to change the OFSTED one-word overall effectiveness judgement even though it has come under intense criticism from the Coroner in the Ruth Perry Inquest as well as the Education Select Committee and both major head teacher associations.

The Department of Education is obviously not in listening mode and is choosing to ignore the welter of evidence highlighting the inconsistencies and insecurities inherent in the present grading system.

As someone who was once a supporter of the one-word overall judgement I no longer think it is fit for purpose.

My change of heart has been a gradual process but I now think that change is inevitable for two reasons.

Firstly, the head teacher associations are absolutely right in saying that the complexities of school life, its strengths and weaknesses cannot possibly be captured in a one word summary judgement. They believe that it is far too simplistic, blunt and, in some ways, insulting to school leaders and staff who are looking for something more sophisticated to describe a school in the 21st century.

A one word summary also patronises parents because of the assumption by government that parents want something simple and uncomplicated. That, in my experience, is simply not true. Most parents I know want an inspection report that is reliable, informative and provides a comprehensive picture of standards across the school’s organisation and curriculum. What they don’t want is a bland, anodyne and cursory report which is what they’re receiving at the moment.

In a recent YOUGOV survey more than fifty percent of parents interviewed did not trust Ofsted judgements and felt the inspection reports did not accurately reflect their own perceptions of their child’s school. That is truly shocking!

Secondly, and even more importantly, I think the one word judgement is doing the opposite of what was originally intended. It is impeding progress and school improvement because the implication behind the ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ judgement is that everything is good or outstanding in the school. That is patently not the case and deceives parents when the one word summary suggests that it is so.

With nearly 90% of schools judged in the top two categories, we’re in danger of painting a false picture of national standards. A ‘Good School ‘might have good behaviour but rotten teaching and vice-versa. A ‘Good School’ might have decent outcomes for some children but not for all and poor children might be doing particularly badly. A ‘Good School’ might have a strong curriculum but poor delivery. In other words, the content on paper is not being translated into good practice in the classroom.

I could go on but the point is well-made.

The great danger, however, is that inspectors, in their attempt to cram-in conflicting evidence on a school’s performance get the final judgement wrong.

Furthermore, the ‘Good’ judgement relieves the pressure on the head and senior team. As a consequence, they might lose focus in addressing the areas of weakness in the school.

In other words, the one word judgement can impede school improvement.

There is no doubt, in my mind, that Bridget Phillipson, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, will change the grading system and remove the one word summary judgement. It will be interesting to see what she puts in its place and how the underperforming and failing school can be quickly identified and dealt with.

One word can never be enough to describe the strengths and weaknesses of a school and, in my view, is no longer helping to raise standards in our country

Sir Michael Wilshaw | May 2024