Ofsted inspections will resume in January but without grades being issued.

Full inspections have been paused since the outbreak of coronavirus back in March but are now scheduled to start in 2021.

Yesterday Lesley Bishop and Melissa Heppell, the Principals at Atlantic Academy Portland, shared, in a Tes article, why an inspection without a rating is useless and simply serves to reinforce the stranglehold that Ofsted has on the future of a school.

The school was in special measures when it was taken over by Aspirations Academies Trust and rebranded. As the CEOs of the Trust we are very proud of all that Lesley & Melissa have achieved in turning the school around. Our own internal monitoring places the school in the ‘very good with outstanding features’ category.

An Ofsted inspection without a grade means the school will still be branded with the special measures badge which seems incredibly unfair. It shines a light on the fairness and usefulness of school Ofsted inspections and asks, is it fit for purpose & is there a better alternative quality mark for schools other than Ofsted? We believe the answer lies in ditching the expensive and outdated Ofsted framework and replacing it with peer review accountability, monitoring and support. 

Here, we outline why. 

Steve & Paula Kenning, CEOs of Aspirations Academies Trust

Atlantic’s history 

Atlantic Academy Portland, was the failing Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy (IPACA) until it was taken on by the Aspirations Academies Trust in September 2017.

The school has since rapidly improved and is widely regarded by all who visit, as well as through exam performance, to now be a very good school. However, the pandemic has prevented the expected visit from Ofsted from taking place, resulting in a wider community who still see the school blighted by the ‘special measures’ Ofsted rating.

This perfectly demonstrates how Ofsted has a stranglehold on schools, incorrectly influencing parents’ and students’ perceptions of schools simply because their structures and systems are not designed to provide a time-sensitive, realistic view of how schools are doing in the here and now.

Currently, most schools are inspected by Ofsted every four years on average, although some outstanding schools have not been inspected for over 10 years. This is hardly a level playing field.

Once an inspection has been conducted, a school is awarded an overall effectiveness rating that informs parents and the government of the quality of education that pupils attending the school receive. The school, depending on if it is a positive result, displays a badge on their website and on the front of their school gates. “In contrast, schools that are judged to be underperforming often suffer reputational damage, and special measures are taken to improve the school. The ‘reputation’ can make it difficult to recruit both students and staff.

Atlantic has been transformed

Atlantic Academy Portland, as an Aspirations academy, has gone from strength to strength under the leadership of joint Principals, Melissa Heppell (Primary) and Lesley Bishop (Secondary).

The academy has achieved excellent KS2 and GCSE results every year since 2017 and currently has the second-best progress 8 score in Dorset.

The school has high quality teachers, great facilities (the IPACA open spaces have been replaced with walls!), the innovative, challenging and engaging Aspirations ‘No Limits: Curriculum for success in the 21st century’ in KS2 and KS3, excellent community links, and a wellness curriculum which results in very happy pupils.

Despite this, not all parents on the island send their children to the school. Following the IPACA Ofsted inspection many parents moved their children to schools in Weymouth and this stigma has remained.

Aspirations conduct several monitoring visits each term in order to benchmark the quality of the school operation against national standards. Atlantic academy Portland, through these visits has been graded as a very good school for over two years.

On top of this the academy is regularly visited by people from the Department for Education, Dorset LA and local headteachers. Everyone is impressed by the quality of education on offer at the academy.

Yet Ofsted have not visited to give their seal of approval, and in current circumstances there is no prospect of a fair and balanced inspection in the near future. There is an obvious response to this conundrum – We need to develop an alternative quality mark for the quality of education delivered by schools.

The pandemic has clearly revealed the limitations of the reliance on standardised examination courses which are reliant on a curriculum designed on the retention of a wide, and unconnected body of knowledge.

Ofsted judgements are related to how successfully schools deliver this type of curriculum and the subsequential results. What is evident to anyone currently working in our schools is that there are other areas of learning which are far more important.

Children need to be taught to learn again, and to enjoy learning. The wellness of children is vital and they need to be taught the skills to succeed. The pandemic has shown our education system not to be fit for purpose for this fast, changing world. Our politicians and senior civil servants have clearly displayed a total lack of problem-solving skills, something we should now be teaching our children so they can manage future problems and issues.

Why the current Ofsted framework & inspections are not fit for purpose

The current Ofsted grades are weak predictors of students’ achievement and wellbeing. Inspections are variable in quality, often conducted by people who have had little experience in curriculum design and development. The inspection process has almost become a tick box exercise. A tick box exercise that is particularly stressful for school leaders. Ofsted inspections, which are perceived as exhausting, stressful and demoralising by teachers, do not capture differences in school quality that matter for students’ individual outcomes. Even a recent National Audit Office report revealed that less than half of headteachers felt that their latest Ofsted inspection led to any improvement. One reason for this is because this formal accountability system is geared more to shaming than support, competition than collaboration, intervention than improvement.

As we are trying to rebuild the education in our schools there is a great need to develop challenging and engaging learning that applies learnt knowledge to help solve problems and issues. This approach also helps to develop the skills needed by employers today. A focus on an imaginative curriculum alongside high quality teaching which encourages more student led and on-line learning will automatically lead to better examination results, even in standardised tests. 

So, what is the alternative to the Ofsted framework?

Peer review, monitoring and support needs to replace the Ofsted inspection process. Peer review and mutual accountability is a greater driver of school improvement than any top-down scrutiny.

The current Ofsted inspection framework is outdated and expensive: In 2017/18, £44 million was spent on 6,079 school inspections. Perhaps, MATs should have peer review and support built into their funding agreements. Each MAT could be expected to have a two or three year agreement with a few other schools or similar MAT to act as a critical friend. The MAT could review another school or MAT where there is with no vested interest beyond ensuring the rigour and integrity of the process, and is improvement-focused. The MAT review team could be constituted of leaders with the geographical, emotional and mental distance to give a truly honest appraisal of how the school or MAT is doing. The MATs could commit to work together before and after their reviews to share their experience and expertise, creating an ongoing professional dialogue about how to collectively improve our schools. 

The pandemic has had a colossal impact on education but amidst the continued disruption is an opportunity to change. It’s important to grasp this chance and to ensure that once it is all over, we do not go back to a system that is outdated and has been in need of an overhaul for decades.