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Primary school children with their hands raisedOfsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) inspects and regulates services that care for children and young people, and services providing education and skillstraining.

What does Ofsted do?

Ofsted's stated aim is 'to improve lives by raising standards in education and children’s social care'. The organisation sits within the Department for Education and inspects all state-maintained schools, as well as the minority of independent schools that are not inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). Read our article on the ISI. Ofsted also inspects other service providers such as nurseries, childminders, adoption and fostering agencies and young offender institutions.

Are Ofsted reports useful?

As with most reports, there’s a code to decipher and a few questions to ask. The local school gets a glowing report, yet you know half the population are banned from the shopping centre. Puzzling?

So just what do inspection reports tell us and have they any value? The answers are lots, and yes, sometimes, if you know how to read them and bear in mind their limitations.

What are the Ofsted grades?

The four Ofsted grades are:

  • Outstanding (grade 1)
  • Good (grade 2)
  • Requires Improvement (grade 3)
  • Inadequate (grade 4) (sometimes classed as Special Measures or Serious Weaknesses)

The school's overall grade will be taken from the inspectors' judgments in the following areas:

  • The quality of education
  • Behaviour and attitudes
  • Personal development
  • Leadership and management 
  • 16-19 study programmes (if relevant)
  • Early years provision (if relevant)

Does Ofsted ask parents for their opinion?

Parents are consulted via an online questionnaire, but the numerical data is no longer included with the report – a pity, as it was very informative, and knowing the percentage of parents that had responded was also revealing. You can, however, view responses online on the Ofsted Parent View site.

Don't rely on Ofsted's single word descriptions

Every school will receive an overall one (or two) word grade. More than 90% of mainstream state schools are summed up as 'Good' or 'Outstanding' and yet, clearly, there is plenty to distinguish these schools from each other. You can find a further level of information in the grades given for the individual areas of assement but a 'Good' in 'The quality of education' can only tell you a fraction of the story. Even a 'Requires Improvement' can belie positives that can only be found if you delve into the full text. Use your imagination and read reports with care – inspectors have seen too many schools and tend to think everyone knows what’s meant by, for example, ‘low-level disruption’. Nothing much then? No! They actually mean the most annoying kind, the sort that’s much worse for other pupils than the occasional, spectacular blow-out followed by a quick expulsion, .

Other things to look out for include:

  • Does the teaching meet the needs of all abilities, from the very bright to those with special needs or disabilities?
  • Do teachers provide engaging tasks and resources?
  • Do they encourage deep thinking?
  • Does the school promote wide reading well?
  • How effectively is bullying dealt with?
  • Is there good provision for mental health and wellbeing?
  • Does the school encourage pupils' opinions to be heard and how well does it respond to them?
  • Is there good provision of extra curricular activities, trips, visits, clubs?

Are Ofsted reports worthwhile?

On the whole, despite improvements, we have our doubts about the current system. Mechanistic (relying on statistical analysis), not getting under the skin of a school and unsupportive are some of the complaints we’ve heard.

Many schools complain that Ofsted has already made up its mind before visiting, basing its judgement on raw results rather than teaching. Some also suspect political pressure to come up with some judgements that conform to Government views, with allegations that some ‘superheads’ get advance warning of inspections.

Some headteachers have expressed concerns about the inconsistency of inspections and the difficulty in navigating the complaints procedure which deters challenges when it is felt that mistakes have been made. It is also felt by many schools that the focus rests on test and exam results in a limited range of subjects at the expense of – for example – arts and technology. There are additional concerns about how many schools with outstanding grades have been left to their own devices and had an inspection for over a decade.

Other questions you might want to consider are: is a one or two day visit really enough to make an accurate judgement of a school? Are 20-30 minutes’ observation really enough to make an accurate judgement of a teacher?

At The Good Schools Guide, we don’t visit a school just because it has an outstanding rating – though it may form part of our judgement. Equally, we have been known to review schools that have been rated as requiring improvement. We find out what current parents think, talk to the head about their plans, and form a judgement: which may be that the ‘outstanding’ school has got its grade by ticking boxes, whilst the ‘requires improvement’ one has a talented head, great parental support, and is a school where we wouldn’t mind sending our children.

What happens to schools at each end of the grading spectrum?

In England, the most outstanding schools will be named as such. Certificates are framed and banners erected around the school. The perennially 'Outstanding' are in something of a virtuous cycle. Top grades beget top grades; ambitious, well-educated parents are attracted to the area and corner the market for places at the school. Providing there is no implosion in the school's leadership, it's reputation and success endure.

At the other end of the scale, less than one per cent of schools are graded 'Inadequate'. They are either classed as being in 'special measures' or as having 'serious weaknesses'. If it is a local authority school, it usually will be taken over by a Multi-Academy Trust in the expectation that it will bring about a new ethos. A school which is already an academy will be given up to two years turn things around, during which time, the school will be subject to repeat visits from inspectors.

Also see

ISI – (for independent schools)

Education Scotland – (for Scottish schools)

ETI – (in Northern Irish schools)

Estyn – (for Welsh schools)

Alongside our own reviews of more that 1,3000 schools, The Good Schools Guide carries links to the Ofsted or ISI report of every school in England. Use our school search to find schools that interest you.

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