National Offer Day: don’t panic if you don’t get the school of your choice
By Elizabeth Coatman
As National Offer Day approaches, it’s a nail-biting time. And if, in the worst case scenario, you fail to secure a place at the secondary school of your choice, it can be a miserable, disheartening time, particularly when you find the Ofsted rating of the school you’ve been offered is anything less than Outstanding (otherwise known as an Ofsted Grade 1).
But I’d argue that parents are far too influenced by the Ofsted grading system. In fact, you might well find the school is a whole lot better than the government inspection body report would have you believe.
For a start, Ofsted reports can range from a few years to very out of date. In fact, schools that were rated Outstanding more than eight years ago won’t have been inspected since. After all, in 2011 schools with an Outstanding grade became exempt from inspections, unless a concern is flagged up. The result is that there are literally hundreds of Outstanding schools out there whose last inspection was eight, nine, 10 – even 13 - years ago.
Moreover, in 2013 the goalposts were moved so that only schools where the teaching was deemed by Ofsted as outstanding could get an overall Grade 1 rating, which hadn't always been the case previously.
Then there are schools with either a Grade 1 (Outstanding) or 2 (Good) whose academic progress and achievement have deteriorated recently, and schools with 3 (Requires Improvement) and 4 (Inadequate) that can wait over two years to be re-inspected, even though they might have significantly improved. And some free schools received their grades within two years of opening, before any test data was even available.
Things are further complicated by the fact that in 2017, Ofsted brought all its inspectors in house. At first glance, this may not seem remotely relevant to you, but the reason Ofsted decided against renewing the contracts of 1200 additional inspectors is because they were judged as unreliable. This, of course, begs the question of how unreliable their grading system was. In other words, all those schools with a prior Outstanding or Good grade may not have actually been worthy of them at all, yet they continue to benefit from the kudos it brings them.
Parents should also be mindful of the fact that due to deep funding cuts, schools with Good grades now receive visits lasting only two days - or even only one. But can Ofsted really gain meaningful answers to its very long list of questions in such a short time? Some would argue the resulting grade can only really come down to whether a school is adept at putting on a good show.
And there is so much that isn't covered in any detail by Ofsted reports. I'd want to know a lot more about how the teachers fare – do they get extra tasks intended to make a good impression on a future Ofsted inspector, for example, rather than being of genuine educational value? Do they feel able to be honest with senior management about discipline problems they are having? How many are specialists in the subjects they teach at GCSE and A Level? How often are children taught by supply teachers? Do the department heads just take the top sets?
I'd also want to know more about how impressive results are obtained. Through relentless practice of SATs tests from September to May of Year 6, with little else on the curriculum? (At least this will be monitored in future inspections, now curriculum quality is to become a focus.) Through just teaching students how to answer exam questions, without fostering their intellectual curiosity and ability to think deeply and critically? Or through 'off rolling', the practice of moving students (particularly those with special needs and disabilities) who are likely to bring results down away from a school before they take their exams?
So by all means read Ofsted reports, but do plenty of additional information mining with current parents and have a long list of searching questions for Open Days. And, if we review the school, check out our findings too.