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The Good Schools Guide's managing editor, Melanie Sanderson, explains why parents must demand more from Ofsted.

A state primary school in West London12 July 2023

Single word judgements used by Ofsted to grade schools are misleading and should be abolished in favour of more holistic information. Simplistic gradings such as ‘Good’ or ‘Requires Improvement’ are the antithesis of helpful to parents who are crying out for a genuinely useful service that supports decision making in relation to their child’s education.

Last week in the school’s third grading in just six months, Caversham Primary, the school formerly led by the late Ruth Perry, was rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted. It was downgraded from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Inadequate’ in January due to inspectors deciding that training and record-keeping relating to safeguarding, part of the ‘leadership and management’ score, was lacking. Pastoral support, however, was praised at that time as was teaching, behaviour and attendance.

Considering the overall grade is the one that gets all the attention, it’s no surprise that everything else in the report gets lost. Popular perception is that ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires Improvement’ applies to the whole school setting. 

A regulatory body to monitor safeguarding and standards in schools is essential, but reports should be written with context front and centre. An excellent educational setting in a deprived area may look very different from one in a leafy suburb and should not be judged against the same criteria; the community served by schools and specific challenges faced by leaders should be key considerations. Ofsted reports are difficult and time-consuming to read, full of edu-jargon, and fail to answer the big questions asked by families. Single word summaries (and with three-quarters of all UK state schools described simply as ‘Good’, a ubiquitous word at that) do not equip parents with the information they need to draw sensible conclusions. Ethos is everything.

Of the 300 state-maintained schools reviewed by The Good Schools Guide, some we consider to be brilliant, often because of a culture of positivity, innovation and genuine care for pupils and their individual outcomes, are graded ‘Good’ by Ofsted and some that seem to be less impressive are deemed to be ‘Outstanding’. Head teachers tell us that this is because Ofsted is ‘fixated on the wrong things’; instead of contributing to schools getting better, inspections encourage behaviours in school leaders that don’t support improvement; casting punitive judgement on past events does not support improvement and progress.

Our advice to parents is to use Ofsted reports in their current form to establish that a school keeps its children safe but to look elsewhere for information on the important matters of ethos, community, pastoral care and co-curricular opportunities. They should visit schools on open days and, when they have a shortlist, on a normal working day too. Also talk to pupils and current parents and ask about things that are important for their child. Policy and paperwork, while necessary, will not encourage children to skip into school every day – that’s down to excellent leadership, inspirational teaching, effective discipline and a caring pastoral ethos. 


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