Ofsted should never let its inspectors moonlight to help schools boost their ratings

The Independent revealed that schools are spending thousands of pounds of public money trying to unfairly boost Ofstead results

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The Independent Online

The revelation that some schools have been playing the system by paying present or former Ofsted inspectors to prepare them for inspections will do nothing to restore confidence in the way that schools are rated. It is astonishing that such an egregious conflict of interest on the part of some Ofsted staffers has been tolerated for this long. Not before time, Ofsted says that from September onwards inspectors will no longer be able to take on outside work with consultancy firms paid to ensure that schools get the right grades.

Whether or not the help that these firms supply is effective, the business blatantly discriminates against schools that are not party to such arrangements while subverting some of Ofsted’s own recent reforms – about no-notice inspections, for example. The problem with Ofsted is that while it is always closing this or that loophole, new abuses keep on emerging, which suggests that the flaws are systemic rather than opportunistic. When the very nature of the grading system creates a powerful incentive to outwit the inspections regime, new ways of cheating will always be found.

There is nothing wrong with measuring the performance of schools in principle. In an information-obsessed age, public access to such evaluations is seen as a right, not a privilege. The laments still made by some in the teaching profession about the whole idea of judging schools should be disregarded. The problem is the crude brutality of a rating system that allows almost no room between excellence and abject failure. Schools are judged “outstanding” – in which case they are covered in glory – “good”, or – the next rank down – “requires improvement”, in which case they are under the cosh and risk being placed into special measures if they fail to improve their rating within three years. Unfortunately, the Coalition Government moved in the wrong direction by further narrowing the space between success and failure in 2012 when it got rid of the old “satisfactory” rating. This was then renamed “requires improvement” on the grounds that, as David Cameron said, “‘just good enough’ is frankly not good enough”. It was time to “demand excellence” from every single school, he added.

The logic of obsessing in such a negative fashion about average performance in what is supposed to be an all-embracing national system deserves to be questioned. It is much like insisting that everyone running in a race should come first, which is fine as a slogan but not that practical as a policy. Beyond the philosophical objection to the almost cultish anathematisation of average performance, the inflexibility of the rating system clearly invites schools to attempt the kind of gaming that Ofsted now says it is – once again – about to root out.

The ratings system has already suffered a serious blow to its credibility in the aftermath of the Trojan horse allegations, when it emerged that Ofsted inspectors had given an “outstanding” rating to some of the schools in Birmingham said to have been infiltrated by radical Islamists. No wonder a number of respected heads are arguing that the current categorisation of schools should be scrapped and replaced by a simpler rating system, defining a school as “good enough” or “not good enough” – either way backed up by detailed reports on performance in a variety of fields rather than by banks of aggregated data.

There is no chance whatever of that happening under this government, of course, even though survey after survey shows that most teachers have no faith in the reliability of Ofsted judgements. If we are not careful, that loss of faith could spread to parents as well – in which case the whole point of evaluating schools will come under question.