Outstanding primary schools fail Ofsted inspections under sudden rule switch
The eight-year-old boy was meeting the Ofsted inspector for the first time. “What do you remember learning in history?” she asked, tapping on her iPad. It was months since his year did the subject but he thought of something: “The Vikings.” And what did he learn about the Vikings? “They invented dragons,” he replied.
Under the inspectorate’s new framework, introduced last September, anecdotal evidence of what children say appears to be taking centre stage. The child’s reply about Viking imagery was mentioned three times in feedback to the school as proof of “misconceptions and gaps in the children’s knowledge”, and it went on to inform the final report and decision to grade the school as “requires improvement”.
This was despite a steep rise in the attainment of 11-year-olds in the statutory tests for maths and English, from 25% reaching the expected standard in 2017 to 70% last year, above the 65% England average. Four-year-olds who came into the reception class well below average had reached the national average by the end of the year.
At the launch of Ofsted’s annual report last month Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, said the new framework had “landed well” on schools. However, this school, Akroydon primary academy in Halifax, Calderdale, is one of a rush of schools now appealing against their gradings under the new criteria, which put less emphasis on pupil progress in terms of test and exam results, and more on the curriculum and how it is taught.
Although most teachers welcome a “rebalancing” between results and what goes on in the classroom, there is mounting alarm at Ofsted’s power to dictate what schools should teach, and concern over whether its inspectors are qualified to judge a full range of specialist subjects.
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Michael Gosling, chief executive of Trinity multi-academy trust, which took over Akroydon when it was failing two years ago, says despite this remarkable 45% rise in attainment the lead inspector told him pupil progress data was not proof of impact. “It’s as if your results don’t matter any more – just make sure you teach subjects the way Ofsted wants and talk coherently about your curriculum and you will get a good rating,” he says.
Two miles away, the most popular primary school in the local authority is also reeling under the weight of being rated “requires improvement” after four “outstanding” findings under the same headteacher. Parkinson Lane community school has 282 pupils on its waiting list and the highest number of appeals to get a primary place in Calderdale, and has been awarded the prestigious “teaching school” status. It scores well above average for pupils’ progress in maths and English, despite serving an area in the top 10% in the country for deprivation and where most children speak English as an additional language.
“This is a framework written over a middle-class dinner table,” says Gosling. “Ofsted seems to think that if you can talk coherently about your curriculum then the results will look after themselves, but that is not going to happen in a school like ours, in areas of high deprivation.”
Children were pulled out of class to be questioned and two came back in tears, he says. “We had an after-school event with parents and local employers to jump-start our business and enterprise teaching, and apparently there were gaps in our teaching because one 10-year-old on the very first day didn’t know the difference between business and enterprise,” he says. “Solid evidence from the local authority of how we had transformed the school and the very positive response to an independent survey of parents were not mentioned.”
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Spielman, however, believes that children, especially those in poor areas, have been missing out on a rich and varied curriculum because schools have been too focused on getting the best test and exam results to impress inspectors and gain points in performance tables.
Two large academy trusts disagree. Sir Dan Moynihan, chief executive of Harris, and Outwood Grange academies trust’s boss Martyn Oliver, say the new curriculum focus will “damage outcomes for disadvantaged children” because it penalises secondary schools that spend three years instead of two on GCSE courses. Spielman wants year 9 to be devoted to a “rich curriculum”, with a wider range of subjects, and exam courses restricted to years 10 and 11.
Now mounting evidence from the primary sector appears to support the concerns, even among inspectors. One says: “Spielman seems to be saying that if children don’t achieve at GCSE it is because there are knowledge gaps in the curriculum. I think that is an embarrassing oversimplification that fails to recognise all the external factors that affect student achievement.”
The inspector adds: “Some schools have to build in the cultural capital the children don’t get at home, and that takes extra time. Outcomes matter to students, but now we are having to disregard strong evidence in favour of anecdote and superficial judgment and that is a big step backwards.
“There is a sense that we are now the font of all knowledge about what it is worthwhile to teach and the order it should be taught in. Ofsted should be about accountability, not changing dramatically what goes on in schools.”
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Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), says: “We have inspectors with no subject expertise or experience making judgments on the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum, which is now the lens through which the quality of education judgments are made. If school behaviour needs changing then it should be through professional engagement, not through the inspection system.”
Back in Halifax, Gugsy Ahmed, headteacher of Parkinson Lane for 19 years, struggles to make sense of it. “Our motto is ‘stand out from the outstanding’. We’ve been outstanding five times and we’re not sitting still. We are constantly finding ways to improve and our results have gone up since the last inspection. How could the inspectors claim there had been a drop in standards?” he asks. “We focus on the basics of reading, writing and oracy, of course, because our children’s journey is steeper than those with English as the first language, but we have a rich curriculum, and staff run 72 clubs and societies before and after school and at lunchtime that they never charge for.
“Their safeguarding concerns seemed to be based on their mistaken belief that four afternoon registers had not been taken, which they had, and also on a conversation with a Punjabi-speaking dinner supervisor who didn’t understand the phrase ‘county lines’”, he says.
Both headteachers have a track record of turning around failing schools and Gosling has been through more than 50 Ofsted inspections. “I’ve been in schools given all categories and this is the first time I have appealed,” he says. “Ofsted will condemn thousands of children in deprived areas to poor outcomes.”
A spokeswoman for Ofsted says: “Our new inspections are unapologetically not just about stacking up grades – we are looking at the overall quality of education. Far from penalising schools in deprived areas, this approach recognises strong approaches to the curriculum, good leadership and a real determination to do the best for all the pupils, no matter their background or the area they live in. If we hold schools in challenging circumstances to a lower standard, we would be accepting that pupils in tougher areas don’t deserve the best possible education.”
Schools are not penalised for three-year GCSE courses as long as they offer an ambitious curriculum across the whole time of secondary education, she adds. “The reports show we don’t make our judgments just on one or two anecdotes but on extensive evidence and they set out what schools need to do to improve.”
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