Ofsted’s ratings system is inadequate, a more sophisticated way of judging schools is needed - Andy Brown

If you had to sum up the achievements of this government in one word what would it be? If you need any help perhaps you could use the Ofsted list of approved descriptions for schools. Few would opt for outstanding. Unless they were thinking of the Liz Truss era when outstandingly bad would be the judgement of most fair-minded people.

Especially if they ended up paying more on their mortgage as a result of arrogant incompetence and reckless disregard for anything other than following silly theories with relentless determination.

Talking to people on the streets during the local election campaign I heard many different views on what is happening to our country. I don’t think it will shock many if I report that I didn’t encounter anyone whose opinion of the way the country has been led could be summarised as good. If there are people with that view, then I hate to think what their definition of bad would look like.

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The next category used for judging schools is more loquacious. It allows the use of two words. Requires improvement. Many would regard that as something of an understatement. The lowest category of inadequate seems more appropriate.

A general view of a school safety zone sign. PIC: Mike Egerton/PA WireA general view of a school safety zone sign. PIC: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
A general view of a school safety zone sign. PIC: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Using that one word is, however, a very crude and unfair means of judging anything. Even a tired divided government following some very peculiar ideas about how to run the country has some good ideas and practices. Supporting the struggle of the people of Ukraine to avoid falling under Putin’s rule is, for instance, to this government’s credit.

Relying on a single word judgement of anything is crude and over simplistic. If a teacher sent your child home with a report card that had one word on it, you wouldn’t be particularly impressed or feel that you had learned much. If it was a statement that your child was inadequate, you’d be hopping mad.

Teachers are trained to recognise that most children have what is known as a spiky profile. They aren’t good at everything and may display high achievement at subjects such as art, music, sport, but struggle with science. Most kids are better at either Maths or English. The best way of motivating that child is usually to find what they are interested in and talented at and build on that. The worst way is to shout ‘inadequate’ at them.

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That is what is so insulting about the government’s insistence that Ofsted must carry on issuing reports on schools that uses such language. Even in the worst and most chaotically managed schools there are individuals or departments that are doing an excellent job. It is not exactly motivating to work in a place which has been landed with a label of being inadequate.

There is currently a significant recruitment problem in schools. Hardly surprising when real wages have declined for over a decade and staff who are prepared to work in challenging environments risk having their work rubbished. Slamming a school and officially informing parents that the whole place is doing a dreadful job tends to result in demotivated staff and anyone with a choice removing their child from the institution. That drives standards down even further.

Competition to get into the best state schools can be fierce. It is not uncommon for parents to move house simply in order to put themselves in the catchment area for a school. That tends to result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If large numbers of motivated parents are sending their kids to the same place, then it is likely to be a lot easier to teach the children who go there and the institution is highly likely to carry on being successful.

Anyone who is trying to improve a school with a poor reputation has a much harder job on their hands. There are times when placing that school under new management, renaming and relaunching it with a fresh sense of purpose can achieve dramatic improvements. There are other times and places where the harsh reality of the conditions in the streets that surround the school has resulted in it being a very hard place to study and to teach for many years. You don’t break out of the cycle of failure easily and you don’t attract the best teachers and managers to want to work there if they know they are likely to end up with the word inadequate associated with their performance. It tends to be career limiting.

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If we genuinely want our failing inner-city schools to improve then it requires something more significant than rebranding the place an academy and paying a new leadership team a high salary to tell the staff that they need to work harder. A good starting point would be to offer better pay to front line teachers who work in schools that are struggling to attract staff and where the educational performance is below the average that would be expected for the community.

There has to be something to attract enthusiastic staff to work in places where it is a daily challenge to motivate students. Leaving them exposed to the risk of Ofsted describing their work as inadequate is never going to achieve that. Parents, teachers and children deserve something more sophisticated. Ofsted requires improvement.

Andy Brown is the Green Party councillor for Aire Valley in North Yorkshire.

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