Education bosses in Lancashire admit to being “nervous” about a new method of inspecting schools - fearing that it could see some of the county’s best secondaries drop in the regulator's ratings.
OFSTED introduced its revised inspection framework at the start of the current academic year and early indications suggest the changes could result in some schools currently rated as “outstanding” struggling to retain the accolade, a meeting of Lancashire County Council’s education scrutiny committee heard.
“Things that inspectors might have praised before the summer holidays, they are now being highly critical about,” explained Paul Dyson-Knight, a senior adviser in the authority’s school improvement service.
“The new framework means you could have good exam results, but if the inspection team don’t like how you’ve achieved [them], you may no longer be outstanding.”
A major new inspection measure has been introduced focusing on “quality of education”. That has been widely interpreted as a shift in emphasis from raw results to the strength and breadth of the curriculum on offer to pupils.
According to Mr. Dyson-Knight, “principled” reasons for taking a different approach - such as lengthening GCSE study to three years at the expense of a year of Key Stage 3 courses - might now be penalised by inspectors.
“Headteachers are challenged by the notion that they should increase the time for subjects students won’t necessarily choose to take as GCSEs - which they are convinced will lower [their] results,” he said, adding that the tactic of extending GCSE courses had been proven to boost grades in places like Burnley.
However, Paul Duckworth, County Hall’s acting head of education quality and improvement, stressed that OFSTED's expectation for schools to be “ambitious” for all their pupils - including those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs - “very much mirrored” an existing focus in Lancashire.
Members heard that Lancashire was likely to follow a national trend for a reduction in the number of outstanding schools this year. But that would come after a 3.3 percent fall locally over the past three years in secondary schools rated either good or outstanding, with 75 percent now in the top two categories - putting the county below the national average.
At primary level, 92 percent of schools in Lancashire are rated good or better - almost static over the past three years and above the average for England.
But the committee heard that another change to the inspections regime could threaten both primary and secondary schools with an outstanding rating. OFSTED is set to re-inspect all such schools within the next five years - overturning a policy introduced under the coalition which saw the best-rated schools left unchecked for a decade or more provided no concerns had been reported about them.
“They've also raised the bar - there are some schools where there clearly isn’t a problem, but they still aren’t keeping their outstanding grade, because...absolutely everything has to be in place with some extras,” said Mr. Dyson-Knight.
However, committee member and former council leader Jennifer Mein said the public needed to re-educated about the relevance of OFSTED ratings.
“[They] are just a snapshot in time and we shouldn’t get too hung up on the labels of good or outstanding.
“I’ve read OFSTED reports that are glowing and [yet] the school ends up 'requiring improvement' - and you wouldn't guess that from reading the report.
“The more we try and engineer our schools to get an outstanding report, we’re not actually dealing with children’s problems individually - because we’re treating them as a means to an end,” County Cllr Mein warned.