Levelling the playing field?

United Kingdom

Ofsted introduced a new education inspection framework in September 2019 and it was considered that the new framework moved away from conducting inspections based heavily on data to including a judgment based on the quality of education. Following this, last year, the exemption from routine Ofsted inspections for schools rated ‘Outstanding’, which had been in place since 2012, was removed.

Arguably there was limited time for the new inspection framework to embed or for ‘Outstanding’ schools to be inspected before inspections were temporarily suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Since Ofsted have resumed inspections, it has found that 36% of schools previously judged as ‘Outstanding’ were subsequently rated ‘Good’; 9% were rated ‘Requires Improvement to be Good’; and 2% were rated ‘Inadequate’. Initially Ofsted were prioritising the schools that had gone the longest without an inspection; which in some cases was over 10 years.

On the face of the statistics, it appears that nearly half of inspected schools had long held an inaccurate rating of ‘Outstanding’, which could be considered unfair to other schools which were subject to the rigour and stress of Ofsted inspections on a more regular basis. However, on a closer analysis it appears that the ratings alone are not conclusive evidence that standards within those schools have declined. In fact, Ofsted have commented that the overall grade for schools in England has actually improved when compared to pre-pandemic times; 83% of schools inspected between September and November 2021 were rated ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ compared to 77% of schools who were inspected between September 2019 and March 2020. Previously, Ofsted’s national director of education commented that under the new inspection framework it was “challenging” to be rated ‘Outstanding’ and that the detail of the inspection report should be considered, alongside the rating, to really understand the quality of the school in question. However, Ofsted undertook 4,250 less inspections in 2020/2021 than were completed in 2018/2019. This could mean the data available to properly understand the current situation is not as complete or as comprehensive as it could be.

It was arguably appropriate for Ofsted to previously focus their resources on those schools that needed it most, such as those that were underperforming, rather than the schools rated ‘Outstanding’. However, as we slowly come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and begin to understand the impact the last two years has had on education and young people’s development it is more important than ever that schools are inspected, regardless of previous ratings, in order for an accurate up-to-date picture of the education landscape to be made available.

As the first complete academic year of in-person teaching comes to a close since 2018/2019, the question remains whether the removal of the ‘Outstanding’ exemption will level the playing field across the education sector or whether it is now impossible to determine whether the reason for a shift in ratings in ‘Outstanding’ schools was due to the lack of regulatory oversight whilst the exemption remained in force or as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you are a health, social care or education provider and require advice and assistance please contact us. We are monitoring the situation regularly and our team are on-hand to assist with your regulatory queries.