Ofsted to continue with single-phrase judgments despite calls to axe them

The Department for Education’s response has been branded ‘deeply disappointing’ and a missed opportunity for ‘meaningful change’ by union leaders.

The Government remains committed to single-phrase Ofsted judgments despite calls for them to be scrapped following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry
The Government remains committed to single-phrase Ofsted judgments despite calls for them to be scrapped following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The Government remains committed to single-phrase Ofsted judgments despite calls for them to be scrapped following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry.

The Department for Education (DfE) has said it will “continue to listen to views and look at alternative systems”, but it believes there are “significant benefits” to headline grades awarded in England by the schools watchdog.

In its response to an inquiry into Ofsted by the Commons Education Select Committee, the DfE said the overall judgment provides a “succinct” summary for parents and helps identify which schools need support.

It said its priority is to look for ways to improve the inspection system rather than “developing an alternative to it”.

The Government’s response has been described by education union leaders as “deeply disappointing” and a missed opportunity for “meaningful change”.

Professor Julia Waters, the sister of Mrs Perry, called the response “woefully inadequate” and said the changes offered do not go “far enough”.

The inspectorate has come under greater scrutiny in the past year after the suicide of Mrs Perry.

The headteacher took her own life after an Ofsted report downgraded her Caversham Primary School in Reading from its highest rating, “outstanding”, to its lowest rating, “inadequate”, over safeguarding concerns.

In December, a coroner concluded the Ofsted inspection on November 15-16 in 2022 “contributed” to Mrs Perry’s death.

A report by the Education Select Committee in January called on the DfE and Ofsted to develop an alternative to the single-word judgments “as a priority” to better capture the “complex nature of a school’s performance”.

It said as a “first step” the websites of Ofsted and the DfE should show a school’s rating in different areas, not just the overall judgment.

The DfE listed the benefits of one-word judgments in its response to MPs.

It said: “So, while the Government will continue to listen to views and look at alternative systems, including the various approaches taken internationally, the Government’s view is that there are significant benefits from having an Ofsted overall effectiveness grade.

“In our view the priority is to look for ways to improve the current system rather than developing an alternative to it.

“This includes considering with Ofsted the presentation of its findings and grades, and opportunities to highlight some of the detail sitting under the summary grade.”

The DfE added that it agreed with the cross-party group that part of this is about “increasing visibility” of the graded sub-judgments that Ofsted makes – such as “quality of education” and “behaviour and attitudes”.

Prof Waters, Mrs Perry’s sister, said: “It is depressing to see the Government still defending aspects of the inspection system, such as single-word judgements, that are so harmful, divisive and counter-productive.”

She added: “The Government’s response to the Education Committee’s report on Ofsted is woefully inadequate.

“It is very difficult for me and my family to see the Government refer to my sister by name, and then so clearly fail to respond to the many important lessons from her death, that the coroner and the Education Committee have raised.”

“The small tweaks to the current, dangerous system that have so far been offered do not go anywhere near far enough. We need to see urgent, root-and-branch reform of this fatally flawed inspection system,” she added.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “Single-word judgments do not ‘provide significant benefit’ – they are deeply harmful and must be scrapped entirely.

“Last year’s tragic events showed that, and we cannot rule out something awful happening again in future if the inspectorate does not change.

“Should such a horrific situation occur, it will be ministers who need to answer for the decisions that have been taken.”

He said the DfE’s response “smacks of a government that is out of touch with parents and professionals alike.”

Mr Whiteman added: “The government’s defence of discredited, simplistic, and reductive single-word or phrase judgements simply perpetuates an inhumane and unreliable inspection system that is driving a mental health and wellbeing crisis across England’s schools.”

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The Government’s response to the call for an alternative to single-phrase judgments is deeply disappointing.

“Its solution is to ‘consider’ the presentation of Ofsted reports rather than the system itself.

“This is despite all the evidence that these single-phrase judgments are the source of sky-high stress and anxiety, damaging the wellbeing of leaders and teachers, sapping morale and causing many people to leave the profession.

“They stigmatise schools and colleges, making improvement more difficult to secure, and thus they do a disservice to children, parents and communities.

“The problem is not presentational; it is that the system is fundamentally flawed and must change.”

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the response misses an opportunity “to take significant steps towards meaningful change”.

“The DfE’s refusal to accept that single-word judgments should be scrapped will be met with dismay across the teaching profession,” he said.

Last month, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Martyn Oliver launched the watchdog’s Big Listen public consultation which will seek views about the inspectorate.

Conservative MP Robin Walker, chairman of the Education Select Committee, said: “In recent months we have seen encouraging signs that the inspectorate has listened and is willing to change.

“It is especially welcome to hear from DfE that it is open to ideas about how the single-word judgments system could be improved upon – a set of policies that the Government alone has the authority to change.

“My committee agrees that there are benefits to having a system of judgments or ratings, such as the clarity they provide for parents.

“But we also maintain that a more nuanced version of this system is both achievable and in everyone’s interests.”

An Ofsted spokesman said: “Ofsted aims always to be a force for good in this country, ensuring schools, children’s homes, nurseries and colleges deliver the highest standards of education and care to children.

“But we know we can improve. That is why we launched the Big Listen, which invites feedback from parents, professionals and children on everything we do.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We have no plans to remove one-word judgments. They give parents the confidence in choosing the right school for their child and provide a clear basis for taking action to improve underperforming schools.

“The Secretary of State has been clear that we will continue to consider ways to improve the current system, including looking at international approaches, and we are looking forward to hearing the views of teachers, parents and children through the Big Listen.”