I’ve never been a fan of the “Outstanding” label. I’m generally of the view that Ofsted would be much better focusing its energies on simply whether or not schools meet a required standard.
But in recent years the reverence afforded to schools which have at some point been graded as Outstanding has begun to far outstrip that which they necessarily deserve. And perhaps more importantly, the scrutiny which they are given does not match the freedoms they are afforded.
The decision to exempt Outstanding schools from inspection was always a mistake. We know from inspections forced upon previously Outstanding schools that they can slip from the pedestal – some dropping directly into RI or a category. Yet we continue to allow some schools to work for years unexamined. That’s particularly surprising considering the changes due to come in from September for ‘Good’ schools. The new ‘light-touch’ one-day review process could – indeed should – have been extended to all Outstanding schools too. Currently schools can trade for too long on an Outstanding label undeservedly. How soon would a desk analysis pick up weakness? When the school slipped so far as to Require Improvement? Only when things a more serious?
And perhaps none of this would be so problematic if it weren’t for the power we afford these schools. Teaching Schools must be Outstanding; when Ofsted looks for new additional inspectors, it turns only to Good and Outstanding schools; headteacher representatives on regional boards are drawn exclusively from Outstanding academies. If you’re fortunate enough to inherit a strong school, then barring disaster, the world is your Oyster.
But notice, none of these rules require Outstanding individuals. Rather it is those associated with Outstanding schools that are lauded. What of the excellent headteacher who has turned around three failing schools to make them consistently Good? Or the headteacher who leads his school through astounding challenges from external influences? Do these deserve less influence than the fortunate individual who inherits a school that happened to be Outstanding in 2007? How long can we keep this up. Is a ten-year-old Outstanding grade under completely different leadership still valid? Fifteen years?
The decision by Ofsted raises particular doubts. Most colleagues welcome the inclusion of more practising school leaders in inspection teams, but are leaders who are themselves exempt from inspection really the best candidates for the role? As the inspectorate attempts to salvage its reputation from the nonsense of preferred methodology and approaches, are the headteachers who profited under the older, increasingly discredited, system really likely to be the drivers of change?
Of course, there will be many headteachers who have turned schools around in difficult circumstances, and whose wisdom and experience we out to use art the system level. But let’s not confuse outstanding headteachers with Outstanding schools; the two are not always synonymous.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the threshold to reach Outstanding may just become a little more challenging from September, in terms of inspection if not quality. Good schools will face a single day’s inspection to check they are still good before being hit with a further two-day visit to complete a full Section 5 inspection to consider whether they are outstanding. One might wonder if there aren’t incentives there for school leaders who want to be left alone to do their job well to ensure that they aren’t at risk of being thought outstanding. Increasingly we see good heads aiming for their own excellence rather than that of the Ofsted ilk. Might we miss out on more good systems leaders simply because they refuse to play the Ofsted game?