What Ofsted inspections miss

Tuesday, March 16th

Reading more about the debate surrounding Ofsted’s latest inspection system over the past couple of weeks has encouraged me to dig some more into how the inspectorate works. And one observation that I probably should have posted a while back was prompted by an inspection report which was written up in a few newspapers before Christmas.

Harris Academy Crystal Palace was lauded in the press for being the first school in the country to score an “outstanding” verdict in all of Ofsted’s inspection categories. I have not visited the school, and am not in a position to offer a view on how good it is. Certainly a lot of people seem to think this is an excellent school, and it is reportedly vastly oversubscribed.*

 However, what did interest me was to compare the Ofsted report to the comments on the school registered on a newspaper website after one of these articles appeared.

You can read the piece, and the comments which follow, here  So why was it interesting? Well, the comments by, I think, ex-pupils and parents, cast light on its qualities in a way which is not captured at all by the inspector.

The comments centre on a discussion as to how good the school is, whether it improved after it changed from a city technology college to an academy a couple of years ago, and whether its traditional ethos, including uniforms, is a good thing or not.

Most interestingly, the comments, which I have no reason to doubt are not by ex-pupils and at least one parent, reveal that the school divides pupils into two groups in year nine, one following a “yellow route” , and the other, a “green route”. The “yellow route” pupils are judged to be more academic, the comments say.

One ex-pupil, who says the school was “fantastic for me”, adds:  “[The yellow route/green route] divide is damaging on pupils for many reasons such as late development and being surrounded by more disruptive pupils. It is commonly known within the student body that this split symbolises more than a simple divide and in fact becomes friendship groups and to a certain extent a sign of future prospects.”

Another ex-pupil says: “Be warned, this green route/yellow route thing is true, and I have seen it stigmatise talented people to the point where a flood of students in my year group left to go to the Brits school to be encouraged for their creative abilities, because if you’re not good at maths, English or science, expectations are just ‘do what you can to pass’ – keep the stats up, you know.”

A parent who has had four children go through the school says that all followed the “yellow route”, and that provision for them was excellent.

The first ex-pupil also writes: “In addition, I’d like to point out the fact that there is a feeling that Harris is now a business instead of a school and students are often seen as statistics.” A further ex-pupil writes: “A school is a school, not a business where children are hothoused to get the statistics looking good.”

In sum, this is a detailed debate about the merits of the school, with revealing opinions offered for and against.

My point here is to ask: where is this level of detail in the Ofsted report? (You can read it yourself here.)

However one feels about the policy of the yellow route/green route, surely it deserves a mention: it would seem to have a big impact on the experience of a group of pupils going from year nine onwards, and yet it is not covered at all. Also, there seems to be a debate among the pupils about the merits of policies such as the uniform requirement, and the overall characteristics of the school. But again, none of this argument is captured in the inspection report.

Instead, the report simply celebrates the “Harris Way”, without explaining properly what this is.  Some passages of text are repeated verbatim later in the report. And it culminates in a gushing, almost Soviet-sounding conclusion, in the letter to pupils: “We hope that you will work closely with the staff so that there will never be a glitch in the glorious history of your academy.”

In my book, I set out my view that, since 2005, the quality of the information available to parents in Ofsted inspection reports has fallen dramatically. I looked at reports from before that date, which ran to many pages with detailed qualitative information on each school and its curriculum and which had a section comparing the views of inspectors with those of parents and explaining, if they differed, why. Each subject area was covered individually for secondary schools, and there was information on staffing levels, each school’s finances and class sizes.

After 2005, some of the reports looked almost as if they could have been written by a computer, so closely were they tied to exam and test results data, and they were far shorter and shallower, in my view.

This may have changed slightly since last September, when the latest inspection iteration began and since when inspectors have been instructed to place a greater emphasis on classroom observation. But the visits are still a lot shorter than they were before 2005 and, if this inspection is an example (and if the comments are a true reflection of the yellow/green route policy, as the number of them would suggest), I don’t think Ofsted’s reports are getting beneath the statistical surface and finding out what is really going on.

I’d be interested in any other observations about Ofsted reports. Please email me at warwickmansell@gmail.com

*Although questions were raised, for me, about the methods used by Harris as an organisation to improve results on learning of the case of a parent in another Harris school whose daughter was made to take a BTEC in sports science in a move, said this parent, to raise the school’s statistics. See my report on page 50 of a Civitas document on academies.

1 Comment

  1. The reason the yellow/green route was not mentioned was because they are not doing it anymore!

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