Ofsted's single-word judgements should be scrapped, says MPs

A parliamentary report has concluded that Ofsted should end the system of rating schools with a one-word judgement

Ofsted must make major changes to school inspections and action is needed particularly in areas of concern highlighted by the inquest into the death of headteacher Ruth Perry, the Education Committee has said.

The new report says single-word judgements used to rate schools in England must be scrapped.

The committee says that Department for Education and Ofsted should, as a priority, develop an alternative to the single-word assessments that better “captures the complex nature of a school’s performance”. 

The report also sets out other recommendations, including:

  • Making inspections longer than the one or two days currently allowed.

  • Providing a more in-depth report at the end.

  • Giving schools five working days notice of an inspection, instead of the current 24 hours. 

The committee, made up a of group of cross-party MPs, began an inquiry in the role of Ofsted in schools which finished a few weeks after the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Ruth.

The primary school headteacher took her own life after her school was downgraded from “Outstanding” to “Inadequate”.

The coroner ruled that the inspection contributed to her decision to take her own life.

The coroner issued a Prevention of Future Deaths report and said that Ofsted needed to make urgent changes in seven key areas to protect other headteachers. 

The report recognised that there is a widespread mistrust of Ofsted among the teaching profession and the relationship between the inspectorate and schools has become “strained”. 

Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP has said: "On the now totemic issue of single-word judgements, Ofsted and ministers should heed the widespread calls for change.

Julia Waters, Ruth Perry's sister, speaking after the inquest where it was concluded an Ofsted inspection "likely contributed" to her death. Credit: PA

"We urge the new HMCI and government to consider a more nuanced system that can provide value to both schools and parents, and as a first step we encourage the inspectorate, Department and schools to make more use of the multiple judgements already included in reports."

The committee has also requested that the new Inspectorate of Schools, Sir Martyn Oliver, update them every six months on the process of reforming Ofsted.  

An Ofsted spokesperson said: "We welcome the Select Committee’s report and its findings. We look forward to responding in full to the recommendations.

"We have started making changes to the way we work, but we know more must be done to address the pressures faced by school leaders and staff.

"It is important that all changes we make are done in the best interest of children and their parents and carers, that is why we will launch a Big Listen in the coming weeks.

"We intend to hear from staff working in education and social care, as well as the parents, carers, children, young people and learners we serve."

People attend a vigil for Ruth Perry outside the offices of Ofsted in Victoria, central London. Credit: PA

This feels like the beginning of the end for single-word judgements in school inspections in England and will be a relief to headteachers who carry the pressure of inspection and rating almost entirely alone.

It is the first time that criticism of Ofsted’s single-word judgements has come from an organisation outside of the teaching profession and feels like a moment in the campaign for change. 

That campaign was started by the family of Ruth Perry. Her family set out to end the use of single-word judgements after she took her own life following an Ofsted inspection at her School.

Ruth told her friends and family how she felt that “shame” and was worried that house prices in the area around Caversham Primary would fall because she had “failed” to maintain her school’s rating.

Ofsted has always argued that rating a school as “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement”, or “inadequate” is useful to parents.

The Education Select Committee said it couldn’t find any significant evidence to support that theory and so it has recommended that they are scrapped. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: 'Inspections are placing intolerable strain on school leaders and staff.' Credit: PA

ITV News reported earlier this month that 97% of headteachers surveyed by the National Association of Headteachers said they wanted single-word judgements to replaced.

In that report, a headteacher also told us that she had been told by an inspector that they needed to try and “break” headteachers in order to establish whether or not they were strong enough to lead a school. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders' union NAHT, said: "Inspections are placing intolerable strain on school leaders and staff, compounded by the pressure of high stakes single-word grades which too often do not provide a fair reflection of schools or provide useful information for parents.

“While the new chief inspector has demonstrated his willingness to listen and openness to change, it’s vital this is now followed by tangible action and far-reaching reform if Ofsted is to regain the trust of schools.

"In the meantime, we are urging the inspectorate to adopt a model of ungraded inspections.

"This should be a precursor to a permanent end to single-word judgements, replaced by a more helpful and informative analysis of a school’s strengths and areas for development.”

School Inspections were paused for three weeks in January in order for inspectors to receive training on mental health.

Inspections have now resumed and the new Chief Inspector of Schools says he is going to carry out a listening exercise to better understand how he needs to transform Ofsted and win back the trust of the profession.

Ofsted has already brought in some changes since Ruth Perry’s death, but it now appears that the pendulum has swung and single-word-judgements will go - but when is anyone’s guess.

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