OfSTED and ‘Outstanding schools’ are harming national educational attainment

Consider these quotes from this recent Guardian article.

The system is now pushing schools and their heads to prioritise “the interests of the school over the interests of groups of, usually more vulnerable, children”. Some schools were found to be engaged in “aggressive marketing campaigns and ‘cream skimming’ aimed at recruiting particular types of students”. Schools that sustained or improved their judgment to ‘outstanding’ in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), while schools retaining or being downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgment saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility.

The reason is and always has been obvious.

The market imposed by the 1988 Education Reform Act requires performance indicators to drive it. These have been various arbitrary combinations of the aggregated attainment of pupils through KS2 SATs (primary) and GCSE (secondary), on the assumption that the large variations in these measures to be found between schools reflect variations in the effectiveness of the education provided. This ‘common sense’ assumption has long been known to be false.

By far the greatest factor in the variation of school attainment is the mean cognitive ability of admission intakes. School heads have always known that this is closely mapped by the relative affluence of postcodes, as is confirmed by Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data going back decades.

So the formula for school success has always been to attract children from wealthy postcodes and deter those from poorer ones. This needs power over admission policies that Academies, Free Schools and many faith schools have, but LA schools do not, hence this is the main incentive to become one of these sorts of government favoured schools.

The ‘killer fact’ revealed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is that OfSTED ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘inadequate’ schools in closing the gap between the Free School Meals children they can’t avoid admitting and their more able (and wealthier) peers.

In this important Local Schools Network article, Fiona Millar questions the common assumptions about improvements in school standards claimed by Labour and Conservative governments. She writes as follows.

“It is still debatable whether “standards” have improved.  I discovered very quickly while researching my book that the lazy assumption (of which I have been guilty) that children are better educated, because more get to the expected level at the end of primary and secondary school, masks a real can of worms. Existing independent tests of competencies such as spelling and mathematical concepts carried out by academics at some UK universities over the last 30 years, seem to show that in terms of what children can do and know little has changed. Meanwhile we aren’t even really clear about what we mean by standards, which currently only relate to exams and test results rather than any wider interpretation of teaching, learning, behaviour or personal development.” [Especially development of cognitive ability]

Professor Rob Coe of Durham University argues that despite the apparently plausible and widespread belief to the contrary, the evidence that levels of attainment in schools in England have systematically improved over the last 30 years is unconvincing. Much of what is claimed as school improvement is illusory, and many of the most commonly advocated strategies for improvement are not robustly proven to work.

The anti-Flynn effect, detected in the US and UK, the countries most affected by marketisation-based educational reforms, suggests that while exam-based attainment has been rising steadily, this has been at the cost of a decline in cognitive ability. Put simply, our school leavers are getting dimmer because passing exams to benefit their schools has been prioritised over the acquisition of deep understanding that provides much greater benefits to their students and society as a whole.

John Mountford and I have been researching the ‘Attainment Gap’, falsely claimed by the government, The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation to be a result of low standards in secondary schools in northern England.

John has obtained Y7 intake SATs and CATs data for secondary schools along the ‘M4 Corridor’ in southern England. Most of these schools serve prosperous communities that provide their primary and secondary schools with high mean cognitive ability intakes. But islands of relative deprivation exist along this channel of affluence. Some striking patterns emerge as can be seen in this table.

Sch %














K 4 108 103 108 98 1.00 1.05 O
D 9 106 103 106 99 1.00 1.04 O
B 10 103 100 97 91 1.06 1.10 G
A 12 105 102 100 93 1.05 1.09 G
L 14 106 102 106 97 1.00 1.05 G
J 20 102 98 99 90 1.06 1.09 RI
H 44 101 100 94 95 1.07 1.07 Inad

The SATs figures are the means of the Reading and Maths KS2 test scores. The CATs figures are the means of the Verbal, Non-Verbal and Quantitative scores. The SATs and CATs figures cannot be directly compared because unlike the CATs, the SATs are not standard scores in the statistical sense. In the 2017 SATs, DfE announced that 61% of pupils had met the ‘expected standard’ and attained a scaled score of at least 100. It is therefore clear that the DfE ‘expected minimum scaled score’ of 100 cannot be the 50th percentile if  61 percent attained it last year. Nevertheless, when the SATs and CATs data are compared, clear patterns emerge.

The latest OfSTED grade (last column) follows the mean cognitive ability of the intake, and this in turn reflects the relative affluence of the communities served, as shown by the %FSM column. Note the huge disparities in mean cognitive ability. Schools K & D (Outstanding) have mean intake CATs scores of 108 (70th percentile) & 106 (66th percentile).  Schools B, A & L (Good) have CATs percentiles of  58th, 63rd & 66th. All these are well above the national average (50th percentile). School J (Requires Improvement) has a mean intake CATs score at the 47th percentile and School H (Inadequate) has a mean intake CATs score at the 34th percentile. The %FSM follows a matching pattern, so confirming the observation in the Guardian article. We have not ‘cherry picked’ these schools.

The differences in the intake SATs scores (108 – 101) are less than for the intake CATs scores (108 – 94) showing that intensive preparation for SATs in Y6 can ‘bring up’ the scores of lower ability pupils, thus saving their primary schools from the dire consequences of falling below the ‘floor targets’. However this is a short term boost that is not reflected in the CATs scores or the internal assessments of the secondary schools to which they transfer. The secondaries are lumbered with SATs-based GCSE targets that the schools with lower ability intakes (eg J and H) struggle to meet so they incur negative data-based OfSTED judgements before the small team of inspectors even set foot in the schools for their superficial visits. Unlike with the large teams of inspectors involved in the week-long OfSTED  inspections of the 1990s, current reports are written to support the data-based judgements already made, making it impossible for the inspectors to take account of any available CATs data and any high quality teaching and learning that might be observed from spending longer in a much greater number of lessons. For example, in my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness (intake CATs score 85 – 16th percentile) good reports were received in 1990 (HMI), 1995, 1998 & 2004 (OfSTED), even though the ‘floor targets’ were never achieved. I retired in 2003 and the school was declared ‘inadequate’ in 2007 along with the town’s two other mainland non-faith schools. This just happened to coincide with what turned out to be a disastrous Academisation plan, supported by the Labour-led Cumbria County Council, that has led to 200+ Barrow students now travelling every day by train and bus to the LA schools in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston.

Which brings me back to the ‘northern schools attainment gap’ issue about which I have also written here and here.

I obtained the full list of allegedly failing northern schools that gave rise to the ‘attainment gap’ allegation. I then tried to find some such schools that use CATs, without success. It is very much in the interests of such schools to screen their Y7 intakes with CATs tests. Otherwise the schools and their LA or MAT ‘controllers’ have no sound evidence on which to judge the GCSE attainment of their students and therefore no basis for challenging any allegation that they are ‘failing’ if in fact they are actually achieving in line with their mean intake cognitive ability or better. LA schools are not ‘controlled’ by the LA in the way that Academies and Free Schools are controlled by their Multi Academy Trusts, as Henry Stewart points out here.

It might be thought that the Labour Local Authorities that might be expected to be supporting their allegedly failing schools would be encouraging, if not requiring, CATs screening, but this is clearly not the case. However, CATs data raise difficult presentational issues for school heads and LAs. In my headship school it was not possible for me to argue in public that the mean intake cognitive ability of our school was so low (16th percentile) that our GCSE results were in fact much better than the CATs predictions, with lots of A and A* grades from the the small number of our CATs 100+ students. I could foresee the headline in the local paper: BARROW HEAD BLAMES THICK BARROW KIDS FOR SCHOOL’S POOR RESULTS. This kind of populist misinformation is only possible because the basic mechanism of marketisation, which appeals to flawed common sense, has never been challenged by any political party.

It is not possible to validly judge the effectiveness of a school from its aggregated exam results. This is because intake cognitive ability, which is not even recognised as a factor by the DfE and OfSTED, is a far greater cause of variation in the aggregated exam results of schools than any other school-based differences.

The LEA (as was) understood this very well, but local councillors did not want to know. Who would vote for someone who calls their kids thick? Soon after my retirement the Labour County Council stopped CATs screening in all of its secondary schools, so depriving them of data very useful for the diagnostic identification of specific learning difficulties and for devising high quality accountability and targeting systems, but by then LEAs had been abolished and, as in many other LAs, the ‘Children’s Services’ department was not led by an education specialist. So I was not unduly surprised by the lack of interest in CATs screening by other northern Labour controlled LAs.

However I did find one large Academy (OfSTED Outstanding) that uses CATs as the basis of a fair banding admissions system. Located in a socially deprived area, this prevents the school from being overwhelmed by local low CATs score pupils and so meeting the same fate as the surrounding LA schools that are bound by LA proximity based general admissions arrangements. This means that the Academy can ‘cherry pick’ the most able students from its locality and further afield while rejecting the majority of its local low CATs students, of which there are many. This lowers the mean intake cognitive ability of the surrounding schools even further making it ever more difficult to achieve the ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’ targets determined from the inflated SATs scores produced by their primaries, themselves threatened by their own floor targets set without any cognitive ability evidence. Thus have the large number of failing schools been created in this and other northern Local Authorities. This ‘fair banded’ Academy is the ‘large school’ whose SATs and CATs data are discussed in this article.

The whole complex issue of the use of ‘fair banding’ for schools serving low cognitive ability communities is extensively covered in Part 4 of my book ‘Learning Matters‘, which is a case study of the CATs based admission systems of Mossbourne Academy and the London Borough of Hackney. In short, I conclude that ‘fair banding’ admissions systems administered by a Local Authority with universal Y6 CATs screening work well, explaining the success of the Hackney system. But CATs based admissions systems used by Academy MATs, but not available to neighbouring LA schools condemn them to constant fear of OfSTED on account of  low GCSE attainment, pushing them to adopting coaching, cramming and extremely controlling discipline systems similar to those that have been introduced in some high profile Free Schools.

So how can I argue that OfSTED is having a negative effect on national education standards? OfSTED, like HMI that preceded it is the national inspector and regulator of schools. Before the 1988 Education Reform Act, HMI, which was independent of government, inspected schools and LEAs to ensure high standards of teaching and learning. Where problems were found HMI would act to ensure that appropriate action was taken to restore standards to the uniform high level that parents and public expect in all our schools. This would be done in co-operation with LEAs, which could ‘move on’ ineffective headteachers and provide additional support and advice to the school. LEAs employed large teams of experienced ‘inspector/advisors’ who were almost always experienced former teachers/heads of department. There was never any question of ‘closing schools’ or seeking to undermine the long term confidence of parents in them.

OfSTED, on the other hand, is completely different. It accepts the marketisation model that underpins the 1988 Act and is the ‘enforcer’ of government education policy. The ideological basis of the model is that a ‘free market’ in schools that forces them to compete with each other is the best way of raising standards. So the government published SATs and GCSE ‘performance data’ for schools to drive local School League Tables to encourage parents to choose the ‘best’ schools and avoid the ‘worst’.

As a further ‘twist of the screw’ OfSTED introduced its four grade, inadequate to outstanding’ system of judging schools. The assumption was that failing schools must be a consequence of failing to apply market philosophy to their running, so the solution is to close such schools, so forcing parents to send their children to ‘better’ ones, or have the schools taken over by more ‘market aware’ Academies and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs)’

This philosophy has been so dominant that it has been accepted as ‘normal’ by all the UK political Parties. But there is another way and it works. Here are some features of the Finnish education system, which is regularly judged by international PISA tests to be much more effective than the market-based systems of England and the USA.

There is an emphasis on personal and cognitive development.

The best school for every student is always the neighbourhood school.

 There is no competition between schools because all schools strive to be the same.

 There is no private school sector in Finland.

There is no business culture in Finnish schools.

 All schools are student-centred.

Therefore since OfSTED is a major driver of an education system based on a false and failing ideology, it is the problem rather than the solution. The first step in its reform must be the removal of the four grades, on the principle that all schools must be good schools and that if they are not then it is the job of the state to bring this about as a matter of urgency, rather than waiting for ‘market forces’ to produce winners and losers.

So why abolish the concept of ‘Outstanding Schools’? Surely this just encourages all schools to become better? The main reason is well put in the Guardian article.

Schools that sustained or improved their judgment to ‘outstanding’ in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), while schools retaining or being downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgment saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility.

The degree to which an ‘outstanding school’ achieves its status inevitably damages its neighbouring competing schools, robbing them of their more able students and dumping upon them their less able and more problematic ones.

But there is worse. Anyone that watches ‘Kirsty and Phil’ on ‘Location, Location, Location’ will have heard them referring to desirable properties ‘being close to outstanding schools’. Such properties can command much higher prices, especially in affluent areas where competition is fiercest. Such addresses then become out of reach of  parents to either rent or buy. These excluded parents must then ‘make do’ with less popular schools. Not only is this assumed by the government to be ‘inevitable’ it is seen as evidence of ‘the market working its magic’.

Except that as we have seen from John Mountford’s research and the Guardian article, there is little evidence that ‘outstanding’ schools are necessarily more effective at anything other than attracting the most cognitively able students and deterring the least able. They are therefore an engine for increasing social inequality.

Remember the ‘killer fact’ revealed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that OfSTED ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘inadequate’ schools in closing the gap between the Free School Meals children they can’t avoid admitting and their more able (and wealthier) peers.

So the aim of The Sutton Trust of enabling more FSM children to get into ‘outstanding’ schools, will achieve nothing for them.

It is easy to understand the concern of the political left with reducing inequality. I support it, but it requires taking ‘markets’ out of the provision of providing essential services like education if it is to be achieved. Finland shows the way.

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5 Responses to OfSTED and ‘Outstanding schools’ are harming national educational attainment

  1. paulmartin42 says:

    Not sure I agree with thr thrust of the above. First “It is still debatable whether “standards” have improved” does not do the school system justice. Despite Inclusion, mass immigration of non English speakers, cuts, poor pay etc “children are better educated” because the system is getting better. More so since Ofsted, particularly so lately holds it to account.

    Let me contradict 50% of your “Finland” proposals by my view of some of Scottish (where allegedly there are less inspections) schools:

    “The best school for every student is always the neighbourhood school” Hereabouts you can put in a placing request and get the bus to another 2ndary. This keeps the local Academy on its toes.

    “There is no competition between schools because all schools strive to be the same.” I am not sure that this is a good thing. Diversity in such as faith schools/Maths & Languages Academies/.. seems a positive.

    “There is no private school sector in Finland.” Again I am for parental choice. Personally would not touch with a barge pole but it strikes me that if folk want to pay more for their kids to be educated then that leaves more in the pot for the disadvantaged.

    Education is a messy business. Of course “all schools must be good” and, as I see it the state does step in when schools are failing but within many establishments there are pockets of bad eg particular bad classes who flex their muscles etc We should look to evolutionary support and appreciate what is done well not try for the Guardian revolution critique mantra all the time.


  2. Hello Paul

    Plainly we do not agree, but the evidence is with me – paragraph by paragraph.

    Despite Inclusion, mass immigration of non English speakers, cuts, poor pay etc “children are better educated” . But the evidence is that inclusion and immigration raise, not lower standards, which is one of the reasons for the success of London schools.

    “Hereabouts you can put in a placing request and get the bus to another 2ndary. This keeps the local Academy on its toes.” This assumes that competition between schools and treating parents as ‘customers’, rather than co-operation, raises standards. The PISA international evidence is with me, and not just in relation to Finland.

    “Diversity in such as faith schools/Maths & Languages Academies/.. seems a positive”. It may seem so, but the evidence does not support it – See PISA again.

    “Again I am for parental choice. Personally would not touch with a barge pole but it strikes me that if folk want to pay more for their kids to be educated then that leaves more in the pot for the disadvantaged.” Once again PISA shows that the countries with the least amount private education have the highest educational standards.

    “We should look to evolutionary support and appreciate what is done well not try for the Guardian revolution critique mantra all the time.” I don’t recognise your description of the Guardian approach to education. I agree about the need for incremental change, but it has to be based on evidence. See my article:



    • paulmartin42 says:

      Unfortunately for you, almost para by para, you reference PISA which, as you may know has been receiving some debunking up north. From the the article “Pitting our own stats against Pisa gives us a more balanced view” (amongst others in TES):
      “How much heed should we pay the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa)? It’s a topic that has been explored in these pages many times, and rightly so … ” another example an article from June 28:
      “Pisa: meaningless at best and destructive at worst” by By Yong Zhao, Alma Harris and Michelle Jones

      available on tes.com


  3. John Mountford says:

    Respectfully, Paul, I suggest you may not actually have got the thrust of the argument. It may be difficult for us to question whether standards have improved because, by implication, it suggests a criticism of schools and teachers if in fact they have not. The work Roger and I are engaged in is identifying significant evidence to establish that the attainment gap is ultimately linked, in a negative manner, to the current testing and accountability system. The evidence to understand this is out there.


    The above link offers an insight into the anti-Flynn effect which basically holds that “The idea that children leaving primary school are getting more and more intelligent and competent – whether it is viewed in terms of the Flynn effect, or in terms of government statistics on performance in Key Stage 2 SATS in mathematics and science – is put into question by these findings.” The findings referred to involve “a sample of 10, 023 students covering the years 2000 to 2003.” looking at “A sample of schools sufficiently large and representative (was) chosen so that the hypothesis of worsening performance could be tested, and estimated quantitatively.” The evidence is clear.

    Roger’s article evaluates the contribution made by agencies and procedures currently operating in the state education system that have contributed to the lowering of overall intelligence impacting most on those pupils with lower cognitive capacity. The conclusion reached is that the attainment gap is clearly the product of the mismanagement and governance of education. Worse than that, in allowing this to go virtually unchallenged, we have limited opportunities for these very pupils to develop in line with their potential by trying to force square pegs into round holes. Intelligence is plastic and human beings have enormous potential to grow. Ofsted, in its present guise and the excessive measurement and testing, designed mainly to hold the system to account, have held back the reform of education for too long and stunted the growth of a generation of young people.


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