Are Ofsted inspections helpful for choosing secondary schools?
By Blog Editor, on 1 March 2023
By Sam Sims.
Each year, the parents and carers of around half a million pupils submit applications to attend their preferred secondary schools. This decision usually determines the quality of the education that their child receives between age 11 and 16, when they take their GCSEs.
A 2017 YouGov poll found that just under half of parents looked at Ofsted reports to inform their choice. Besides proximity to home, Ofsted inspection judgments were cited as the most important influence on their choices.
Parents put enough weight on these judgements that Rightmove displays the inspection judgements of nearby schools for each of the properties listed on their website. Indeed, research shows that when schools’ Ofsted ratings increase, the price of nearby houses also increase as parents move into the ‘catchment area’.
Ofsted also argue that inspections support school choice: “Inspection provides important information to parents… [who] should be able to make informed choices based on the information published in inspection reports.”
However, one reason to doubt whether Ofsted can inform school choice is that many schools haven’t been inspected for several years. Consider a parent who was choosing a school in October 2013. They might be reading a report from an inspection that was conducted in 2011, and their child wouldn’t start at the school until September 2014. Of course, parents are really interested in how good the school will be in the five years after that (2014 to 2019).
So are Ofsted inspections really helpful for informing secondary school choice? To find out, John Jerrim, Christian Bokhove, and I analysed all inspections of mainstream secondary schools conducted between 2005 and 2015. We focused on inspections from this period – under the old inspection framework – so that we could look up what really happened to the pupils who subsequently attended these schools.
For our hypothetical parent, we found that the most recent inspection report across our 2,538 secondary schools was on average 1,040 days (almost 3 years) old by the time their child would begin at the school. Reports were even older in many schools rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’, which are inspected less frequently (Figure 1). These long lags mean that half of the headteachers in place when the most recent inspection was conducted were no longer in post when the child would have started at the school.
Figure 1: lags between last inspection and school entry
But perhaps old inspection grades are still informative? To tests this, we looked at whether the most recent inspection judgement predicted pupil outcomes during the period in which our hypothetical child would have actually attended the school – between 2014 and 2018.
Figure 2 shows the results when we rank schools based on average pupil GCSE attainment across 8 subjects. Schools on the far left have the lowest average attainment in the country and those on the far right have the highest. It is clear from the graph that pupils who attend a school with higher Ofsted grades at the time of application go on to attain higher.
Figure 2: School average Attainment 8 ranking by Ofsted judgement, unconditional
However, Figure 2 may simply reflect a self-fulfilling prophecy in which rich parents of high achieving children buy houses near ‘Outstanding’ schools. In Figure 3, we therefore control for pupil prior attainment, admission type, and pupil deprivation. The difference in school rankings across the four Ofsted judgements now collapses – the ranking of schools is very similar across Ofsted judgements.
Indeed, once we control for the school exam results that were available to our hypothetical parents at the time they made their choice, there is no longer any detectable difference between schools rated ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement’, or ‘Inadequate’. Only an ‘Outstanding’ judgement was associated with a (0.1 standard deviation) increase in pupil results.
Figure 3: School average Attainment 8 ranking by Ofsted judgement, conditional
But perhaps it’s misplaced to expect inspection judgements to add value to predicting exam results? It might be argued that inspections inform parents primarily by gathering evidence of what it is really like ‘on the ground’ in a school, which may not be adequately captured by exam results?
We tested this by looking at a range of quality metrics that would be easier for inspectors to observe than for parents. We found small differences on pupil absence rates, no differences in parental satisfaction, and (again) no detectable difference between the bottom three judgments in terms of parent reported behaviour standards.
By and large, inspection reports are not particularly useful for parents choosing secondary schools. The same could be achieved by simple applying intuitive labels like ‘Good’ or ‘Requires Improvement’ to schools based on their Progress 8 scores. The one exception to this is the ‘Outstanding’ judgement, which is informative. However, we recommend that parents think twice before paying more money for a house because it is near a ‘Good’ school.
Is there any way that inspections could better inform school choice? We found that there is a stronger relationship between Ofsted judgements and pupil progress if inspections were less than two years old. However, given that 88% of schools are currently inspected only once every five years, moving to inspect every school biennially would be a costly reform.