“What I wouldn’t reverse are the changes in education which mean that more than 1.9 million more children are in good and outstanding schools.”
Michael Gove MP, 18 June 2019
During the BBC leadership debate, Michael Gove repeated a claim he and others in the Conservative party have made a number of times now: that there are 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools than there were in 2010.
It’s a claim we are, unfortunately, very familiar with.
As we’ve said repeatedly when this claim is made, while it is technically accurate, it’s also misleading. The UK Statistics Authority also wrote to the Department for Education last year saying that use of these figures “does not give the full picture”. And recent evidence from Ofsted gives us even more reason to be sceptical of it.
The figure doesn’t account for rising pupil numbers—there were 630,000 more pupils in state-funded schools in England in 2018 compared to 2010—or changes to inspection practices in that time.
A key issue is that schools rated by Ofsted as “good” or “outstanding” are less likely to be re-inspected; schools rated outstanding are also usually exempt from routine inspections.
When this claim was made in 2018, analysis by the Education Policy Institute found that, for this reason, 580,000 pupils were in schools that hadn’t even been inspected since 2010. We had no way of knowing whether their rating would have stayed the same if they were re-inspected.
But in recent months, Ofsted has “substantially increased” the number of exempt outstanding schools it inspects. It announced last week (shortly after our last article about the 1.9 million claim) that it had inspected 305 “outstanding” schools between September 2018 and March 2019.
They found only 16% (49) kept their outstanding rating, much lower than the proportion the previous year. 30% dropped in their rating by more than one level, to either “require improvement” or “inadequate”.
This doesn’t necessarily mean only 16% of all outstanding schools would still have that rating today if more were re-inspected. Ofsted makes clear that “most of these inspections are carried out because the school’s performance appears to be declining” so “it is not surprising for a large proportion to lose the top grading. The schools inspected are not typical of all outstanding schools.”
Nevertheless, in response to these findings Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said that it should “set alarm bells ringing”.
“The fact that outstanding schools are largely exempt from inspection leaves us with real gaps in our knowledge about the quality of education and safeguarding in these schools. Some of them have not been inspected for over a decade, and when our inspectors go back in, they sometimes find standards have significantly declined.”
Previously, before this evidence was published, we’ve warned that the 1.9 million claim is misleading. In light of Ofsted’s findings, we’d go further: it’s simply unjustifiable for politicians to still be using this figure as evidence of improved standards.