Last week, Schools Week reported on an academy in Dorset that had controversially retained its ‘outstanding’ grade despite Ofsted inspectors’ notes revealing that ‘dozens of pupils leave each year’.
The inspection was triggered by concerns over ‘exceptional levels of pupil movement’, but to be clear, the regulator concluded there was “no hidden agenda” and “no sense of any inappropriate movement”.
The social media firestorm that predictably followed reflected the uncertainty that surrounds a signature feature of the new inspection framework, which comes into effect in September. It has been heavily trailed for some time that Ofsted intends to come down hard on schools that it catches indulging in the kinds of sharp practices that result high turnover of lower-achieving pupils, such as off-rolling. It is understandable why, at first pass, some commentators came to the view that the Dorset judgment is at variance with the inspectorate’s direction of travel.
Around the time the inspection was taking place, Ofsted was backing the House of Commons Education Select Committee’s recommendation that it should reward schools for inclusive practices. The Committee’s Forgotten Children report on alternative provision and “the scandal of ever-increasing exclusions” suggested introducing “an inclusion measure or criteria that sits within schools to incentivise schools to be more inclusive”.
It is a call echoed by many SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) and inclusion advocates, including Adam Boddison, the chief executive of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN): “No school”, he told Schools Week, “should be able to be graded as ‘outstanding’ unless it can also demonstrate it is inclusive”.
There is a compelling prima facie case for this idea. Given that children and young people with SEN are particularly vulnerable to exclusions and off-rolling, any and all efforts to make schools rethink these practices must be considered.
I agree that accountability systems must recognise and reward schools for being inclusive, and certainly not incentivise them to close the door on pupils whose levels of attainment may ‘threaten’ a favourable league table position or inspection outcome.
While it is important we know how inclusive an individual school is for the pupils that attend it, the problem with a ‘within school measure’ is that it overlooks an essential characteristic of inclusion, which is critical if inspectors are to arrive at a fair and secure judgment.
Inclusion remains something of a contested concept, but most would agree that at its core it is about welcoming and accommodating children wherever they are – not where the school is at. Inclusion is not a place across town to which you commute.
It is also a relative concept. To form a rounded judgment, inspectors need to know whether a school is admitting its fair share of children with SEN within the local community. For that, they need comparable data on the inclusivity of its neighbouring schools.
There already exists a process for holding local areas to account for provision and outcomes for children and young people with SEN and disabilities through local area inspections, which are run jointly by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. So perhaps the development of a ‘between-school’ measure of inclusion to address the relativity issue could be absorbed into this process.
What is more, if schools and settings are assessed for inclusivity at a local level, it ought to encourage a more collaborative approach to SEN provision, and may alleviate some of the pressures of individual school accountability.
We are only a few working weeks away from the introduction of the new inspection framework. It remains to be seen whether inspection teams will interpret the criteria in a way that uses inclusion for SEN as a limiting judgment for individual schools (i.e. their overall grade cannot exceed the grade they get for their inclusive practice). If they do, Ofsted will need to consider how valid and reliable such judgments are when a school’s inclusivity is so dependent on the action – or the inaction – of its nearest neighbours.
Rob Webster is an associate professor in the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education