Why Ofsted's 'satisfactory' is just not good enough

07 Jun 2011 Exclusive to 'Mike Baker Education'

Ofsted have just closed consultation on the new inspection framework, which is due to start in January 2012. Many schools will spend this summer and autumn taking part in pilots for the new framework.

Meanwhile, 2012 will also see Ofsted celebrating its 20th birthday. When established in 1992, Professor Sutherland, its first chief inspector (part-time you may recall), wrote in his Annual Report that ‘the intention of, and even the justification for, Ofsted's existence is to make a contribution, through these inspections, to raising standards and improving the quality of educational experience and provision.’

Has Ofsted succeeded?

I recently returned from inspecting schools in the Middle East, to a nine point inspection framework. A school awarded grade 8 or 9 is threatened with closure. There are even three kinds of ‘satisfactory’! What is certain is that within a short space of time, this nine point scale will shrink to five, or fewer. Look at England’s experience over the past twenty years.

All over the Middle East, inspection systems based on the Ofsted framework have taken root. Governments buying-in international inspectors are united in one ambition: to create world-class schools in order to attract businesses and families from across the globe. Satisfactory schools for them are simply not part of the picture.

Yet in England, twenty years on from the birth of Ofsted, we have close on a third of schools described by the inspectorate as satisfactory. Too many, I would contest, are grindingly satisfactory. Some pundits call these primary and secondary schools, in all parts of the land, ‘deeply satisfactory’.

Worryingly, 40% of lessons seen by Ofsted last year were judged satisfactory.

 In the face of such statistics, the recent consultation about a revised framework has focused on shrinking the number of headings under which schools will be judged. Fine as far it goes. Let’s have fewer judgements. But the elephant in the room, the one key feature not consulted on, is the grading system itself.

 All kinds of digressions filter into Whitehall under the umbrella aspiration to achieve world-class education. One minute, it’s copy the Swedish model of schooling; then it’s follow the Finns, who have no national inspection system to speak of; then it’s emulate inner urban New York and the KIPP schools.

 The truth is ministers should set their stall out and say, unequivocally, that ‘all English schools will be good schools within three years’. England will have a system on a par with the best in the Middle or Far East.

 We are too late now for the 2012 Ofsted framework. But let the 2014 edition spell out quite clearly the following criteria against which all schools and lessons taught should be judged:

  •  Excellent: above standard expected – grade 1
  • Good: standard expected – grade 2
  • Improvement required: below standard expected – grade 3

 Quite simply, let us agree that satisfactory is not good enough. Head teachers and governors tell you this, but the current system allows those who receive satisfactory judgements to breathe a sigh of relief. Ofsted commits itself to monitoring and revisiting a percentage of these schools, but still too many of the nation’s children languish for a school lifetime in mediocre provision.

 Educational inequality narrowed in the past decade, and let it be acknowledged that Ofsted played its part. That said, ‘satisfactory’ schools are still concentrated disproportionately in the most deprived parts of the country.

 Two thirds of children from the highest socioeconomic groups get five GCSEs at grade C+, but only a third of those from lower socioeconomic groups do the same. That number falls to a fifth for pupils on free school meals. Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility adviser, is fond of describing this educational apartheid. Under a Times headline of ‘For a British Obama we need better schools’ Milburn went as far as to comment: ‘This not just a social injustice. It is a moral outrage and must change.’

 The time has surely come for Ofsted to challenge unambiguously the assumption that ‘satisfactory is good enough’. It plainly isn’t, and particularly for those children in our schools who most need good and great teaching to transform their life-chances.

 Just maybe, the soon-to-be-appointed new Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools in England will run with this baton. No better year in which to do it than 2012: Ofsted’s 20th birthday and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.


Roy Blatchford is a former HMI, and Director of the National Education Trust www.nationaleducationtrust.net

User Comments

Nick von Behr - 07 Jun 2011


Dear Mike and Roy

Thought provoking piece from Roy. I have one issue with it. To my mind 'good' is a pretty vague rating as well and the movement (or lack of it) between your 3 proposed ratings needs to be very well clarified for parents and teachers alike, let alone the students who will inevitably compare it with their own grading system.

Steve Heal - 07 Jun 2011

Where satisfactory is amazing

Our 'satisfactory' schools are concentrated in areas of social deprivation because the inspection regime focuses too much on standards and too little on progress. In many socially deprived areas brilliant teachers work magic. Yet they have to live with the 'satisfactory' label because attainment isn't high.
Give us the oil wealth of the Middle East and a parent body consisting of globe-trotting high fliers and anyone can raise attainment.
Step off your jet and visit the real world: a wet Tuesday in a sink estate. Parents and grandparents who've never worked. Drug addiction and gang culture. Teachers who've had their pay frozen and their pensions grabbed. Places where 'satisfactory' is a miracle.

Jan Chambers - 07 Jun 2011


I understand and applaud the desire for an education system where no teaching is less than good. I’d also like that to be true for the performance of doctors, dentists, solicitors, and mechanics. You name it and I’d like them all at the very least to be good. My own experience and the laws of probability tell me that that’s not likely. More likely is that there will be a normal curve of distribution with a small percentage of excellent teaching and a small percentage of inadequate teaching with satisfactory and good as a broad group in the middle. The same I am sure will be found in an analysis of the performance of other professionals or crafts people. That does not mean that inadequate performance should be tolerated in any field but equally its impact should not be exaggerated. One must also remember that the grading of teaching and learning is interdependent on the judgement on attainment and progress. If a school scores highly in the latter the teaching is judged to be good or better whether it is or not. Pupils’ progress and attainment are dependent on many factors and school is but one of them. Very often teachers themselves feel unqualified to judge the quality of their own or others’ teaching because they aren’t ‘trained’ Ofsted inspectors, as if undergoing such training provides the recipients with a magic formula which will guarantee to deliver an accurate judgement on the 4 point scale. Remember also that in the primary phase a school’s attainment and progress is judged in a very narrow field of English and maths. Rarely these days do Ofsted inspectors observe lessons in subjects other than these and sadly the same is often true of headteachers. When Ofsted was established in 1992, Professor Sutherland, its first chief inspector, wrote in his Annual Report that”the intention of, and even the justification for, OFSTED’s existence is to make a contribution, through these inspections, to raising standards and improving the quality of educational experience and provision." Ofsted currently employs over 2000 civil servants and costs over £200 million. Might I suggest to Professor Sutherland that if Ofsted had been successful in meeting that aim it would have done itself out of a job by now. Instead of that we will celebrate Ofsted’s 20th anniversary year with yet another revised framework costing yet more money in a time of severe economic recession

Rebecca Hanson - 07 Jun 2011

What HMIs should do

HMIs should do two things:

Firstly they should police the boundary between unacceptable and acceptable practice.

Secondly they should inspect and organisations self report regarding their practice.

They should not attempt to grade the quality of provision. To do so mitigates against high quality provision or, in the case of education, against epistemological pluralism.

These principles are well understood by other inspectorate bodies in the UK.

I suspect Roy has been out of the UK for a while. I suggest he goes and works as a head of department in a school in special measures and goes through 7 external inspections in a year, as I did in 2007. He needs to see how things have changed recently to understand that satisfactory is often the grading given when an HMI has no idea what is actually going on in the classroom but knows there's nothing obviously wrong. He needs to understand what it's like to interact with raft after raft after raft of intentions from inspectors who are far more ignorant than the teachers and never stay around to deal with the consequences of those interventions.

In other inspectorate bodies the HMIs are required to be respected experts in their field. They used to be in education. But in many fields the respected experts left because the system was so flawed. I suspect this will have been the most obvious and dramatic change in Ofsted in recent years while Roy has been away.

Anyway the grading system should be:
Fail with reasons and appropriate consequences.
And a detailed published self report should either:
Pass or fail with reasons and appropriate consequences.

Those consequences should either be obligations place on the head and then checked or the removal of the head. The LA or appropriate local bodies should be there to support and represent the head teacher.

Hugh Parker - 09 Jun 2011

The definition of satisfactory

Satisfactory, by definition, means good enough. I don't know how Ofsted came to use the word to mean the exact opposite of what it does in fact mean, but if Ofsted is to avoid looking foolish, their grades need to be renamed to mean what they mean.

Response from Patrick Leeson, Director of Education & Care, Ofsted - 10 Jun 2011


Former HMI Roy Blatchford calls on your blog for the abolition of the term ‘Satisfactory’. He is right to say that satisfactory schools should not be complacent and must aspire to improve. He is also right to say there are too many schools that are stubbornly satisfactory. We agree this must change and this is the purpose of the new school inspection framework we are currently piloting.

While he is correct to say there is a link between deprivation and inspection outcomes, this varies considerably from area to area. Many schools in the more deprived areas buck the trend and perform well for their pupils. It is not correct therefore to give the impression that schools in more deprived areas are inevitably going to be satisfactory and likely to remain satisfactory.

We have highlighted many examples in our best practice reports, available on our website - http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/Twelve-outstanding-secondary-schools-Excelling-against-the-odds - of outstanding schools in disadvantaged areas that have achieved excellence through highly effective leadership and management and top quality teaching and learning that engages children and helps them progress.

In 2010-11 nearly half of schools previously judged to be satisfactory were found to be good or outstanding schools in their most recent inspection, and many of these are in deprived areas. The key factor in these schools’ improvement over time is effective leadership and management which improves teaching and pupil progress, and not the deprivation experienced by the pupils.

Patrick Leeson, Director Education and Care, Ofsted

James Wilson - 10 Jun 2011

When OFSTED's satisfactory teaching is actually outstanding

OFSTED bases its judgements predominantly on pupil attainment not pupil progress or standards of teaching. There are many small schools across the country where one pupil can be 10 to 20 percent of the cohort. This produces a ridiculous system where the same teacher can be adjudged as outstanding one year and unsatisfactory the following. In a recent OFSTED inspection we were told out teaching could not be awarded anymore than satisfactory because attainment that year was satisfactory. Paradoxically, the head teacher and the local authority had awarded outstanding to a number of teachers for their ‘teaching’ the quality of the children’s learning and the progress they were making. The inspector was at a loss to explain what we needed to do to gain outstanding. She could not award it because of attainment but could also not explain how we could improve our teaching other than picking apart single statements from the outstanding criteria or suggesting ideas which went above and beyond this. So to put it simply satisfactory teaching is not always satisfactory it might be good or even outstanding. It could even be terrible. As long as the children hit the right level then OFSTED seem happy to award outstanding.

stephanie gibson - 07 Mar 2012


I am the head teacher of a "satisfactory" school. I agree that it's not good enough and am delighted that such a nonsensical term is being removed. However, the solution is more simple. Make sure you have an odd number of grades - be it three or five - so that the middle grade is "as expected." Otherwise, you can only ever be slightly above (very hard, when you are in a catchment where attainment tends to be low - and we have an SEN resource centre whose results are included in the school's) or slightly below - never good enough.
This would sort out this conundrum at a stroke and reduce the stress of the satisfactory grade - because, actually, we're not all coasting!

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