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Why Ofsted’s one-word reviews are so 1970s - Lee Parker

10 August 2023

By Lee Parker, MK College Group marketing director

The tragedy at Caversham Primary School has brought Ofsted’s methods under the spotlight. The House of Commons Education Select Committee has launched its own investigation, amid widespread calls for reform. The organisation’s insistence that it has made changes have been met with a chorus of disapproval for the decision to steadfastly stick to the one-word judgement that all schools and colleges dread.

The education experts have all had their say, for and against, but from a marketing perspective this stubborn defence of the one-word grade is just outdated.

Ofsted says it gives consumers, prospective parents and students, the clarity they need to make a judgement about an educational institution’s strengths. But it’s not clarity; it’s actually terribly imprecise and vague. Imagine a guide book to the universe, where the entry describing the kind of planet earth was, simply read, “blue.” Today’s consumers are looking for nuance and texture, and more than anything they rely on reviews.

Compare with the travel sector. When people visit a travel agent, they no longer ask for a four star or five-star hotel in the way they once did. What’s the beach like? Is there a spa? Are there kids’ clubs? Do you have a family-run taverna, where a more authentic local experience can be had? And what do other people say about the place?

Trip Advisor or Google Reviews – these are the places people go today to find out if a product or service is right for them. Once upon a time, when buying large white goods, like a fridge or oven, shoppers would use the manufacturer’s marketing materials as their primary source of information. Now these are rarely more than checked for power usage or physical dimensions, whereas the reviews are pored over, because we are more inclined to trust the assessment of other people like us, when deciding whether to part with our money.

So what could this mean for Ofsted? There is undoubtedly a place for the expert to give their view. Just as we might look at a Which? Report to help inform our decision-making, we recognise that people who see a lot of colleges or schools might spot things, and formalise their judgements, in a way people like us might not. However, we also understand that Ofsted inspectors might be looking at different things from us, because they’re not parents whose children might go to the institution, and we’re not immersed in theories of educational good practice.

Depending on our child’s individual personality, we might put more weight on the strength of a particular course, for example. Have other students enjoyed it? Do people taking it go on to good jobs, or to university or to further study of another kind? What are the sports like? How good are the science facilities? What about pastoral care? None of these things are even hinted at by a designation of, “inadequate,” or “good.”

So how can Ofsted learn from a modern marketing approach? The organisation could become a Trip Advisor for education. Briefer, more frequent, perhaps annual, inspections could give the equivalent of a council’s hygiene rating for restaurants. It would include the facts, about student and teacher numbers, quality of facilities, exam results etc. Certainly, it should comment on more specialist components like safeguarding and leadership and management, and it should still retain powers of sanction for areas of concern around these important issues. But the site would also host more comprehensive reviews from parents and students, detailing their experiences and yes, even commenting on how accurate they felt the inspectors’ report was.

After all, Ofsted’s role is to give parents confidence that schools and colleges are fit for purpose, that they are good, safe, reliable educators. Surely the best way to do that is to offer information, based not just on a series of set inquisitorial criteria, boiled down to a single word of judgement, but to provide a platform for the people who’ve already has firsthand experience as users of the services offered.

The reality is, that with so many different forms of review now available to the public, Ofsted could find itself being marginalised if it doesn’t modernise. Currently, colleges and schools are complicit in giving Ofsted reviews significant influence as they choose to use Ofsted as the only way they share customer feedback with parents. If educational institutions got together to agree a common review system, or even if a single college or school decided to embed Feefo or Trip Advisor or another independent review aggregator, it would take power away from Ofsted overnight by offering the greater nuance and insight parents actually want.

We wouldn’t buy a holiday or a fridge, based solely on a single word from one expert assessment, so why should we have pick something so much more important, like a school or college, with such meagre information?

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.