The ‘OFSTED Matthew Effect’


The rich get rich, the poor get poorer. This biblical aphorism is a universal truism. Whether it is a comment about the recent banking crisis, or an explanation for the phenomenon that the ‘word rich’ gain great advantages in education by the breadth and power of their vocabulary (Geoff Barton first alerted me to the ‘Matthew Effect’), it explains a great deal about our world and our professional lives.

For school teachers and leaders across the country, there is the sad truth that we are subject to the ‘OFTSED Matthew Effect‘.

Let me explain. If the ‘Matthew effect’ shows how the rich get richer whilst the poor get poorer, well, in OFSTED terms, those schools with a ‘Outstanding‘ or ‘Good‘ ratings get metaphorically rich get richer, whereas those deemed ‘Requiring Improvement‘ or ‘Inadequate‘ you are poor and significantly more likely to get poorer still.

With recent pronouncements about ‘coasting schools‘, it would appear that those schools who were deemed ‘Requiring Improvement‘ are now in dire straights and they may fall through the floor standards, with the attendant damage that entails to their reputation, including the detrimental impact on the careers of many.

I work with schools and talk to teachers on both sides of the ‘OFSTED Matthew Effect’ divide. The people most often prove remarkably similar, only the ability to teach and lead for long-term improvement of the ‘OFSTED poor’ category schools is greatly diminished, given the necessary focus and drive for rapid, but short-termist measures.

Every school leader of ‘OFSTED poor’ schools I have met recently details the interminably long action plans that consume the time of everybody to complete quick-fixes that distract from the deeper changes required. Teachers in OFSTED poor schools get invariably crushed under compliance measures related to planning and marking – a sure-fire recipe for teacher burnout.

I know teachers who are judged as great in a ‘OFSTED rich’ school which a student catchment which is something like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but then they become inadequate overnight because they teach students without any of the hidden supports like middle class parents with cultural currency and access to private tutors and the like.

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the ASCL, has described the difference between such schools as the difference between the ‘confident‘ and the ‘constrained‘ – see here. Those ‘OFSTED rich’ schools tend to have a more affluent and ‘word rich’ student catchment, with low FSM numbers, above average results and relatively stable staffing. Alternatively, ‘OFSTED poor’ schools are constrained by a more diverse catchment, results that are perilously close to the raised floor standards and annual difficulties with unstable staffing.

The Poor Get Poorer

How many teachers, in the midst of a recruitment slump, would knowingly join a school under the iron fist of OFSTED? The great talent would look to train there? What prospective headteachers have the desire to risk their entire career? Not very many it appears.

Teachers know the deal: ‘OFSTED rich’ schools free of the pressure of OFSTED and so are free take more risks, have time to invest in long term planning, are invested in networks like Teaching Schools and can survey the evidence beyond the OFSTED report fine print.

In times of recruitment difficulty, ‘OFSTED poor’ schools will find it even harder to recruit teachers. When the Ebacc impact fully finds its way through to staffing numbers in all schools, recruitment and retention will prove even more marked between the OFSTED rich and poor.

You can quibble with the detail – but the quality of schools cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. If your catchment is good you will be ok relative to accountability measures, but if your school is in an area of deprivation then you need great teachers (who are resilient in the face of the challenges of being ‘poor’ and ‘constrained’).

The results of the ‘OFSTED Matthew Effect’ are paradoxical. The supposed drive to improvement by down-grading schools only exacerbates the conditions of difficulty and constraint that no doubt contributed to the failures in the first instance. When all these ‘coasting schools’ have been academised, what then? Will the teachers be transformed, the catchment changed, the recruitment solved?

Of course, being in a school with ‘OFSTED poor’ conditions does not excuse school leaders from making bad decisions, or from a weak interpretation of supposed OFSTED diktats (such as the palaver associated with lesson gradings – see my criticisms here), but we must be honest that it is no doubt harder to make good decisions under a swinging Sword of Damocles.

The solutions to the inequities of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ schools, in OFSTED terms, are no doubt intractable. I don’t pretend to offer simple answers in a concluding paragraph. Is our current system of accountability doing the best possible job of it? Well, I don’t think anyone would claim we could not do better. First, we need to recognise the obvious inequality that is the “OFSTED Matthew Effect’ and start working on a better solution.



11 thoughts on “The ‘OFSTED Matthew Effect’”

  1. Having worked in schools on both sides of the divide, I salute you for drawing attention to this very real and insidious state of affairs.

  2. Pingback: Rejection of the Opportunity Matthew Effect | chemistrypoet

  3. One alternative accountability approach would be to focus on improvement as the main measure of institutions not achievement.

    In Finland or Denmark or possibly both the best teachers are encouraged to work in the most problematical schools.

    Inspection suits the middle class aspirant parents who vote most reliably. It’s a human rights issue.

    Great post!!

  4. Enjoyed this, Alex. I was trying to make a similar point here

    Agreed on the challenge that ‘Ofsted poor’ schools face in fixing the short term issues for Ofsted while also finding the time and space to invest in the long term. The ‘coasting schools’ definition was an opportunity to address this problem, but in fact has only exacerbated the Matthew effect.

    It sounds like Sean Harford recognises this problem, tweeting on 27th May: “Q, mainly but not exclusively for HTs or aspiring HTs: what could Ofsted do to incentivise you to take on the l’ship of an RI or SM school?”

    We wish him well.

    1. Good blog. I know Sean and OFSTED are aware of the many unintended consequences of their approach, but without some further reforms to the premise of our accountability model I don’t think we will make the change needed.

  5. Surely, this is an empirical question, you have cited no evidence there is a Matthew effect when this claim could be easily verified by some simple hypotheses such as; schools will take longer to rise from inadequate to requires improvement than from requires improvement to good. Analysis of OFSTED grades would tell us this and avoid the risk of demoralisation for unsubstantiated reasons, a kind of Daily Mail effect.

  6. Pingback: Terminal Decline – the grip of short-termism, and how to avoid it | A few thoughts on education

Leave a Reply


Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

Scroll to Top