Ofsted ratings and inspections for schools explained

Choosing one school over another is often one of the most important decisions parents face. Side stepping the usual dilemmas over catchment areas, faith, state or private schools, feeder pre-schools and friendship groups, a school’s Ofsted rating offers way to compare state schools.


Everything parents need to know about Ofsted ratings for schools

Whether or not you’ve ever experienced an Ofsted inspection can play a role in how much confidence you place in the school ratings system. Some critics believe an Ofsted report only provides a snapshot of the reality of school life and the standards of teaching. For others, an Ofsted report lifts the veil on a school’s management structure, governance and pastoral provision.

A survey conducted by YouGov in 2021 revealed that 7 in 10 parents feel Ofsted is a force for improvement and a trusted judge of standards. It also showed that Ofsted ratings, and the views of other parents, are the two main sources that parents use when choosing a childcare provider, school or college for their child.


Who are Ofsted and what are they assessing?

Ofsted stands for the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. As part of the Department of Education (DFE), Ofsted is the UK government's department responsible for assessing standards in:

  • maintained primary and secondary schools and academies,
  • some independent primary and secondary schools,
  • further education colleges, sixth forms and pupil referral units,
  • childcare, adoption and fostering agencies and initial teacher training.

Ofsted is also responsible for regulating a range of early years and children’s services’ work relating to social care and the courts. Their role is to ensure that children and potentially vulnerable young people are provided with high quality care and support.

Headed by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman (who has been Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills since 2017), Ofsted is only responsible for inspecting schools in England. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own inspecting bodies. 

The ratings Ofsted issues following school inspections are not only used by policy makers, but to improve the overall quality of education and training. 

But what do the Ofsted school ratings actually mean?


What scale of grades do Ofsted use?

Under the current inspection framework (last updated in 2019), inspectors make graded judgements on the following areas:

  • quality of education
  • behaviour and attitudes
  • personal development
  • leadership and management

In each area, schools across England are graded on a 4-point scale:

  • Grade 1 (outstanding)
  • Grade 2 (good)
  • Grade 3 (requires improvement)
  • Grade 4 (inadequate) “including schools in special measures”

They also receive an overall effectiveness grade using the same 4-point scale.


Schools that are rated outstanding

Schools that are rated outstanding do not require a repeat inspection until such time as a new headteacher is appointed or concerns are raised.

To qualify as outstanding, schools will be awarded a Grade 1 for most, if not all the four categories of assessment. This implies that they convinced the inspectors that they were providing the highest standards of pastoral support and education to their children.

According to the School Inspection Handbook, Ofsted will only rate a school outstanding if:

  • The quality of education is outstanding.
  • All other key judgements are likely to be outstanding. In exceptional circumstances, one of the key judgements may be good, as long as there is convincing evidence that the school is improving this area sustainably and securely towards outstanding. Typically, this will mean meeting each and every one of the good criteria but falling short on the outstanding for that key judgement.
  • Safeguarding is effective.


Schools that are rated good

Schools that are rated as good can expect a two-day inspection every four years depending on the backlog of Ofsted’s workload, whether or not there has been a change of headteacher, or if there has been an unusual fall in the attainment or progress of the school’s pupils.

To achieve a good rating, the school will have demonstrated that they are providing a good education for all their pupils and that they are preparing them well for the next stage in their lives. They will have received a Grade 2 for most, if not all the inspection categories, but this may include some Grade 1s and Grade 3s.

According to the School Inspection Handbook, Ofsted will only rate a school good if:

  • The quality of education is at least good.
  • All other key judgements are likely to be good or outstanding. In exceptional circumstances, one of the key judgement areas may require improvement, as long as there is convincing evidence that the school is improving this area sustainably and securely towards good.
  • Safeguarding is effective.


Schools that are rated requires improvement

Schools that are given a Grade 3 rating, “requires improvement” will have received a Grade 3 in most inspection categories. This means that although the school provides an acceptable standard of education, that there are also areas in which they need to improve.

Many of these areas requiring improvement may be quick to resolve and therefore the school can expect another full Ofsted inspection (3 to 4 days) within on average two years of the last inspection.

According to Ofsted’s Inspection Handbook, Ofsted will state that a school requires improvement when:

  • Other than in exceptional circumstances, it is likely that, when the school is judged as requires improvement in any of the key judgements, the school’s overall effectiveness will also be requires improvement.
  • Safeguarding is effective. If there are any weaknesses in safeguarding, they are easily rectified and there are no serious failings that leave pupils either being harmed or at risk of harm.


Schools that are rated inadequate or placed under special measures

A school rated inadequate will have achieved a Grade 4 in most of Ofsted’s categories and a Grade 3 in the leadership and management category. This means that the school is failing to provide a satisfactory standard of education and pastoral support for its children.

This rating requires significant and immediate improvements and for this reason, the school will usually undergo a full, three-to-four-day inspection within three years (exact dates are agreed between the school and Ofsted) in order for the necessary changes to be made.

Ofsted’s Inspection Handbook states that it rates a school as inadequate when:

  • The judgement on the overall effectiveness will be inadequate when any one of the key judgements is inadequate and/or safeguarding is ineffective.

When a school receives a Grade 4 rating for all categories, including Leadership and Management, then there is another unofficial category called ‘Special Measures’. This rating requires direct intervention by Ofsted and a team of approved consultants (often experienced and high performing headteachers) from outside the school. These ‘super-heads’ are brought in to monitor and support a clear Action Plan to get the school back on track.


How many schools are rated Ofsted outstanding or good?

Happily, the number of children attending Ofsted rated good to outstanding schools is on the rise. According to the Department for Education 'Analysis of Good and Outstanding Schools'  the number has risen from 66% in 2010 to 85% in 2019.

Due to the relatively recent rolling out of Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework in 2019, only 2102 primary schools have been inspected in England under the new system. Of these: 

  • 2% have been rated as Outstanding
  • 79% have been judged to be Good
  • 17% have been assigned a rating of Requires Improvement
  • 3% have been rated Inadequate or placed under Special Measures 


How reliable a picture of a school is the Ofsted report?

Ofsted only provides schools with 24-hours’ notice of an impending inspection, unless they are responding to a serious safeguarding concern raised by a member of staff or a parent, which does not require them to give notice.

Once the school has been informed of the inspection, Ofsted sends out an email inviting parents to complete the Parent View survey. Over the past two years, 30% of parents have reportedly completed this survey as part of an Ofsted inspection. You can also search for the results of over 16,000 Parent View surveys on School Guide

Results of the Parent View survey, in combination with the two to four days spent observing lessons, interviewing governors, staff, parents and pupils and digging through policies, books and pupil progress data to test the school’s performance against the four Ofsted criteria all helps to build a thorough picture.


What is the new Ofsted framework?

Since 2019, Ofsted inspections have turned their focus towards identifying progress in books rather than assessing exam results and attainment.

The new framework has been developed to also identify how schools are preparing children for life after school. The inspectors are seeking to identify the cross-curricular skills that the school is teaching the children, alongside how they are encouraging children to become resilient or demonstrate characteristics of citizenship.

“[learners are] committed to their learning, know how to study effectivelyare resilient to setbacks and take pride in their achievements.” [2019 Ofsted framework].

The new Ofsted framework has also turned its attention to pupil behaviour and discrimination; from classroom disruption, rough play at breaktime, through to how a school deals with bullying. Ofsted inspectors will now speak directly to a group of children from differing backgrounds to assess how well behaviour is managed at the school and by interviewing individual members of the school staff, evaluate the decision pathways towards exclusions.

Another new addition to the Ofsted inspection arsenal, is the ‘deep dive.Schools are given warning, at the announcement of the inspection, of which areas of the curriculum the deep dive will focus on. They are designed to investigate how varied and rich the school’s curriculum is, and how high the standard of teaching is by association.


How do you check the Ofsted rating of a school near you?

It's quick and easy to find the latest Ofsted reports on School Guide, and we update the reports daily. Search by school name or your postcode to discover all your local schools and their latest Ofsted reports.