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Leadership, OFSTED, Redesigning Schools

What’s Beyond the Ofsted Inspection Jungle?

Is there a more civilised, enriching and effective accountability process than the current Ofsted Inspection regime?  Our current adrenaline fuelled, high stakes, steroid induced inspection system is changing, and changing for the better, but it is only the first step towards what is required.

Photo Credit: Alba Campus via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Alba Campus via Flickr cc

Last summer I was asked to speak on leadership at a conference in Milton Keynes.  I ended up somewhere between presenting and ranting about the pernicious impact of our current high stakes, low trust accountability system.  One of my lines was that Ofsted would not exist, in its present form, in three to five years.  A number of people came to speak to me at the end incredulous that anyone could perceive an Education System in which there was no Ofsted.  Roll forward about eight months and much of what I was ranting about is beginning to be put into place but only for some schools.  I actually doubt there is any causal link.

The New Short Inspection

I decided pretty early on to be a fan of the new short inspection process and admitted to this in blog post, All Aboard for the Ofsted Dambusters with a more nuanced response in the post Better Inspection for All … Is that the Right Question?  Short inspections are a step in the right direction and this should be acknowledged.  They will produce a narrative based report with no grade, be more proportionate for schools previously graded good and may start to redefine the relationship between Ofsted and the school system.  However, it can only be seen as a passing phase rather than a long term acceptable system.

ST&SH - Short Inspections

The concerns I have are that short inspection:

  • Won’t involve other school leaders and removes a potentially powerful opportunity to learn from the practice of good schools.
  • The current grading system will still be applied to about 20% of primary schools and 30% of secondary schools creating a two tier inspection process.  This is unhelpful, unnecessary and unproductive.

We know from research around assessment that formative feedback and summative grades at the same time don’t work.  The grade becomes all powerful and the comments are lost.  In feeding back, verbally and in writing to governors, senior leaders and schools, the areas for improvement are lost in the emotional response to the overall grade.  In any system which a school is being done to, the external setting of improvements leads to a lack of ownership or acceptance of what is being set.  This issue of power and control cuts deep if want to see sustained improvements in our schools.

Exchange re. reliability

Ofsted produce statistics about schools improving or getting stuck or declining at an individual and system level.  The problem is the system has never been tested for validity or reliability.  Ofsted’s grading may be about as valuable as grading individual lessons, brain gym, tossing a coin or learning styles.  After 25 years of delivering high stakes accountability judgements this is wholly unacceptable.  It is for Ofsted to prove beyond reasonable doubt that its processes and judgements have authenticity and value

The Issue of Power

It is one of those wonderful ironies in life that Ofsted, who hold the education system to account, are pretty much unaccountable to anyone.  The power dynamic within the inspection process is dangerously one-sided.

 “In the twenty-one years since its first inspection, attitudes to Ofsted have hardly changed. It is still seen by many as an unaccountable and unregulated body, which bases its judgements on questionable evidence, and which enjoys disproportionate power and influence over schools and teachers.”

L3xiphile (2015) The Case for Ofsted; is there one?


DW - Reliability

When it comes to Ofsted I’m pretty unbalanced in my thinking.  It is important for me to admit to and recognise this.  I think we can spend £160 million much better than we currently do.  We have created an accountability system that has no idea of the validity or reliability of its reports.  These reports carry far reaching consequences for schools and their leaders.  For leaders these vary from dismissal at one end of the spectrum to recognition as a National Leader of Education at the other.  Yet whether Ofsted’s report in any way measures the effectiveness of a school and its leaders, teachers and support staff is still, after nearly twenty five years, hugely debatable.  I tend towards the belief that Ofsted gradings are more a measure of your intake than your effectiveness.

The Best Of It & The Worst Of It

There are few people within the Education System who don’t have an opinion on Ofsted, for better or worse.  It has certainly proved to be a resilient organisation over time.  In trying to reflect on where to next, beyond the current Ofsted Inspection Jungle, it may help to try to discern what impact Ofsted does and could have.  The European Commission Life Long Learning Programme: The Impact of School Inspections is possibly one of the best reports I’ve read on inspection systems.  It categories the inspection system in England as differentiated (and it is about to become more differentiated) and high stakes with inspection reports made public.  The system evaluates both educational practice and the outcomes of schools.

Exchange re. reliability

I do not believe that Ofsted can, with any reliability, assess these different elements stated and also question whether they should.

“There is evidence to indicate that school inspections can be a key feature of school improvement but more recent studies point to unintended consequences such as excessive bureaucracy and teaching to the test … Unintended consequences related to the curriculum and instruction, such as a narrowing of the curriculum and instructional strategies in the school and discoursing teachers to experiment with new teaching methods are the highest in England …”

European Commission Life Long Learning Programme: The Impact of School Inspections (2014)

Inspection can help improve schools but the danger of unintended consequences means that we need to rethink our differentiated high stakes inspection system.  This becomes even more pressing when we look further into the European Commission Life Long Learning Programme: The Impact of School Inspections Report to find that the additional monitoring leads to an impact on the amount of improvement activities in schools” but then concludes there “is little evidence of these changes also leading to improved student outcomes.”  There is a delusion of improvement, if we want improved student outcomes, which is really just people running round like headless chickens and being busy.  The report then goes on to say that by the third year this busyness slows and stops to a level which is comparable to schools not subject to intervention.  The “impact of monitoring visits primarily results from the pressure and potential consequences of these visits” rather than the school’s own desire to improve.

“The fact that change in the monitored schools seems to last two years and seems to be implemented in a high pressure/low trust environment raises the question of whether these changes are long lasting and sustainable.”

European Commission Life Long Learning Programme: The Impact of School Inspections (2014)

Beyond Inspection

Photo Credit: Colin via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Colin via Flickr cc

The inspection process is an outside in quality control system.  It is an after the event check rather than a real time corrective process.  An analogy is a car production line where at the end of the line the car is check for quality, found wanting and consequentially rejected.  The Japanese motorcar manufacturers surged to prominence through a quality assurance process which made adjustments at the necessary point on the line.  It was a continual inspection process by the workers.  An inspection every three years is simply too late to pick up issues.  Inspections can never hope to replicate quality assurance processes which seek to strengthen systems and processes to avoid the errors occurring in the first place.  Alternatively, they seek to correct them as close as possible to the point at which they were made.  Ofsted are on the outside of the school system with dangerous consequences for a high stakes inspection process with an externally imposed set of values and systems imposed on schools.

Thanks to Sean Harford & David Brown for engaging in the Twitter conversation last week.  A sure sign Ofsted is changing.

It’s one thing to identify the problem but it always helps to propose a solution.  Here are my suggestions for a more intelligent accountability system built on benchmarks, feedback, peer support, external validation and building internal capacity:

Ofsted’s Dead; Long Live Validated Peer Review (To Be Published Shortly)


European Commission Life Long Learning Programme (2014) The Impact of School Inspections

L3xiphile (2015) The Case for Ofsted; is there one?



7 thoughts on “What’s Beyond the Ofsted Inspection Jungle?

  1. If we have no consensus regarding the overall purpose of education, is there any definitive way in which inspections can be externally checked for validity and reliability? It seems that the only real way of measuring performance of a school is through exam results and perhaps in the future (according to Nicky Morgan) through subsequent earnings. Most critics seem to paint these are rather limited views of the nature of education, but is there any definitive way of measuring schools beyond these things which isn’t ultimately based on a subjective experience of the school?

    Posted by chrismwparsons | February 18, 2015, 6:31 pm
    • A key question, Chris, that I’ve mentioned in other posts. If we don’t have a clear vision of what education should be then there is no way of deciding whether schools are effective in achieving it. There is a need to accept some things we value may be so difficult or expensive to measure that it isn’t worth it. I do think we could still develop more valuable metrics than we currently have.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | February 18, 2015, 6:46 pm
      • Thanks for that response – this was the first of your posts that I’ve seen. I’ll read back through more of your things, and I look forward to hearing your take on how things move forward – this was a powerfully put blog post.


        Posted by chrismwparsons | February 18, 2015, 8:34 pm


  1. Pingback: Beyond Inspection: Building the Case for Peer Review | @LeadingLearner - February 21, 2015

  2. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts February 2015 | high heels and high notes - February 28, 2015

  3. Pingback: Ofsted’s Dead: Long Live Peer Review | @LeadingLearner - March 7, 2015

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