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The case for an immediate pause and reset in school inspection

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 November 2023

Teacher speaking to students sitting on the floor. Credit: Ashok Sinha / Adobe.

Credit: Ashok Sinha / Adobe.

Alice Bradbury and Jane Perryman.

The current Ofsted inspection system for schools has generated such a level of mistrust, even perceptions of ‘toxicity’, that it needs extensive reform, and to be paused immediately while an alternative system is developed. This is the overarching conclusion of the Beyond Ofsted Inquiry, for which we provided the research.

We have spent several months collecting data from teachers, school leaders, parents, governors and key policymakers about the impact of Ofsted and options for reform, through a survey and series of focus groups. Based on this feedback and a review of the wider evidence base, the inquiry report proposes transformative change, setting out a new model based around supported school self-evaluation and the refocusing of Ofsted on school/trust-level governance. In tandem, it calls for an immediate moratorium on routine inspections, principally to allow for such a rebuilding of the inspection system. Given the strength of feeling among our respondents, such a pause is also arguably an immediate matter of duty of care to the teaching profession.

As reported recently, our survey of 6,708 educators from both primary and secondary schools found that 92% of teachers say Ofsted is not a reliable and trusted arbiter of school standards, while 89% say Ofsted inspections are not a valid method of measuring school performance. Importantly, we found that even those teachers and leaders who are ‘winners’ under the current system (because their schools are graded Outstanding or Good) are unhappy with the current regime.

Among respondents’ comments there were several illustrations of the level of negativity associated with Ofsted among teachers, including the words ‘callous’, ‘sick’, ‘tainted’ and ‘barbaric’, and, more frequently, ‘toxic’. To take just two examples: “…Ofsted is toxic, it cannot be reformed, there is absolutely no way.”; “Ofsted is now such a tainted brand. I think it must be abolished rather than reformed.”

Respondents’ use of this term led us to explore its connotations in more detail. The perceived ‘toxicity’ of Ofsted, we concluded, lies in the combination of it being simultaneously seen to be both ineffective at improving schools and damaging to staff. This sense of doing harm while achieving little, it seems, is the effect that teachers feel so strongly about. This leads to a need to reform the system so that it does improve schools and doesn’t have the negative impacts currently seen. Looking in detail at what this reform might look like according to our participants, we found a number of elements that could be improved. Together, these amount to a major overhaul of the system.

Overwhelmingly, respondents thought that Ofsted should move away from allocating single grades to schools, especially to avoid branding them with the label of ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’. They want to move to a system focused on improving schools in a collaborative partnership, and with someone who understands their context. One secondary teacher suggested:

“[Ofsted] could truly understand the context in which the school operates to enable teachers to make a real positive difference, instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all framework and grading criteria. The socio-economic conditions of each school can vary significantly and, as such, Ofsted should be people who positively work with the school over time, instead of passing on judgement on one moment in time.” (Secondary middle leader, school graded as Requires Improvement)

Relatedly, our respondents thought that the inspectorate should be reformed so that it is more diverse and draws on expertise that more comprehensively covers the variety of subjects and age ranges that it inspects – so that, for instance, primary schools are supported by a primary specialist.

There were also many respondents who thought safeguarding should be inspected separately, and more frequently, to ensure children are properly protected. They did not see a strong justification for, as at present, combining inspection of legal safeguarding requirements with inspection of the quality of education, certainly in such a high stakes system. One teacher commented:

“To take safeguarding judgements out… This is the real fear factor, isn’t it? That you know if your door’s unlocked you immediately fail Ofsted.” (Teacher focus group)

All of these sentiments are reflected in the model set out in the Beyond Ofsted recommendations. All such changes need time, and development in consultation with the sector and parents to avoid unintended consequences and additional pressures being introduced to the system. That alone is reason for pause. In the meantime, Ofsted continues to generate a considerable amount of stress among teachers and school leaders, in ways which are regarded as damaging to teacher retention, staff morale, and parental confidence in the system. As one respondent argued:

“The current system is not just poor, it is actively damaging schools, curriculum and staff. It is a safeguarding hazard in itself – staff feel unsafe. Anything that damaging needs to stop immediately.” (Primary head teacher, school graded as Good)

This is why we want to highlight the wider case for an immediate pause to routine inspections, while a better system is developed. At present, as far as many teachers are concerned Ofsted’s work in schools is doing more harm than good.

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