No doubt you’ve seen plenty of items in the news about Ofsted and its inspections. Many of these will have been critical, but they’re usually focused on specific cases, rather than looking for Ofsted as a whole.
It’s obviously important that education is accountable, and this means there has to be some kind of oversight. There’s a considerable concern, though, not only that the oversight Ofsted provides might be inappropriate, but that it could actually be contributing to the problems facing schools today.
In fact, Ofsted may well be a broken system.
What Is Ofsted?
Although Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) as such only dates back to the 1990s, it evolved from the system of school inspection that’s existed since the 19th century. Under the Education (Schools) Act 1992, Ofsted became responsible for inspecting all state-funded schools in the country.
In 2001, the body took on responsibility for childminding and daycare. Today, Ofsted is responsible for a wide range of services: childminding, child daycare, children’s centres, children’s social care, CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), state schools, independent schools and teacher training providers, colleges, and learning and skills providers.
Problems with Ofsted
It’s partly because of this greatly increased role that doubts have been raised in many quarters about Ofsted’s current fitness for purpose. One of these came from the House of Commons Education Select Committee, which saw problems in “the complex set of objectives and sectors that Ofsted now spans and its capacity to fulfil its core mission.”
Concerns have also been raised over Ofsted’s methods, with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claiming that “Ofsted is over-reliant on number crunching, using test data which are fundamentally unsound.”
It’s been suggested, too, that Ofsted inspections are making teachers’ already difficult job even harder. In a 2015 survey by the NUT, this was cited as a major factor by teachers planning to leave the profession, while Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has suggested that “Ofsted and the government are the source of much of the stress and anxiety on staff through an extremely high-pressure accountability system.”
Suggestions of Bias
In addition to the inbuilt problems with Ofsted’s methods, there have been many suggestions that the organisation doesn’t live up to necessary standards of impartiality. In addition, perceptions of inconsistency and lack of transparency have led to a thriving market in guides for how schools can play the system.
Suggestions of bias go back at least to 2013 when twenty-four new Free Schools were launched. Three quarters of these immediately received Good or Outstanding grades, at a time when more than a hundred formerly Outstanding state schools were given a lower grading.
An even more disturbing incident was suggested by a claim by an Ofsted inspector in 2015 that management had altered a school’s results from the inspection conclusions. “It turned out,” according to the claim, “that Ofsted had made a brief visit to the school sometime before the inspection and had come up with some sort of unreported provisional judgement…essentially this team of experienced inspectors was not trusted to make a judgement.”
In May this year, the Times Educational Supplement reported that Ofsted had announced a change to their inspections. The new method will involve assessment of the school’s curriculum by a series of “deep dives” into the teaching of various subjects.
Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman claims that this will let them get “to the substance of education with test and exam outcomes being looked at in the context rather than as a standalone thing in isolation.”
While this would certainly be an improvement, doubt has been cast on how realistic this aim is. Nick Brooks, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has suggested that “Under these new arrangements, inspectors are being asked to do too much, with too little resource, and with too great a degree of subjectivity.”
In addition, Brooks also highlights an alarming aspect of these changes. Those headteachers who also act as inspectors have been supplied with training material which, besides helping them prepare for their new role, will also help them prepare their own schools for inspection.
Other headteachers, however, have been left in the dark about the process. This not only gives them a lower chance of satisfying the inspectors but also creates the risk of more time being wasted trying to cover all possibilities — time that could be spent teaching pupils.
This is particularly troubling since, as Brooks points out, headteachers of schools in disadvantaged areas are unlikely to be inspectors. The restriction of training materials to inspectors, therefore, seems likely to benefit affluent schools and penalise disadvantaged schools.
A Broken System
This last point is significant since historically Ofsted has tended to reward schools that face fewer difficulties, at the expense of schools struggling against disadvantage in their catchment area. While the change in focus would be welcome if it could work effectively, it seems to only be making this worse.
It seems clear that Ofsted is a broken system that often harms education standards rather than raising them, whether by its inspection methods or by the extra burden it puts on already overburdened teachers. While some form of oversight of education is clearly needed, perhaps we need to go right back to the drawing-board and consider what would really work.
You’re very welcome to get in touch with us if you want to know more about how Ofsted works.