Decentralising Ofsted is an idea whose time has come (again) 

Frank Norris reveals that a new model of local inspection wouldn’t be all that new or all that alien to Ofsted

Frank Norris reveals that a new model of local inspection wouldn’t be all that new or all that alien to Ofsted

11 Dec 2023, 5:00

Stay in education long enough, the saying goes, and you’ll see every idea come back round. Few stay very long anymore, but I’ve seen a few. The truth is that there are times when a good idea just arrives at the wrong time. It doesn’t mean it was wrong, but it probably butted up against other priorities. This is how I feel about the idea of His Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) being responsible for managing, reviewing and quality-assuring inspection and regulatory work in a local area or region. 

With recent calls to refocus Ofsted on inspecting local authorities and multi-academy trusts instead of spending the majority of their time on individual schools, there is experience from the past to draw on to bring that about – work that was not opposed by Ofsted then but in fact driven by it. 

Let me take you back to early 2005. David Bell was the chief inspector at the time. He was keen on decentralising Ofsted and adamant that he wanted to see all HMI responsible for schools and colleges leading on local inspection work.  

However, he realised there was a risk HMI would be viewed as just ‘jobbing inspectors’ and this work might not appear as attractive as it previously did. So, I was asked to develop a role which would see HMI allocated to a particular local authority. They would be responsible for reviewing inspection outcomes, and not just those for education, providing local training for inspectors and having the face-to-face discussions with senior local authority officers. The role would be called the local managing inspector (LMI).  

All 53 HMI appointed in 2005 were specifically appointed as LMI (local managing inspector). They were then allocated a local authority or, in the case of London, two local authorities.  

Several planned aspects of the role never materialised. One such was leading a group of contracted inspectors because at the time non-HMI inspectors were contracted to, scheduled by, and managed by private companies – the inspection service providers (ISPs).  

As chief inspectors come and go, so priorities change 

One aspect of the role that was implemented for several years was the regular meeting between the LMI and the local authority senior team to use performance data (of which inspection outcomes were a part but not the whole) to provide local accountability at a strategic level.  

As chief inspectors come and go, so priorities change. Sir David Bell was asked to become the DfE’s most senior civil servant at very short notice, and despite the efforts of Sir Michael Wilshaw to preserve the duties, the introduction of the regional schools commissioners by the DfE saw the importance of the local managing inspector role dwindle. It was replaced eventually by a system of local work-led Ofsted regional directors who aligned with DfE regions. 

In effect, oversight of inspection activity was handed to a senior manager who was accountable to the chief inspector. I’m sure many of these senior officers are very able, but it is impossible for them to have effective oversight of emerging issues within specific areas, local authorities and even trusts when they have so many on their patch. 

With a growing interest in increased devolution and with a new chief inspector in the wings who says he wants to listen to the sector, it is perhaps time to reconsider the local managing inspector role and place all HMI in a more strategic position within communities and regions.  

They could be useful in ensuring all inspectors in a particular region or area are fully aware of local priorities, including those for Health and Social Care, and emerging trends. As an advocate of less inspection and more informative visits to schools (including annual safeguarding checks), I believe the local managing inspector could draw all of this information together to determine where more targeted inspection is most likely to drive improvement and ensure a better coordinated and informed approach 

This shift in emphasis would require HMI who are so much more than just ‘jobbing inspectors’. Not all of those currently employed by the inspectorate would be up to the strategic challenge, but it is vital we manage to strengthen and reposition the role of HMI so that it is renewed, more locally focused and insightful. 

The local managing inspector role may need resurrecting and refreshing, but that’s not necessarily proof that we’re going round in circles. Sometimes, a good idea just needs to land at the right time. 

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One comment

  1. Phil Hatton

    Inspection needs to be quality assured centrally if there is to be any chance of everyone being treated the same. Everything I have seen where regionalised was not fit for purpose, with regional variations in practice quickly developing. That includes Ofsted, FEFC and other inspectorates. What is required is a quality function that puts consistent inspection first, not the inspectorate. Some inspectors are not up to what is a difficult job and that needs to be acknowledged.