Former Ofsted inspector warns inspections are 'not very accurate'

Ofsted inspections are “not very accurate”, according to a former inspector, who has called for a “root and branch” review of the service provided by the watchdog.

Richard Sheriff, the president of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned during a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference that Ofsted does not have the resources to look beyond “simple data”.

Budget cuts have left the schools watchdog under increasing financial pressure in recent years, prompting warnings from its leaders that more funding is needed. Ofsted is also under pressure to widen its inspections to include academy trusts, and inspect outstanding schools more regularly.

Fundamentally, with the resources available now, I’m not quite sure how we can do that effectively and look at that broader scope of things

During a fringe event organised by the Education Policy Institute and ASCL, Sheriff admitted he was “no longer an Ofsted inspector” because he “just wasn’t very good at it”, but that working for the watchdog had given him “quite an admiration for the service, which I didn’t have before”.

“It’s such a hard thing to do. It’s so pressurised, you’ve got so little time, it’s actually poorly remunerated. It’s not great work to do.

“It’s also not very accurate. And I think there’s some fantastic work being done by Amanda [Spielman, the chief inspector] in actually reforming the service, and with that focus on curriculum, that wider work that schools do.”

Despite these “really good messages coming through” since Spielman took over about looking at things other than “simple data”, Sheriff is concerned about resourcing, and the “tragic effect” the inspectorate and wider accountability system has on schools.

“Fundamentally, with the resources available now, I’m not quite sure how we can do that effectively and look at that broader scope of things. I think we have a problem. We need something to hold it together, I’m not averse to that, but I think we need a root and branch look at what we need, and certainly schools working together to hold each other to account.”

He was backed up by Russell Hobby, the chief executive of Teach First, who suggested Ofsted “step back” and look at what it can effectively evaluate, given its resources.

“What I do worry about, although I think there are many moves that are heading in exactly the right direction, is that, I think to build on Richard’s point, I don’t think that Ofsted as currently funded has the resources to do a proper evaluation of the quality of the curriculum in a school, given that they’re spending less than a full day in a good school in many instances.”

Hobby also warned that Ofsted taking a view on what makes a good curriculum or teaching was “incompatible” with the idea that the profession should have autonomy on those issues.

“I therefore think the only alternative is for Ofsted to step back and say ‘what are the things that we can properly evaluate with the resources that we have’, which I think are much more tick-box elements.

“Is safeguarding appropriate in this school? Is the finance being managed appropriately? Are exclusions and inclusion managed appropriately? Things that we can objectively agree on and can be evaluated, and leave it some other source in the system that could challenge [the curriculum].”

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Our curriculum research and a vast amount of sector feedback have told us that a focus on performance data is coming at the expense of what is taught in schools. A new focus on the curriculum will change that, bringing the inspection conversation back to the substance of young people’s learning and treating teachers like the experts in their field, not simply data managers.

“All our work to date shows that looking at the curriculum does not require a preferred curriculum, and we have already recognised a diversity of successful approaches. What matters is that school leaders and teachers have thought about and are delivering the best possible curriculum for their pupils.

“As part of reforming the framework to do that we are taking a root and branch review of our resources, including looking at how we redirect more inspector time back onsite, having those conversations with teachers and leaders.”