Former academy trust leader Sir Martyn Oliver has taken over as chief inspector at embattled Ofsted today.
In a wide-ranging interview with Schools Week editor John Dickens, Oliver spoke about his plans to rebuild the watchdog’s shattered reputation after the death of headteacher Ruth Perry, open up the inspectorate to more scrutiny and how it might tackle inconsistencies in inspections.
Here’s the (pretty much) full Q and A … (you can read our news piece here).
Question: How did you feel reading the Ruth Perry inquest verdict?
Answer: First and foremost, I just want to send my deepest condolences. As a fellow headteacher, it was a shock to learn of what happened. It’s been a very challenging time for the system and for the inspectorate.
Quite rightly, it’s a very critical coroner’s report of Ofsted. I’m really clear that we should accept and take on board all of those points, very seriously. I look forward to working with everyone to develop a really strong response.
From January, it’s about having a fresh start and really focusing and doubling down on having professional, courteous, respectful, empathetic inspections.
What I don’t think anyone wants is a chief inspector arriving every five years and saying ‘this is what I think’. We need a modern, fit-for-purpose inspectorate that responds to these challenges. And not just the immediate short term, but a long-term response that actually sees Ofsted being far more a part of the system.
It really shouldn’t be a sense of duality or elimination, it should be synthesis. And that’s what I’m trying to create: it’s not us and them, or get rid of one or keep the other. It should be Ofsted is ‘of’ the system, ‘by’ the system and ‘for’ children, parents and students.
How do you plan to do this?
I have a tremendous, very highly experienced serving practitioner workforce. But I think we can go further and develop our serving practitioners, alongside our brilliant non-serving practitioners and our full-time and part-time His Majesty’s inspectors.
One of the things that struck me as I’ve been going through our induction is the high quality of so much of the workforce – there are some absolutely excellent people who are committed. Those serving practitioners, who are doing a difficult day job leading their own institutions are also going out and inspecting their colleagues’ schools.
I’m determined to be more open, less defensive, to accept criticism
I want to work on them, and I want to see what we can create. Ultimately, the idea would be to have the sectors that are being inspected to feel as if the people inspecting them are commensurate to the setting. So for example, a primary school will have primary school-serving practitioners [etc].
I want to feel is if it’s developing expertise from within, as part of the inspectorate.
Have you thought more about how you can operationalise that?
I would like to think that I can develop a faster track through to becoming an [additional] Ofsted inspector. I think I can further develop my lead and HMI training so that every team in every inspection has a mix of that permanency, consistency [and] constancy of training that comes from an HMI, alongside the more transient expertise.
If you get more serving practitioners, then it becomes a part of the golden thread [of teacher training] and it’s part of your career. It would have certainly helped me do my [former] job. In the role of an executive in a trust, you’re going in and working with schools. You’re judging schools: what are the areas for development? What are their strengths? Well, that’s Ofsted profession.
The more we can bring the two together: that’s that sense of synthesis that I was talking about. I think that’s when Ofsted can be part of raising standards.
Some in the sector want Ofsted to be less secretive over its inspector training materials – is that a view you share?
If I expand upon that sense of ‘being of the system, by the system, for parents, children and students’, then that includes not just releasing the materials, but it also includes using researchers and academics to look at Ofsted’s working performance.
I’m determined to meet with the media and to be more open, less defensive, to accept the criticism because I genuinely think you [the media], researchers, serving practitioners: we’re all doing this job and you’re reporting on education because you firmly believe that the power of education and Ofsted should be a significant part of that.
It’s like an audit process that just reminds people ‘where are you at? What’s an acceptable standard? Are there areas you’ve got to develop? Are there some strengths that should be highlighted and praised and recognised?’
I think they’re really important moments for Ofsted to bring people together. And there’s so much more we can do on sharing best practice.
I’ve got thousands of ideas, but I’m trying to contain them because it’s a moment of saying, ‘well, just because I’m thinking this, that’s not what I think the sector wants, the sector wants to know, what do we think?’.
A sense of ‘of the system’ means listening to people and having that immediate fresh start and the response to the significant criticism and concerns that people have regarding Ruth’s tragic death, but also a medium, longer-term plan, which is more sustained, more considered going forward.
Has Ofsted been too closed shop?
I think the important part is the difficulties that we’ve all been through. Going through Covid and shutting down schools and inspections – clearly that’s created a sense of distance and a gap. And then when things have started [again], schools, settings and children’s services are under immense pressure. Things are different now.
As a head prior to the pandemic and head of a trust after the pandemic, it is not the same job. The challenges that we’ve all faced now – be it behaviour, attendance, recruitment and retention, the cost of living crisis, the negative effects of the gaps and loss of learning during Covid – all of these things have just meant that the job is more difficult.
There’s a really big piece of work that I think Ofsted can do regarding the civic duty of each of the institutions coming together. The most vulnerable children rely on all of the services coming together to support them.
Ofsted’s unique position is we inspect across all of those services. We have a duty to use that intelligence to help people see what it’s like to be a child in an area. I’m not at all talking about brand new layers or levels of inspection. We have a lot of intelligence affecting all of these services, all these providers in an area, but we don’t actually then bring it together to aggregate in to how the area is performing. And I think it will help professionals know an awful lot more about their areas.
Should inspections be paused until the coroner’s concerns have been addressed?
I’ve only just started today… There’s a tremendous amount that Ofsted has already done. And there’s far more that’s planned to come. Once I’ve started and then can meet the executive team, then I can talk about that.
It’s not a pause, but we shan’t restart [inspections]. I think it’s not starting until a couple of weeks where I’ve put in place the plans and training and met with these leaders to talk to them face to face. So I think there’ll be updates on that quite quickly, by the end of this week, or the following week are a lot more to say.
It’s not a pause. It’s just not starting until I’ve been through the training and I’ve talked to the team and put in place the plans, which as you can imagine, trying to do this before you’ve begun is very difficult.
It’s really important and I’m really grateful to Ruth’s sister, Professor Waters, who’s agreed to meet me again, just later this week.
Emergency inspections will continue to happen, because it’s about ensuring that people and children are safe.
Has this changed your view about single-word judgments?
Ultimately, that’s a question for the Secretary of State and for the Department for Education. My job is to focus entirely on delivering the best inspection system I can for the system and for the government of the day, and whatever they require.
Amanda Spielman has argued Ofsted only inspects – consequences of that outcome are questions for government. Do you agree with the sentiment of her view that criticism of Ofsted has been unfair?
Ofsted just needs to accept the criticism that’s come from the coroner’s inquest. It’s quite right that I take that really seriously. Our responses will show that, as will the openness and the transparency and the way in which all of our brilliant workforce performs.
Ofsted is about protecting children, making sure that they’re happy and healthy and safe in settings. Letting responsible bodies [and] leaders know whether their actions are having the desired effect and impact in schools.
But also it’s about making sure that the standards are high. Quite rightly, parents do want to know that their children are not only are happy and healthy and safe, but are getting a good quality of education. Children only get one chance at going through education.
Sometimes that requires us to say ‘that’s a fantastic school’. And sometimes it requires us to say, ‘that’s not good enough’. What I think we can do, though, is … do it in a way which is compassionate and with professionalism and respect. And sometimes recognising that leaders are dealing with contexts and circumstances which makes their job even harder.
But you still have to say it. You still have to say despite your best efforts, and all of these challenges, the quality of education or the outcomes or the standards that children are getting to are not where they need to be. If we fail in our duty to do that, we say that everyone is good regardless of the context in which they’re working in, then it will never lead to any policymaker ever making any change, which won’t help anyone going forward.
What does a more compassionate and emphatic Ofsted translate to on the ground?
It’s about working with our brilliant workforce to make sure they’ve got the training in place. So whether that’s understanding the stresses and strains, the mental health, the wellbeing of leaders, and I think there’s an awful lot we can do on wellbeing – looking after those that we are inspecting.
And then over time it might be that, as part of ‘The Big Listen’, we look at how well responsible bodies are looking after their leaders and their wellbeing, how well leaders are looking after children.
I don’t want to be defensive
I think how Ofsted works and inspects and trains people in that [wellbeing] will be significantly beneficial to the whole system…. [and] we have a duty to share that training for others to learn from it. We can shoulder some of that responsibility going forward.
Spielman controversially said bad actors were using Ruth’s death as a ‘pivot to try and discredit’ Ofsted. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
I don’t want to be defensive. I want to accept that if people have concerns that I need to take those concerns seriously. I need to work with everyone to deliver – for their sake, as well as for the system’s and for children and parents – the best inspectorate.
We’ve got a crucial role. I’m determined that Ofsted learns from that and then moves on – a permanent revolution, that says ‘we’ve learned something here’ – so it’s embedded into our systems and we’ll become a better Inspectorate for it.
But we help also have a tremendously talented, exceptional workforce. And it’s about allowing them that freedom to excel as well. And with the highest quality training that we can give.
If you were chief inspector when the coroner’s report was published, would you have resigned?
I don’t know: it’s impossible to be in that hypothetical situation. All I can tell you is that Amanda’s been excellent in her graciousness of allowing me access to the executive team, and to the induction that I’ve had, which I think will ultimately benefit the system because I’ll get off to the best possible, fast start for a fresh start in January.
I think the system will see the speed in which I can respond now is as a benefit of her support for me in that period.
You’ve promised more empathy and compassion. There has been criticism about how this fits with elements of your reputation at OGAT (such as high suspensions, flattening the grass). Do you want to come back on that?
I don’t want to come back on anything. People have a perception. I’ve dedicated 28 years to working in some of the most difficult and vulnerable schools in the system. [That includes] being the head of a very large, outstanding school (Outwood Grange Academy) with 2,200 children: that would be an exceptional and a very rewarding career in its own right.
What I can think back with a great sense of pride is that’s tens of thousands of children are no longer in special measures schools
But then choosing, as Outwood did, to then take on the scores [of schools] that were in special measures, the scores that nobody else would sponsor, getting phone calls from local authorities and from the DfE asking us to go in, where staff were on strike because behaviour was so bad … you choose to go into those areas because of the children.
What I can think back with a great sense of pride is that’s tens of thousands of children who are no longer in special measures schools – they’re in good and outstanding schools. Parents who were voting to not get into the school, now voting to be first choice in the school so that those same local authorities are now paying their own money to expand the schools due to their popularity.
You take on really tough, difficult settings, and it can be hard. It’s a difficult job to do, but you do it to try and be inclusive. I’m proud of the fact that [OGAT] has got a tremendous number of looked after children, high numbers of children with educational health care plans, we take a tremendous number of children who’ve been at risk of permanent exclusion for other schools.
We try to keep them and we do our level best. Ultimately, nobody wants to exclude or suspend a child.
But it’s also about, the suspensions and exclusion number is the right number, depending on how well that behaviour is being managed… There’s a legal process to suspending and permanent excluding. What I abhor are people off rolling, and I won’t tolerate that as the chief inspector.
Ofsted has been critical of ‘too high’ exclusions rates at some schools, including OGAT. Should that be in an inspector’s remit?
I think it’s right that it’s highlighted. But I’m also a big believer in .. ‘the five whys’ and we should get back to the root cause. I think a much better, clever way is to not focus on the last why, but the first why and say, ‘is it a correct behavior policy? Do you have the systems in place that you could reasonably expect to have to manage and regulate these children’s behaviors? Otherwise, we’re very much in danger of going into somebody who might take on a challenging school and saying to them ‘your behavior is not good enough’. They start to grab hold of behavior, and then you say ‘suspensions and exclusions are too high’. That can leave leaders quite demoralised.
That’s where Ofsted has a job to look civically across all the areas and say: ‘what is the quality of alternative provision in an area? If suspensions are high, what is the quality of alternative provision? What’s the quality of children’s services?’
If I can achieve one thing, beyond delivering a professional, caring, empathetic Inspectorate that people trust, it’s to also really focus on disadvantaged children
This isn’t to blame any one individual – but it’s to look beyond just the challenges that a school is dealing with, otherwise you’re constantly penalising schools who are in difficult contexts, and that’s when it becomes hard. And that is the beauty of an inspectorate that’s intelligent, with a human touch that can make those decisions, which is way more than just raw data.
If we don’t do that, then we end up in a really dangerous scenario of just saying ‘only go and work in the schools which are not in those difficult contexts’. And that that’s not going to serve vulnerable children.
If I can achieve one thing, beyond delivering a professional, caring, empathetic Inspectorate that people trust, it’s to also really focus on disadvantaged children.
There seems to be broad support for the philosophy of the current framework – looking more at inputs (what is taught and how), rather than just outputs (results) – but there seems to be consensus that has led to more inconsistency in inspections. What can be done about that?
I think it’s a misnomer to say that Ofsted has not been focused on grades. The EIF was coming into its own just as schools went into lockdown. So for almost all of its formative years, [grading] data wasn’t available.
But if you look at the internal summary data report [which inspectors have access to for inspections, but is not published], there’s a tremendous rich of information there.
I do wonder whether some of that information can be pulled through into the final report, which might go some way to explain why inspectors are making these judgments (and explaining if a school with a negative progress score, or lower greater depth or expected standard, compared to one which has got significantly higher, how that same judgment can be made).
And I also think there’s a lot to do about highlighting the sub criteria grades more. At the moment, we tend to just summarise – even on our own website – just the one overall effectiveness grade. Perhaps there’s something that we can do there. And I look forward to asking people these questions.
You were a board member of the Confederation of School Trusts when it produced a report calling for a comprehensive review of the Ofsted grading system, including urgent research on the validity and reliability of grades. Is that something you’ll act on?
I think Ofsted needs to do a thorough review. It’s already doing a review of its EIF. I think we need to look at a review, quite rightly as the coroner requested, to our response to Ruth’s tragic death. And I think we also should review all of this.
I’ve got to be sensible. Part of the thing that the system fears with a new chief inspector is that it’s just going to be their ideas imposed on the system, which I’m not going to do. I also think that they worry about their workload, and suddenly everything changing. And is there a new framework? Well, you know, I’m going to be really respectful and look at the workload impact of anything that we do and go out to consultation on the major changes, which people should have a view and a say on.
This is likely to be a general election year. The timing of any changes and the timing of a general election: it could be that nothing changes, it could be that things change significantly, I just need to be sensible.
Will you produce a new framework?
I don’t think at the moment one is required. But if the sector reflects differently to me, and it becomes untenable to keep the framework for the changes that I think everyone thinks that the system should make, then nothing is off the table.
Ofsted now produces its own research and publishes things like subject reports. Will you continue this focus?
I don’t think it’s not Ofsted’s role. But I do think it’s Ofsted’s role to deliver the best inspections it can for the funding it’s got. My absolute and only priority is to do that. If there is then additional time and money to be spent, my next stage would be to look at how we can be even better at doing that. And that will be it to start with. I don’t think I should take off any more than just delivering the best inspections for people that I can.
You’ve talked about academy trust level inspections being inevitable. How does the sector move towards that? How might it work?
Right now, I need to make sure that our brilliant workforce is out there doing the great job and that people trust that great job to deliver not just a fair, but seen to be fair, inspections with compassion, empathy and respect.
When we’ve got that level of trust in the system, then I think the right time might be to discuss ‘well now can we move to a group inspection?’
I focus on group, not trust – that sense of a common framework is important. You will have schools in trusts, diocesan groups, groups that are in the local authority. I think it’s about who is the responsible body for that group? I think there is something that could be done, and it’d be interesting to find out what people want.
But right now, individual school inspections – and remembering Ofsted exists to report to parents. As hard as this might be for a school leader, Ofsted’s job first and foremost is to tell parents how well their school is for their child.
Then it’s to inform the school about his practices and to inform Parliament about how well the system is working and how well taxpayers’ money is being spent. But we must not forget parents in all of this. That’s our number one priority.
Is it right Ofsted helps schools improve?
Certainly, it’s quite rightly contested. But let’s just take a step back … whatever Ofsted says is in its framework immediately changes the system. So you can nudge the system just by the observer principle: once you say you’re going to look at something, it’s immediately changes.
So being careful on that is first and foremost a part of school improvement. Then going in and inspecting and having a dialogue and feeding back on that dialogue. That is a version [of school improvement].
It’s like an audit. ‘This area is strong. This area is not as strong and requires development.’ That is giving leaders a sense of improvement. Checking leaders’ understanding, checking leaders’ capacity – another area where you’re putting in improvement.
And then lastly, just by taking all of that evidence and intelligence [within Ofsted]. I want to make sure that I’m trying to not carry forward any biases from anything that I’ve done in the last 28 years, but focus entirely on the evidence that I will find as I start the job today, and report that back to people.
But going into a world of us saying ‘do this’ and then years later coming back to find out whether people have done it or not, and if they have done it and it doesn’t lead to an improvement, that immediately places Ofsted into a strange, contested position.
But I don’t think that’s the improvement people are talking about. I think it’s far more intelligent improvement.