Ofsted should only ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ schools

Ofsted has become too pervasive. It is time now for it to become a regulator, rather than a school improver

Ofsted has recognised the need for reform. It has said that good schools will face frequent but shorter visits in the future, and it will give more weight to subjects such as music. But in my view, while Ofsted calls these reforms “radical”, they do not go far enough. We need to go back to first principles and ask what is Ofsted for and what should its role now be?

CfBT Education Trust has been carrying out inspections on behalf of Ofsted for the past 10 years. We have seen first-hand the significantly positive impact that Ofsted has had in raising standards in schools and we are pleased to have been a part of that. However, it is now time for fundamental reform. In an age when we have far more detailed and accurate information about pupil performance than ever before, and at a time of increasing strain on education funding, we must give serious consideration to an important but different future role for Ofsted.

We should stop looking to Ofsted for accolades

The inspectorate has become too pervasive an influence. Its framework has become the means through which every aspect of school life has to be considered – “what would Ofsted say?” is too often the key question when making a strategic decision. Why has a regulator become so influential? Would famous writers for television, such as Sally Wainwright or Steve Moffat, look to Ofcom to make their programme outstanding? Of course not – they would take into account the basic requirements of the regulator but would look elsewhere for their ideas. Schools also should look elsewhere for inspiration.

The judgments Ofsted makes are also contestable. Are we clear from the research evidence about what great teaching looks like? What outstanding leadership looks like? What counts as exceptional behaviour management? So far it seems that this cannot be captured in a reliable way.

Ofsted is also too open to political interference. Both the Labour and the coalition governments have changed the Ofsted framework to take into account the latest priority from government. Time and money has then to be spent retraining inspectors.

Rather than being a school improver, or a way for successive governments to force through policy, Ofsted should be a regulator. Its role should be ensuring that government and parents have confidence their children are learning.

It needs to be about pupils’ progress over time and to be based on evidence of progress in books, as well as evidence of progress and added value in external exams. The report on progress in learning, which should take Ofsted no more than a day in a school to complete and to verify the school’s self-assessment, should be robust, rigorous, and transparent.

There should be two grades only: adequate or inadequate. Some may argue against the best judgment being “adequate” but we should stop looking to Ofsted for accolades – there are all kinds of ways to recognise excellent schools without relying on Ofsted.

If the judgment is “inadequate” there should be a requirement on the school to improve by the following year or face intervention. Intervention may be needed immediately in extreme cases. Each year schools should publish their latest audits, including the grading of adequate or inadequate.

This would put an end to an opaque Ofsted system and would empower the profession to take the lead on researching what great teaching and great leadership looks like. Schools would increasingly challenge and support each other through peer review instead of relying on Ofsted. They could try out different approaches to teaching and would not be judged on those approaches, only on whether the children are safe and are learning effectively.

Now that England’s education system has (according to Ofsted’s own figures) improved significantly and now that we have a rich source of data on children’s progress, it is time for a fundamental rethink. Let Ofsted monitor outcomes in a robust and transparent way and let the profession take control of teaching and leadership through a school-led system.


Steve Munby is chief executive of the CfBT Education Trust

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  1. I agree the overall thrust of the article but would favour a different overarching descriptor to ‘adequate’. I say this because it is not reflective of the sustained professionalism and effort that goes into meeting a baseline national standard (presumable across a range of factors). Perhaps ‘meeting’ or ‘not meeting’ national standards. From this flows the next, and most vexed, question as to what such a statement/judgement entails (e.g. arbitrary floor targets per se or set for each category within a cohort of learners). This opens up Pandora’s box regarding the age old axiom how do you weigh the pig and who decides?

    Moving to easier but nonetheless challenging propositions:

    1. Yes, the education regulator must be wholly independent of the DfE and political leaders of the day.

    2. The regulator needs to refocus on a team that specialises in different aspects e.g.:

    a. EYFS
    b. Primary
    c. Secondary
    d. Pru provision
    e. Special school provision
    d. SEN school provision
    f. Safeguarding

    It is self-evident that no one person, new re-badged Ofsted Inspector or HMI, can realistically simultaneously be expert in all of these areas. The current practice – that will continue from Sept 15 – has been and will be the cause of inconsistencies across the piece; with all that entails for schools and colleagues.

    3. Yes, the 3 year overtime aspect must be further reinforced and this does not require the continuance of lesson observations as is current practice. There is a greater case for:

    a. Lesson observations in subjects sig +/- to evaluate best practice and discuss with HTs how they are identifying and disseminating best practice across the curriculum
    b. Work scrutiny
    c. In year progress tracking and its robustness/integrity

    In this way the recent move by Ofsted away from grading lessons and into focusing on impact would be reinforced and in turn underscore that it is up to HTs and their wider team to determine the nature and focus of T&L. Indeed, the latter could be removed from the regulatory process all together and the achievement of pupils and L&M revisited to reflect school self evaluation and how this impacts on pupil achievement and staff effectiveness/development.

    The regulator should focus on whether schools meet the expected national standards and not attempt to award a hierarchy of labels (aka accolades or accreditations). After all is said and done, schools are accountable to DfE for the fulfilment of their responsibilities under the Education Acts. They have never be directly or indirectly be accountable to the regulator (Ofsted).