Cuts to Ofsted’s budget mean the watchdog is not providing the level of assurance that schools need, an influential group of MPs has said, in a damning report that warns the credibility of the inspectorate is now on the line.
The parliamentary public accounts committee, which keeps government agencies in check, has released the critical report today, which highlights “clear shortcomings in Ofsted’s performance”.
It follows a similarly scathing report from the National Audit Office earlier this year, which found that important re-inspection targets were missed, and questioned why hundreds of schools have gone for more than a decade without a visit.
The intervention followed an investigation by Schools Week that revealed more than 100 schools had not had a full inspection for more than ten years.
Today, Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the public accounts committee, warned that cuts to Ofsted’s budget “have undermined families’ ability to make informed decisions about schools”, and that the inspectorate risks being reduced to “a fig leaf for government failures on school standards”.
The NAO found earlier this year that spending on school inspections is now 52 per cent lower in real terms than it was in 1999. Ofsted’s funding is determined by the Department for Education.
The committee has also demanded evidence of action to address an oversight which led to Ofsted misleading Parliament about its performance against certain targets.
The watchdog has a legal duty to re-inspect most schools within five academic years of the end of the academic year in which the last inspection took place. Ofsted’s 2016-17 annual report, which was laid before Parliament, stated that this target was met in 2015-16, when in fact, it was missed for 43 schools between 2012-13 and 2016-17.
“It is not encouraging that Ofsted also misinformed Parliament about the inspections it had carried out – a mistake that further calls into question its effectiveness,” said Hillier. “We expect to see evidence that action Ofsted says it has taken to address this failing is working.
“If the level of inspection continues to be eroded there is a risk that Ofsted will come to be perceived by parents, Parliament and taxpayers as not relevant or worse, simply a fig leaf for government failures on school standards.
“Should this happen, its credibility will evaporate.”
Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, said Ofsted had to “do more with less”, like the rest of the public sector, but said she remained confident that inspections “provide parents, schools and the government with the assurance they need about school standards”.
“However, as I said at the hearing, we have reached the limit in terms of being able to provide that level of assurance within our current funding envelope. That is why, with our ongoing framework review, we are looking at how to ensure that schools and parents get everything they need from our reports, and why many of the committee’s recommendations are already long in train.”
Several inspection policies have also come under scrutiny, including the exemption for ‘outstanding’-rated schools. As a result of the exemption, there are 296 schools that have not been inspected for more than 10 years, and MPs say it is “reasonable to assume” that not all of them remain at the top of their game.
Ofsted’s leaders have said they want the exemption lifted, but say more money is needed to fund more regular inspections of previously ‘outstanding’-rated schools.
MPs also questioned the short inspection system used for ‘good’-rated schools. These institutions currently get a short, one-day inspection, around every four years, as opposed to a full two-day inspection.
The committee says the rationale for this policy should be reexamined, amid fears that short inspections don’t allow inspectors to make a “meaningful assessment” of a school’s performance.
A DfE spokesperson said standards are “undeniably” rising in schools, and insisted ministers backed Ofsted as “the only body able to provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance”.
“We trust Ofsted with these inspections and this is backed by parents, with Ofsted inspections the second most important consideration when choosing a school behind location.
“The focus of Ofsted should always be on underperformance so that no child has to be in a bad school that no-one is doing anything about. There is a comprehensive range of performance data available and where Ofsted has concerns about performance at any school, it has always been and will continue to be able to inspect at any point.”