Ofsted: ‘Insider knowledge’ helps schools get better grades

Researchers say the 'significant advantage' raises questions over the 'equity and fairness' of inspections

Researchers say the 'significant advantage' raises questions over the 'equity and fairness' of inspections

20 Oct 2023, 5:00

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New Ofsted analysis shows the alignment between its inspection grades and exam results

Schools with leaders who also work as part-time Ofsted inspectors get better inspection grades, suggests the first study to investigate the impact of “insider knowledge”.

Researchers say the “significant advantage” raises questions over the “equity and fairness” of inspections, with renewed calls for secret inspector training materials to be published.

It also comes after Sir Martyn Oliver, who becomes chief inspector in January, signalled his intention to boost the number of school leaders working as inspectors.

Ian Hartwright, head of policy for the school leaders’ union NAHT, said inspection “should be a level playing field.

Allowing some schools access to inside information necessarily disadvantages other schools, and further undermines school leaders’ confidence in Ofsted.”

What did the study find?

Researchers linked data of where Ofsted inspectors (OIs) work, obtained by Schools Week under a freedom of information inquiry, to inspection outcomes in the 2022-23 academic year.

The academics, from UCL’s Institute of Education and the University of Southampton, found 150 inspections (2.4 per cent) were conducted at a school where at least one member of staff was a serving OI.

Alongside its 300 full-time schools inspectors (HMIs), Ofsted has about 900 contracted staff who inspect part-time alongside their day job.

The watchdog pays contracted inspectors up to £535 a day, but for many serving leaders the cash goes to their school

The study found schools employing contracted inspectors were far more likely to get ‘outstanding’ (20 per cent versus 7 per cent of schools without an OI).

They were also much less likely to be rated ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ (8 per cent compared with 24 per cent).

But schools with a prior ‘outstanding’ were more likely to employ OIs, which is unsurprising given Ofsted says it wants inspectors ideally from ‘good’ or better schools.

Researchers controlled for these differences, alongside other measures including school phase, deprivation levels and exam results.

‘Significant advantage of inside knowledge’

While it led to the difference in ‘outstanding’ grades being “greatly reduced”, schools with inspectors were far more likely to achieve a ‘good’ (82 per cent versus 70) and were still way less likely to be rated below ‘good’ (see table).

The study also found schools with inspectors were more than twice as likely to be improving towards ‘outstanding’ during short inspections.

Researchers said the findings – the first into this issue and funded by the Nuffield Foundation – show a “significant advantage” amongst schools with an inspector, which they call “inside knowledge”.

While they said any advantage only benefited very few schools, it was “likely to become an increasingly important issue in the coming years” if Oliver followed through on his pledge.

An Ofsted spokesperson said OIs brought “valuable knowledge and experience to inspections” and working as an inspector had “many benefits”.

But it was “misleading to suggest that OIs provide these schools with “’insider knowledge’ and better inspection outcomes”. This was because a casual link had not been established, they added.

Leaders may know ‘what hoops to jump through’

The academics, John Jerrim, Christian Bokhove and Sam Sims, put forward four potential reasons for the better grades.

Working as an inspector was “one of the best professional developments a teacher or school leader ever receives”, producing better leaders” who “introduce more effective practices within their own school”.

John Jerrim
John Jerrim

Another “less starry-eyed” possibility was that training gave leaders a “better understanding of what inspectors ‘look for’ during inspections” so they could “tick the right boxes”.

“They get to know what ‘looks good’ – and what hoops schools need to jump through – to get a top inspection grade”.

Another “unlikely” theory was that inspectors in the same area might know each other, so a “professional network effect” could be boosting grades.

The fourth explanation was that Ofsted only employed the best and most effective leaders, but research suggested this unlikely too.

Watchdog considers sharing more data

While the difference in results was “likely driven by some combination” of the four, academics said they could only “get to the bottom of such issues” if Ofsted was more open with its data.

Ofsted originally refused to provide the OI employment data under FOI, but was ordered to hand it over by the Information Commissioner’s Office after we appealed.

Academics said the case “illustrates the challenges researchers currently face”.

They want the watchdog to publish a database in the Office for National Statistics Integrated Data Service for researchers with information linking inspectors and their characteristics to inspection outcomes.

Sam Sims
Sam Sims

It is understood Ofsted is now looking into this.

The study follows research in February into how Ofsted results are impacted by inspector characteristics, which found female OIs hand out harsher grades.

The academics said it would be unreasonable to expect inspections to be 100 per cent reliable.

But “what they need to be is reliable enough for the purpose that they are used and the stakes involved.

At the moment, we really don’t know enough about this important issue”.

They highlighted Oliver’s job application in which he said he “often hear[s] how good the inspector training is”.

It would be “entirely sensible that this professional development of serving leaders should not only support inspections but also be used to raise standards in those leaders’ institutions”.

But the study warned, depending on the reason why inspectors’ schools got better results, “such approach could end up doing more harm than good”.

‘More transparency would rebuild trust’

Tom Richmond, a former government adviser who runs the EDSK think tank, said making Ofsted “more open and transparent” was “one of the most important goals” for Oliver.

Researchers also added their voice to unions and sector bodies calling for training materials to be made public.

Christian Bokhove
Christian Bokhove

Richmond said this would show the watchdog was  “genuinely intent on rebuilding trust” with the profession.

It would also allow external organisations to “construct a better understanding of the variables that influence inspection outcomes” that can be “debated and discussed in public, not kept behind closed doors”.

But the Ofsted spokesperson reiterated it would not publish materials “specifically designed to support inspection activity.

“Without the context of our wider training programme, they are incomplete and do not work as guidance for schools.”

Researchers also suggested that schools with an inspector be “inspected by teams from other parts of the country”.

Ofsted said it “always” aimed to be “transparent” in how it inspected, and drew on “a wide range of evidence to come to our judgments”. It had “rigorous” conflict of interest processes for all inspectors.

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  1. Hello Amy,
    This article does provide insight into the inspection process – flaws and all. I also wonder why education providers are treated as non-learning organisations, compared with industry and businesses, who are helped to improve by their regulatory bodies?

    When a company breeches environmental or health and safety requirements, the Environment Agency or the Health and Safety Executive work with the business on a plan to re-establish compliance, providing guidance, support and motivation for fixing the issues raised – until improvement is verified.

    When a school breeches a key requirement:
    1. Ofsted immediately label the school as RI or inadequate – reducing the school’s ability to improve, recruit new staff and increase its roll – by positioning the school as failing; and
    2. Ofsted provide little advice or support for a process of improvement driven by a negotiation of meaning.
    All of these together significantly affect the improvement capacity of any organisation.

    Why are business and industry treated as learning and improving organisations, while schools are simply positioned as incompetent, making improvement harder, not easier?