The role of Ofsted is “poorly understood” and the inspectorate’s ability to build “school sector goodwill” is being “progressively curtailed” by its lack of funding, Amanda Spielman has said.
In a parting shot to critics in her final annual report before she leaves office next month, the chief inspector said she saw from schools “a wave of publicly expressed discontent about issues that Ofsted alone cannot resolve”.
The watchdog has faced fierce criticism this year following the death of Caversham Primary School headteacher Ruth Perry. Her family said she took her own life before the publication of an inspection report rating the school ‘inadequate’.
The annual report has been published earlier than usual, and ahead of an inquest into Perry’s death, which begins next week.
Spielman said “much” of the discontent among schools “links to how school inspection judgments are used in the government’s regulatory system”.
But Ofsted’s role is “also poorly understood”, she claimed.
Many people “do not recognise that as a matter of government policy, Ofsted’s schools work (and funding) has long been limited to the diagnostic function of inspection”.
Ofsted is “not a policy-making department and cannot decide to divert its resources to support work, any more than the driving test agency can decide to switch to giving driving lessons.
“Yet it is being argued that Ofsted is acting punitively or in bad faith by not doing so. Clarification is needed.”
Work to build goodwill ‘curtailed’ by funding
But she also took aim at the government over Ofsted’s budget, which is “about a quarter of what it was 20 years ago”.
This means that “school inspections are necessarily shorter and more intense; reports are necessarily briefer; and many strands of our work that help build school sector goodwill and reinforce our value to the sector, government and others are having to be progressively curtailed”.
But “despite all this, Ofsted continues to perform its role fairly, professionally, thoroughly and constructively”.
“As this report shows, much good has been achieved in recent years. The regulatory system, of which inspection is an integral part, plays a vital role. Compromising the regulatory system could undermine progress.
“My parting hope is therefore that government will recognise and find ways to address the pressures and imbalances described in this letter in its future policy and funding decisions.”
‘Reasons to be optimistic’
While the pandemic “caused many problems, exacerbated others and continues to limit progress in various ways”, Spielman said there were “still reasons to be optimistic”.
Recovery is “continuing and happening faster than we might have expected” and “we are seeing real and lasting strength in education”.
Ofsted inspected 7,240 state schools in the year to August 31, the highest in five years and up from 4,670 in the prior year. The increase was largely driven by a funding increase in order to inspect all schools by 2025.
Eighty-eight per cent of schools were judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Ninety per cent of previously ‘good’ schools remained at that grade or improved, and 75 per cent of schools that were previously ‘requires improvement’ were rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding.
Ninety-seven per cent of previously ‘inadequate’ schools improved.
She said curriculum “has improved in nearly all the subjects on which we have reported; the teaching of reading in primary schools is significantly better; well-structured teacher training is yielding results; and some local authorities are making substantial improvements in social care”.
This progress “should not be underestimated, and the remarkable efforts that have made it possible should be recognised”.
Schools ‘rising to challenges’ of deteriorating behaviour
But optimism “must be tempered by realism”.
“Current realities” in education and social care “include stubborn gaps in children’s learning, recruitment and retention issues, and increasing demands for additional services that are already overstretched”.
Ofsted also warned of reports of “deteriorating pupil behaviour since the pandemic”, but said inspection judgements for behaviour and attitudes “show a largely positive picture in schools”.
Of 3,720 schools given a graded inspection this year, 73 per cent were judged good and 17 per cent outstanding on behaviour and attitudes.
This “shows that many schools are rising to the challenges they are facing”. But the picture is “very different” between primary and secondary schools.
Ninety-three per cent of primary schools were judged good or outstanding for behaviour and attitudes, compared with 76 per cent of secondary schools.
‘School can’t be a pick-and-choose exercise’
Ofsted said the growing number of pupils with SEND has put “added pressure” on mainstream and special schools.
A new area SEND inspection framework launched in January. Sixteen areas have been inspected, with five receiving the lowest rating of “widespread and/or systemic failings”.
Spielman also pointed to a “troubling shift in attitudes since the pandemic. The social contract that has long bound parents and schools together has been damaged.”
Across society, there is “less respect for the principle of a full-time education”.
The “remarkable flexibility many schools showed during the pandemic, and the adoption of remote education, may have had unintended consequences”.
“The idea that school can be a pick-and-choose exercise needs to be debunked. The benefits of school go well beyond specific lessons and exam results.
“Only through full participation can children get all the benefits – of social skills, confidence and resilience as well as academic achievement. School is a package deal that cannot be entirely personalised to every child or parent’s preferences.”