Ofsted’s top priority must be to get its own house in order

Under a new boss, the inspectorate must find a way to celebrate all hard-working schools and speak truth to power about disadvantage, writes Nick Brook

Under a new boss, the inspectorate must find a way to celebrate all hard-working schools and speak truth to power about disadvantage, writes Nick Brook

3 Sep 2023, 5:00

Despite decades of increased centralisation of power in education, the DfE really only has two levers at its disposal to drive change in schools: funding and accountability. In recent years, with too little of the former, we’ve ended up with far too much of the latter. 

Over-reliance on an over-stretched inspectorate has led to major failures within our system. First among them is the way Ofsted and successive governments have attempted to hold schools to account for failings over which they have little or no control. 

For the past thirty years, whole groups of schools serving the most deprived communities in England have rarely succeeded in rising above a ‘requires improvement’ judgement. This is despite a revolving door over successive decades of talented teachers and leaders, government interventions, academisation and re-brokering. 

These are schools where external factors, including family poverty, poor health, inadequate housing, crime and anti-social behaviour, have combined to create near-impossible conditions in which to flourish. In these schools, Ofsted judgements can be as much a reflection of the wealth of the community the school serves as the quality of education it provides.

Under a new chief inspector, this needs to change. We need greater honesty from our schools’ inspectorate when describing the causes of educational under-performance. Over recent years, we have too often heard from them that accepting the impact of circumstance is tantamount to a ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.

To recognise the impact of factors beyond the school gate does not mean accepting that poorer outcomes are okay – quite the opposite. Unless we accurately assess the root causes of under-performance, we are unlikely to target actions for improvement precisely enough.

Surely it cannot be beyond our wit to design an inspection system capable of celebrating schools that are doing everything that could possibly be expected of them in the circumstances they find themselves in while simultaneously identifying where outcomes for pupils fall unacceptably short. We need a system that sees schools as part of the solution, not the problem.

We need greater honesty on the causes of under-performance

Inspection reports that pull no punches in commenting on the impact of circumstances beyond the school gate could force wider government action. These reports could become powerful tools to leverage targeted additional support instead of simply being used as a stick to beat schools for failing to solve all societal ills.

Rebuilding confidence in Ofsted by ensuring fair judgements irrespective of the community served must surely be the top priority for the incoming HMCI. Great teachers and leaders should be celebrated, not sanctioned, for working in schools in challenging communities. Encouraged to work where they are needed most, not dissuaded from it. 

This requires stripping back and stripping out the education inspection framework to focus on the core functions of an inspectorate. In other words, get the very basics right.

Many organisations will be queuing up to greet the new chief inspector with wish-lists of further priorities for inclusion in school inspection. However, adding more things to an already bloated framework will do little to advance anyone’s cause.

While there is a certain truth to the phrase ‘what gets measured gets done’, it is no guarantee that any of it is done well. High-stakes accountability is a powerful tool for driving compliance to minimum standards but a lousy one for supporting development of high-quality, high-impact interventions.

Where new priorities are identified, government needs to resist reaching too quickly for the accountability lever. Likewise, campaigning groups should think twice before calling for it.

As CEO of the social mobility charity, Speakers for Schools, I passionately believe that every young person should have access to multiple, high-quality work experiences before they leave school, but I do not believe that the way to get there is by lobbying Ofsted to inspect it robustly.

If interest groups and government are convinced of the need for change, their case must be compelling and clearly evidenced. More than that, support must be readily available for schools to deliver it.

As a system, we need to focus far more on winning hearts and minds to new approaches in schools and far less on waving carrots and sticks to drive compliance. This is something all stakeholders can help with, by showing restraint and giving the new chief inspector the space to get Ofsted’s house in order.

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One comment

  1. Paul Luxmoore, former Executive Head of Coastal Academies Trust

    Excellent article! For years, Ofsted has been complicit in damming the schools that most need encouragement and support, driven by the Tory’s mad obsession that competition drives progress, rather than collaboration. There will come a time in the future when we look back in wonder at the idiotic system that continuously condemned the most committed teachers and leaders who chose to work in the most deprived schools – and Ofsted’s disastrous role will be exposed.