Reforming accountability hinges on lowering the stakes 

We won’t fix inspection until we reform the consequences of inspection, argues Loic Menzies

We won’t fix inspection until we reform the consequences of inspection, argues Loic Menzies

25 Nov 2023, 5:00

The classic model for giving policy advice is to propose three options: a radical but impractical one, a ‘do nothing’ option and an ambitious but practical solution. When it comes to Ofsted, all three paths have now been spelled out. 

On one hand, inspectors could be kept out of schools completely, to be replaced by self- and peer evaluation and new inspections of school groups. This model, proposed this week by Beyond Ofsted, might work as a model for self-led improvement where the right leadership, management and governance are in place. However, it wouldn’t reassure parents that provision has been independently and impartially reviewed. As one parent pointed out on the radio, schools shouldn’t ‘mark their own homework’.  

As explored in a soon-to-be published report by Public First, claims that parents crave one-word judgements are overblown. However, they also value inspection and care about more than headline exam measures. Moreover, if a school improvement partner is tasked with reviewing whether a school has improved, they are in effect being asked to judge the effectiveness of their own support. 

Peer and self-evaluation can’t be the basis for deciding whether standards are up to scratch. I have worked in schools that weren’t good enough and in schools where pupils were systematically being excluded by the back door. They are rare exceptions to the thriving environments hard-working teachers and leaders build for pupils all over the country. But for anyone stuck in these struggling settings, change often can’t come soon enough.  

So should we just leave things as they are? Certainly not. Too much hangs off the current grading system and this means the stakes have been dialled up far too high. Ofsted’s one-word judgements can kick off a chain of consequences that goes far beyond what the reliability of these gradings merits.  

Too much hangs off the current grading system 

Even though most schools report being happy with how their inspection was conducted once it has taken place, a culture of frightened compliance reigns. Leaders of outstanding schools fear the loss of their elusive gold star and those graded ‘good’ either chase the affirmation of an upgrade, or succumb to panicked self-defence in the face of a potential downgrade. For those below the ‘good’ threshold, criticism is too rarely accompanied by commensurate support. 

A third option is set out in ‘Improvement through empowerment’, a new report I authored for the IPPR think-tank. Like many, I agree that single-word judgements are past their best-by date. However, the problems attributed to inspection are largely problems of inspection’s consequences – something that was emphasised in recent education select committee hearings. The inspection process itself requires improvement, but problems won’t disappear until we fix the consequences.  

Doing so depends on clarifying the link between inspection and regulation, something ‘Beyond Ofsted’ also call for. Presently, inspection can trigger an automatic regulatory response such as an academy order. That decision should be based on an assessment of how well-placed the school is to deliver the necessary improvements; whether its current trust or local authority has the capacity to support it; and what other support is available locally.  

Ofsted should stick to describing the state of schools, as well as reviewing the support that trusts and local authorities provide. And as to the regulator (currently the regional DfE teams), their role should be to pick a way forward in discussion with school providers and informed by Ofsted and local insight.  

Most of the time, ‘school-led improvement’ similar to that described by Beyond Ofsted will be an appropriate way forward. Others will need ‘enhanced support’. This should be selected by the school in discussion with a National Leader of Education, and additional resource should be provided where needed to ensure challenge is combined with support. Only occasionally will more robust, ‘immediate action’ be needed.

England’s pupils, parents and teachers deserve a system that supports them to be the best they can be. They also deserve to be protected from the harm of poor standards. Improvement through Empowerment provides a practical way of making that a reality.

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  1. Frances L

    In the Netherlands they have teacher coaches. People who go into schools and work alongside the teachers for a period of time to help them improve their practice.
    Similar to when you’re doing your training except if course you’re qualified and the conversation is more peer to peer.
    Too often in the UK lesson observations are just a quick dip in and out. Often as not there is no proper follow up. If we had coaches in our classrooms for a couple of weeks at a time I would imagine there could be genuine improvement.
    How is this related to inspections? Well it’s the same model but on a school basis. Ofsted could be given the remit to coach rather than inspect a school. So much more collaborative and easier psychologically.

    • Former Teacher

      The class system in England is one of the difficulties with tackling school improvement in the way you suggest. I may exaggerate for the sake of effect, but the English system is generally ‘someone who wasn’t educated within the type of school they are inspecting, who hasn’t taught for any significant amount of time in the type of school they are inspecting, and often has never studied at university, or taught, the subject they are inspecting, criticising what you are doing without asking why you decided to do it that way’. It’s all based on the idea that the ‘management class’ are best placed to tell the ‘worker class’ what they should be doing. It won’t work unless we fundamentally change working practices in England. Look at UK productivity and tell me I’m wrong.

  2. Keith Saunders

    Looc, as always your contributions to debate are sensible and well reasoned. What you haven’t done is to provide a well-argued reason for the existence of an inspection whatever it is called. It is clearly trying to serve several purposes at the moment: information to parents; support for government to back up their claims that schools are improving; league tables; support for school improvement. Arguably none of these are done well. I don’t know of any reliable evidence that parents take a lot of notice of Ofsted reports although they do seem to know their local schools’ single word grade. Governments clearly like Ofsted albeit for the wrong reasons. And inspection clearly does nothing for school improvement, merely reinforcing the compliance culture you mention.

    I recall going on a research trip to Finland a few years ago when we were all so impressed with how well the Finnish system was doing. We met a local headteacher and an English headteacher in our party asked how the Finns managed without inspections, league tables, published exam results and the rest of the instruments of our compliance culture. The local headteacher, who spoke perfect English, looked at us in bewilderment and said “I understand all the words you are using but none of the concepts that sit behind them. Why would you want any of those things?” And I’ve seen similar responses in Germany where teachers see things like league tables and inspection as encouragement to cheat the system

    Some kind of additional, objective and external support is needed but I don’t believe Ofsted currently makes any solid contribution to this, and I don’t see any evidence that school improvement advisors, trusts, NLEs and similar do much better