School improvement role for Ofsted risks ‘mission creep’, MPs warned

Labour wants watchdog to be improver and inspector, but academy sector leader warns it's 'tricky territory'

Labour wants watchdog to be improver and inspector, but academy sector leader warns it's 'tricky territory'

Ofsted will bring in changes to its complaints process next year

Giving Ofsted a greater role in school improvement risks “mission creep” and a “distortion of the inspection process”, an academy sector leader has warned.

Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, also told MPs this morning that such a system could result in inspectors reporting on improvement plans they themselves had created years earlier.

Labour has pledged a strengthened school improvement role for Ofsted if it wins power, alongside plans to scrap the headline graded judgments and replace them with a system of report cards.

But Rollett warned: “If we start thinking that inspection could play a bigger role in school improvement, I think we run the risk of mission creep. And you may see a distortion of the inspection process.”

The education committee heard from sector leaders this morning as part of its inquiry into the way Ofsted inspects schools.

The committee heard earlier in the session that inspectors were already struggling with two-day inspections.

Ian Hartwright, from the National Association of Head Teachers, warned there “isn’t enough time for inspectors to do what they need to do – we have these terrible stories of inspectors holding hands up and telling people to stop, because they haven’t got time”.

‘Tricky territory’

In light of these pressures, Rollett warned that “to expect them then to get really good, forward-looking view about, ‘these are the things that you need to do as an organisation’. I think it’s probably going to stretch that even further”.

Having inspectors provide more detailed instructions for improvement would also “start to get into tricky territory”.

Steve Rollett
Steve Rollett

“Because then if the inspection team come back two, three, four years later, and they’re inspecting how well that school, that trust has implemented the recommendations that they gave. What if those recommendations are wrong?

“What do you do if you’re the trust board and you disagree with those recommendations? If you think, actually, day in day out, we have a better view than people who just parachute in for two days.”

Witnesses were also quizzed about inspections of trusts.

Rollett agreed they were were “inevitable at some point”, but said it was “important that that is not just about creating a system of trust inspection and layering over the top of what we’ve got. There are huge risks with that.

He said policymakers needed to be “thoughtful” about whether there was the “expertise in Ofsted at the moment” and the “challenges of appointing into the inspectorate the people who are able to do that”.

Leaders carrying ‘grab bags’

In recruiting academy trust executive leaders to work as inspectors, for example, “there are practical things here about Ofsted’s ability to match salaries and so on that those trust execs would be able to earn in the field”.

He also talked of the need to make the system “coherent”, and pointed to a risk of parents seeing that the “school down the road has got this judgment at the school level, but the trust’s got this judgment”.

Rollett also questioned whether MAT inspection was the “priority of the moment”, pointing to concerns about rising absence levels, the “fracturing of the social contract” post-Covid and regional issues.

MPs also heard how school leaders are carrying “grab bags” full of documents needed during an Ofsted inspection in case they get the call.

Hartwright said giving schools just half a day’s notice of inspection caused “huge operational difficulties”.

“When the school is in the window as we call it…our members talk about carrying a grab bag full of Ofsted documents with them so they are ready to talk about it. Because that half day’s notice is actually the beginning of the inspection.

“Within a couple of hours the school leadership team…will have to have a detailed conversation that will focus the inspection with the lead inspector.”

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  1. Sandy Cameron

    Rollett says, ““What do you do if you’re the trust board and you disagree with those recommendations? If you think, actually, day in day out, we have a better view than people who just parachute in for two days.”

    No system is perfect. The best local authorities capably carried out “inspections” of their schools and then worked with them to make improvements. This model was thrown out more for political reasons than practical. It still works in parts because central governments know that they still can’t work without LAs.

    As for trust boards that disagree with Ofsted, there’s nothing new there. If government insists on maintaining a national inspection regime (a needless waste of money IMO) it ought to be easy enough to adjust the framework to allow for post-inspection dialogue.

  2. It is no surprise to me that people who benefit by ‘absorbing’ schools that fail Ofsted inspections (such as academy chains) do not want Ofsted to directly help schools improve.

    Rollett’s argument appears to be based on inspectors not being treated as professionals who are inherently interested in improving the schools they inspect (by “reporting on their own plans”) and that there is no benefit from inspectors ensuring clarity of understanding of what needs to improve (‘mission creep’ leading to a “distortion of inspections”). Correct me if I am wrong: don’t all people who work in education at very least want education to improve? How is providing advice and the time to negotiate the meaning of what is required a bad thing?

    He talks about pressure in the inspectorate: he needs to think about how Ofsted might otherwise better achieve its goal, to “Raise Standards; Improve Lives”. He talks about the potential disagreement between the recommendations offered and the school having a better idea: how can a longer term checking of understanding through negotiation of meaning not help schools and pupils best? If the expertise to improve lives is not present in Ofsted now, on what basis does it have the right to inspect?

    In industry, the Environment Agency and HSE all work continuously with companies to improve. In addition, companies are not publicly downgraded to RI and inadequate – as long as they are enacting plans to improve. Why is it OK to treat schools in ways businesses would never be treated? Is it to ensure they all eventually get mopped up into MATs?