This evidence must inform the inquiry into Ofsted’s reliability

A new paper reveals new insights into inspection outcomes and suggests Ofsted should make its training material more widely available

A new paper reveals new insights into inspection outcomes and suggests Ofsted should make its training material more widely available

Christian Bokhove

20 Oct 2023, 5:00

There was something of a social media storm when some of Ofsted’s training material recently leaked online. Teachers and school leaders were able to see for the first-time what Ofsted really thinks – albeit partially and out of context – and many felt accessing such materials would help them to navigate the inspection process.

This episode demonstrates widespread demand for inside knowledge about what inspectors look for when they judge a school. Of course, the individuals with the greatest knowledge in this regard are the inspectors themselves. And due to Ofsted’s model of employing school leaders as inspectors (“OIs”), some schools are privy to more inside information than others.

Powerful knowledge

But does this actually give the schools in which OIs work an advantage in the inspection process? Until today’s release of our new academic paper as part of our project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, there was no evidence on this issue. So, we worked with Schools Week on data they obtained from Ofsted via a Freedom of Information request.

The data shows that schools with an OI on their books do better in their Ofsted inspections. In particular, schools that employ an OI are less likely to be downgraded to ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ during full inspections and more likely to be judged as potentially improving towards ‘Outstanding’ during short inspections of ‘Good’ schools.

This only affects a small amount of Ofsted’s work; around 2 per cent of schools inspected in 2022/23 employed an OI. However, the new chief inspector has said he wants Ofsted to employ more inspectors who are also working in schools so this is likely to become an increasingly important issue.

Possible explanations

One fairly benign explanation of our findings is that Ofsted simply employs the best school leaders as inspectors or provide them with genuinely valuable training. This would make it unsurprising that their schools do slightly better in inspections. We can’t rule this out entirely.

However, our findings hold even when we compare schools with similar prior exam results, absence rates and Ofsted grades. This makes the ‘best leaders’ hypothesis a less likely explanation.

Some other potential explanations are more controversial. Perhaps OIs get access to ‘insider knowledge’ about what Ofsted really wants. This is the sort of information that other school leaders can only access when it is leaked. As Martyn Oliver has himself noted, it is not uncommon for multi-academy trusts to advertise for former HMIs to come and work for them.

Schools with an inspector on their books do better

An even more controversial potential explanation relates to networks. Ofsted operate a regional model and most OIs inspect within the region in which they are based. This means that an OI could be familiar with the inspector who comes to judge their school, which could colour the latter’s judgment.

Our data doesn’t help us to distinguish between the potential explanations set out above. That is why we are calling on Ofsted to make data about inspectors and inspections available to qualified researchers in a secure setting. It shouldn’t be necessary to make a Freedom of Information request to get such data (and, even then, for it to be provided in a deliberately unhelpful manner).

Likewise, it seems obvious that if Ofsted are going to provide training to some school leaders then a version of this training at least should be accessible to all school leaders. Indeed, ASCL have argued that Ofsted should make all its training materials universally available.

The bigger picture

This work builds upon our previous research into inspection consistency and reliability, where we have found that permanent members of Ofsted staff (HMIs) award more lenient judgements than contracted inspectors (OIs), even where the school have similar exam results and pupil intakes.

Any process with human judgment at its core will have fundamental limitations. As we noted in our recent submission to the Education Select Committee, school inspections will never be 100 per cent reliable; it would be unreasonable to expect them to be.

But they need to be is reliable enough. And at the moment, we really can’t come to a judgment about that.

This article and the paper it is based upon were co-authored with John Jerrim, professor of education and social statistics and Sam Sims, lecturer, both of IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society

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