Time to pause Ofsted – here’s how

7 Feb 2020, 5:00

This year’s Headteachers’ Roundtable summit will question Ofsted’s legitimacy and efficacy. Stephen Tierney explains why we need to #PauseOfsted, and how to make it happen

Some seventy per cent of inspectors are current practitioners. So what if we all said no? What if we chose to answer the call to beneficence differently? What would the school system lose, and what would it gain by such action?

The Ofsted system depends on us. But why do we really do it? Is it because it’s excellent leadership development? Or is it for the advantage of insider knowledge of the inspection process? Privately, many admit they are simply grateful for the extra bit of money it pulls into the school’s stretched budget. But what of our colleagues who can’t access those extra pounds? Whatever our reasons, they are ethically dubious.

The inspectorate wishes us to think our participation ensures the legitimacy of the process. Indeed. But is it a legitimacy we wish to grant it? Knowing the systemic disadvantage of schools serving poorer communities, are we doing good by inspecting and grading other schools? Knowing the effects of high-stakes accountability on retention, especially in those same schools, are we actually doing harm? Knowing that for all its intent, the implementation and impact of the new framework are already perpetuating this inequality, are our actions just?

And in the end, is it really the best way to improve school performance?

Without doubt, the school system needs a regulator. It’s a question of being realistic about what it can and can’t do, and clear about what it should and shouldn’t. Ofsted has done important work around illegal and unregistered schools. This is the true work of a regulator. There are also incidents and issues that require detailed investigation and reporting, but these don’t need frameworks, grades or categories. They need insight, wisdom and reports that set out lessons learned and ways to improve.

The system needs – and can be forced into – radical change

For all its engagement with the profession, the new framework is already being dubbed the SW1 Framework. And for all the denial, it is in effect developing a new orthodoxy – a one-size-fits-all ‘Ofsted Curriculum’. What we need instead is a new orthopraxy, and Ofsted is incapable of it. The knowledge sits with leaders and teachers working in their contexts and with their peers.

To truly improve our schools, we need a system founded on the principle that there is no single way to improve a school. Peer-to-peer accountability is far better suited to reducing the significant variability found within so many schools and between them, and a much more ethical and effective use of school leaders’ time.

As to so-called ‘stuck schools’ – perhaps better labelled let-down schools or left-behind schools – the last thing they need is more Ofsted. What links so many of them together is the crushing poverty that blights the lives of the young people attending them. They need whole-community intervention, and for too long Ofsted has provided political cover for that uncomfortable fact.

For sure, Ofsted is not the only problem. But be it the inspectorate’s judgments or our performance metrics, we are assessing at the wrong level. Parents may appreciate school reports, but strong policy needs to balance individual wishes with the needs of the majority, and the major issues with education are systemic. Anything else will continue to lead to perverse incentives that marginalise, punish and shame the most vulnerable. Sadly, these are the very same that are doing the most for social justice.

So whether it’s the leaders of Harris, Outwood Grange and Inspiration trusts deciding to withdraw their staff currently working as inspectors; or the leaders of our professional associations and unions acting to ensure no school-based employees involve themselves in inspection; or a grassroots movement of school leaders refusing to carry them out; the system needs – and can be forced into – radical change.

It could be the ultimate perverse incentive. As school teachers and leaders reach a point of total lack of agency, we may just come to see that the answers are in our own hands.

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  1. Dame Nicola Stephenson

    I applaud this idea- bravo. As an NLE I was asked to train as an Ofsted inspector. I worked as an additional inspector for many years. In December I decided I could no longer look myself in the mirror and continue to be part of such a damaging process. I wanted to change things from within Ofsted, it was impossible. I drew attention to rogue HMI – applying their own rules. My concerns were swept under the carpet, ignored and I felt morally I had to walk away from this system. I ask all additional inspectors who work in schools,, and know that the system doesn’t work and it still depends on the team a school are allocated , to make themselves unavailable. We can’t be the silent minority covering up the issues. Speak up, walk out.
    Dame Nicola Stephenson DBE

    • Cant be named

      I cannot put my name due to being forced to sign an agreement when i was forced to leave. I hope the NAHT will support this too. Too many headteacher aditional inspectors are treated differently by ofsted when their schools are inspected. I dont understand why any head would want to be part of such a soul destroying damaging process. Heads should support each other not destroy each other.

    • Michael

      I have been teaching for more than 12 years. It is heart breaking to see people being driven out of their jobs because they teach differently to the Ofsted mantra. The management in my school applies unnecessary pressure, killing the joy of teaching. Long hours and interventions, constant observations are all expectations per se you have to accept, otherwise your job is at risk. Whatever you do is not good enough, I do not feel valued – feeling rather like a pawn that can be easily replaced. My question is how many so called experts are able to deliver the unrealistic expectations of every child being on target, books being marked regularly, preparing revisions booklets, marking assessments, double and triple resits when you have a full timetable. We have families an building prosperity on the misery of others is simply immoral

  2. Julie Gilligan

    Great idea! I’ve always wondered how people who’ve seen first-hand the damage Ofsted does to staff confidence and morale, as well as the public’s perception of teachers and schools, can be part of this heavy-handed and threat-laden process. It’s driven so many good teachers out of education. How can they do it to their colleagues? There are so many better ways of getting the best out of teachers.

  3. Well said Steven; schools do have the answers, not Ofsted, although they do serve a role, I’m not sure if they have fulfilled their own potential either. And to all the school-leaders-who-are-inspectors reading this. C’mon! Show some gusto and rally another colleague and spread the word – the future is in your hands.

  4. Peer to peer accountability is a wonderful idea. I so enjoy hearing school leaders denouncing other schools in their area who off-roll, manage out, game play and pre-emptively exclude those with SEND on cost grounds. Their scathing denunciations and demands for action never fail to move me.

    Oh, wait a moment, there’s a deafening silence…

    • Mark Watson


      Every single profession in the world hates and despises the external organisation that holds it to account. No exceptions.

      So why does it happen? Because it’s been proved time and time again that professions holding themselves to account simply doesn’t work. It’s a lovely idea, it just doesn’t protect the clients/customers/pupils …

  5. Look at the quality ASSURANCE system for Higher Education. Internal QA and peer review. OFSTED has never been about QA rather control and enforcing Government agendas. It’s time Head Teachers stood up and challenged the system.

  6. Pamela Luke

    I am not a teacher, just a parent. I have been doing the research on my local secondary schools that I should have done last year and what I have discovered is that OFSTED judgements do not reflect the actual results that secondary schools in my area are achieving. One secondary school was judged Requires Improvement only last year, according to league tables this school is one of the top ten in the whole of the county! I think that some inspectors might bring their prejudices with them.

  7. Max Fishel

    One of the most pernicious and under-discussed aspects of the ofsted experiment is its negative effect on inclusive practice. School leaders or MAT CEOs fixated on data-driven results can perceive a pupil with any category of SEND as likely to drive down their results, and not admit them.
    Even more pernicious than this is the whiff of eugenics in government education policy, which implicitly has in mind an ideal pupil (academic, well behaved and with a good memory); those who don’t fit this model are undesirable.

  8. Natasha Richards

    As a serving Headteacher I also worked as an inspector. After only 12 months I had to walk away as judgement without follow up support goes against my beliefs. In my experience most school leaders know where their challenges lie but often they don’t know how to tackle them. School leaders have a tough enough job as it is they need real support not judgement.