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Ofsted: not fit for purpose or are Heads guilty of obsessing too much about Ofsted judgments?

  • Ofsted
Mike Hodgkiss
Mike Hodgkiss 25 November, 2017

Ofsted: not fit for purpose and certainly not outstanding?

“Getting or keeping an outstanding judgment should never be a school’s main aim,” says Amanda Spielman. “If our horizons narrow down to just an Ofsted grade then something is seriously wrong.”

The Ofsted chief accuses headteacher bloggers of writing “blogs that spin up levels of anxiety”

The chief inspector of Ofsted has said a “culture of fear” has built up around Ofsted’s ratings.

Amanda Spielman said the whole system had a responsibility “not to manufacture tension”, and that some school leaders were guilty of obsessing too much about Ofsted judgments.

Ofsted is “not fit for purpose” and would be “completely different” under a Labour government, the shadow education secretary has said. Angela Rayner recently criticised the inspectorate for its approach to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

However, the inspectorate rejected her claims, saying inspectors “pay particular attention” to how well schools support these pupils.

Asked what Ofsted would look like in three years’ time if she was education secretary, Ms Rayner said: “It would be completely different to what it is now, I can promise you that. It’s not fit for purpose at the moment. It’s clearly not doing the job it’s meant to do.” She told delegates at this month’s Education Britain Summit in Manchester.

In a recent blog, Frank Coffield, emeritus professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education, says; “The clear balance of the evidence made me conclude, however, that Ofsted currently does more harm than good. Its methods, although changed every few years during the 25 years of Ofsted’s existence, are still invalid, unreliable and unjust.”

Professor Coffield went on to say: “The very schools that need most help are further harmed by inaccurate and biased Ofsted reports that make the recruitment and retention of teachers even more difficult. It also means that those heads chosen to become system leaders come from the most advantaged schools, so their advice to the poorest schools is likely to be wide of the mark.”

In a recent blog Tom Sherrington, @teacherhead, wrote:

Ofsted inspections and DFE performance measures are not sufficiently reliable to justify the weight that is placed on the judgements that are made given that a) educational outcomes are not rising within the system b) schools are driven towards perverse short-term behaviours around curriculum and c) there are unacceptable and disproportionately damaging consequences from negative judgements for schools and individuals.


So is Ofsted fit for purpose?

In a recent article in the TES one secondary teacher wrote:

‘If the government really wants to create outstanding chances for young people and to make access to good education a right for everyone, it needs to stop pressurising schools with constant data monitoring and a punitive inspection processes. Instead, it should start investing in the police, youth work schemes and social services to restore some much-needed order to the communities in which they operate. Rather than simply not penalising schools in challenging circumstances, Ofsted should be asking some wider questions: what is happening in these areas of disadvantage and how can we begin to level the playing field?’

Talking of ‘outstanding’, is it time for this label to go?

Does it serve as an incentive to schools so that they strive for excellence or is it no longer that meaningful and as some would argue actually doing more harm than good? Certainly times have changed since the introduction of the current inspection grading system. With Progress 8 and the changes to league tables is this extra pressure to do well redundant? Education is taking place in a pressure cooker, schools constantly want to do one more thing to meet the bar. Ofsted says jump and schools say “how high” – The result of all of this pressure is increasing workload, poor retention, problems recruiting and a culture where the profession often doesn’t do things because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s what they “have to do.”

Do we wait for Ofsted to reform itself or should the profession turn to school-to-school or profession-driven infrastructure for improvement.

There are alternatives led by:

Chartered College of Teaching,                                      Institute for Teaching,

London Leadership Strategy,                         Challenge Partners,

ResearchED,                          TeachMeets,                        NAHT’s “Instead”

Teachers are now doing it for themselves in a way that they weren’t before. Many like Robert Coe has shown that lesson grades are remarkably inaccurate. Since then, Ofsted has listened to the evidence and rightly stopped grading lessons, but Datalab have also shown the limited links between judgements about schools and their subsequent trajectories. Research showed that half of the schools with well above average Progress 8 scores (+0.5 or higher) – achieved an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted, meanwhile approximately two-fifths achieved a “good” rating. But 5 per cent of schools with “well above average” Progress 8 scores were still judged as “requiring improvement” and another 5 per cent received an “inadequate” rating.


The English education system is a high-stakes, punitive accountability system. And who determines a school’s “success” or “failure”? Ofsted do. Ask parents about schools in their local area. Ask them which are the best schools. They will be far more likely to quote the Ofsted rating and be able to tell you which schools are outstanding rather than their league table position let alone their Progress8 measure or their record on behaviour or extra curricular activities.


How could/should Ofsted change?


One way would be to change the Ofsted framework to give greater focus and depth on the curriculum, to introduce more subject specialists into the team and to seek to devise new metrics to measure time spent learning. This would have resource implications.  At a time when 1200 schools in England have not had an Ofsted inspection for at least seven years, and 100 have been waiting for more than ten years, there would be questions about affordability. Perhaps more importantly we know that schools have, by necessity, become very adept at changing their behaviour to respond to the changing performance and inspection frameworks, and tend to tick the boxes that need to be ticked.


Another way would be to modify Ofsted’s headline grading to a binary judgement of ‘good’ and ‘not yet good’. As now, the reports would have detailed descriptions of the things that the schools do brilliantly and the areas for improvement. Unlike now, we would hope that more staff and parents would read and find this information useful, rather than reading only the outstanding/ good/ requires improvement/ inadequate label.

Removing the expectation that all schools should strive to achieve or maintain an ‘outstanding’ grade would remove, at a stroke, the enormous pressure on schools to shape all aspects of their curriculum and practice to maximise performance in the league tables and for Ofsted.

Tom Sherrington would go further:

Remove all the grades. They are simply too unreliable to sustain.


Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman appeared in front of MPs at the education select committee last month. Here’s what we learned from her appearance: 

She is uncertain whether the “outstanding” grade should stay or go
In response to questions pointing out that headteachers and schools do not find the grade useful, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “I’m in the same situation, of having some level of discomfort. Because the noise from the sector is clear, but the noise from parents is very different… I don’t have an easy answer.”

Perhaps the only way to convince Ofsted and Amanda Spielman to remove the outstanding tag is for leaders and governors of the schools that hold the ‘outstanding’ badge to tell Ofsted and the public that this category should be removed.


It was nearly three years ago when Russell Hobby wrote:

‘Ofsted should return the definition of outstanding back to the profession. Ofsted should content itself with good or not yet good. The profession should define outstanding. And it will define it in many different ways. There is no such thing as generic greatness. All institutions have strengths and weaknesses, areas where they can help others and areas where they could do with help. The very nature of excellence is that it is individualistic, even quirky or maverick.’


Ofsted says it wants to “ensure that our grading system encourages improvement and does not create undesirable incentives”. Ofsted has now committed to making sure “our judgements and grade profiles are fair and not barriers that deter talented professionals from working in areas where young people are most in need of support” and says it will work with the Department for Education to understand how its judgments affect schools.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (recently formed from the NUT and the ATL) said:

“Ofsted needs to understand that the interests of educational professionals are indistinguishable to those of students. We cannot have high quality education if teachers are being driven into the ground through excessive workload and the unreasonable expectations of an out-of-control accountability system in which Ofsted plays a leading role.

“Until Ofsted can convince the education profession that its inspections are reliable and consistent, leaders, teachers and TAs will continue to regard it as part of the problem, not the solution, to improving educational outcomes for students and educational standards overall.”

Colin Richards, former HMI, writes: The answer to Ofsted’s self-created problem is not to come up with another sticking-plaster fix to an insoluble problem: it’s to reconsider the terms in which schools are evaluated so as to avoid the -ish issue, and other problematic notions. Through this consultation, Ofsted is trying – I suspect vainly – to get out of the hole it has dug itself. The real answer is both deceptively simple: abolish overall gradings and the angst that goes with them, and hellishly difficult: creating credible word portraits of schools’ inevitable peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses.

Stephen Petty, head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire wrote this in an article for the TES:

 Ofsted has all the credibility of a deluded, over-aged boxing pro –

still capable of a knock-out blow but not to be taken too seriously –

so why do schools rush to publicise their judgements?