Ofsted: Part of the problem?


Does inspection improve schools? Can you inspect quality into a system? Gerald Haigh picks up the debate after the recent row over whether Ofsted inspections are effective.

Why, according to recent posts on Twitter, do heads and teachers feel a wave of relief at 1pm every term-time Wednesday? 

The answer, it seems, is because that’s the point at which they can be sure there will be no Ofsted inspection that week. Slightly incredulous, I sought confirmation, also via Twitter, and a secondary head responded: “Definitely! Deep breath no inspection that week!”

Whether or not that feeling is widespread, there’s no denying the stressfulness of the Ofsted process. 

“It has to be so,” some will say. “Inspection improves schools.”

Does it though?

Probably not, according to Professor Robert Coe, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University. Speaking to this year’s ResearchED conference, he said: “Ofsted in my view is part of the problem not part of the solution, because it is not a research or evidence-led organisation.”

Prof Coe takes particular issues with the weight given to lesson observation as a means of judging teacher and whole-school effectiveness. Observation, he suggests, is subject to numerous “spurious confounds”, including the charisma of the teacher, student behaviour, even time of day. And yet, upon these shaky foundations are based profoundly influential judgements and grades.

Interviewed in a national newspaper, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw called Prof Coe’s conclusions “tosh and nonsense”, going on to say: “I don’t know of any headteacher who doesn’t believe that classroom observation isn’t anything other than a help.” 

He also pointed to recent Ofsted figures showing that because more schools have been judged “good” or “outstanding”, this proves that inspection has “galvanised the system”.

Sir Michael begs some questions here, to say the least. For one thing, no-one denies that properly organised observations can be “helpful”. Prof Coe’s criticism was about using them to produce supposedly objective, make-or-break measures of the quality of teaching in a school. 

And while we’re about it, just what are we supposed to make of Sir Michael’s use of Ofsted’s own school improvement figures to answer a considered criticism of Ofsted’s methods? 

My own long-term doubts about inspection, though, are more about the concept than the detail. In this I’m strongly influenced by my interest in the work of American management consultant and statistician William Edwards Deming (1900-1993) who, in the years after the Second World War was a key figure in guiding Japanese manufacturers from cheap mediocrity to a global reputation for reliability and quality. 

Deming was firmly against the idea of using inspection as a tool for improvement. Quite simply: “You cannot inspect quality into a process.”

Much of the effort deployed on inspection would be better used, he believed, in supporting, training and motivating workers to achieve higher standards throughout the process. Japanese business responded, and in many manufacturing areas ended up taking over the world. 

Obviously, schools are not factories. Even so, it is at least arguable that a school which “fails” Ofsted must have been in need of support for some time before the inspection. 

That really makes me wonder whether at least some of the 2,000 or so Ofsted inspectors, and a slice of the £200 million annual cost of the system, might be better and more positively used on, as Deming puts it, “building quality into the product in the first place”. If that happened, a welcome bonus would be in line with another of Deming’s success factors. “Drive out fear,” he writes, “so that everyone may work more effectively.”

Or, as Prof Coe said: “It would help if people weren’t so scared of them.”

One result of that fear is the burgeoning mini-industry of publications, blogs and consultancies aimed not just at school improvement but at helping schools to gain a good Ofsted report. Maybe the two intentions run parallel, but part of me thinks there’s an anxiety-driven, target-chasing mind-set here. (“Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets,” wrote Deming.)

So much of Deming’s huge legacy of writing and teaching comes from a very different culture from the one that’s given rise to the current attempts to make schools accountable. So although there’d be consensus, for example, on the importance of leadership, we find that Deming had a particular view of the leader’s role. Most important was his insistence on leadership being knowledge-driven – the leader’s prime duty is not to chase mistakes but to deeply understand, hone and perfect the system within which everyone works. 

A statistician by training, he would have been impressed by the wealth of data available to today’s school leaders. But he would have pointed out with some force to everyone – heads, inspectors, government ministers – that data cannot be an end in itself. What matters is the knowledge that’s based on it. 

“The aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of individuals, but to remove the causes of failure.”

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary, middle and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. He’s also served as a school governor and has published many articles and books on education.

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