What exactly is Ofsted for?

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, Joint general secretary, National Education Union

Ofsted is under immense scrutiny at the moment, not least because there is no clear evidence to prove that its inspections improve the standards of education, says Dr Mary Bousted

I recently went to the House of Commons to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to talk about Ofsted. The MPs on the committee wanted to quiz me, and the other witnesses, following the publication of a National Audit Office (NAO) report on Ofsted’s inspection of schools.

It is more than likely that the vast majority of teachers have never heard of this report. It did not get widely reported. And that is a shame, because the report is the first independent evaluation of Ofsted since it came into existence in 1992.

The NAO examines whether Ofsted’s approach to inspecting schools is providing value for money. In answer to this question the NAO reaches a startling conclusion which is, (in words quoted directly from the report): “Ofsted does not know whether its school inspections are having the intended impact: to raise the standards of education and improve the quality of children’s and young people’s lives.”

Which leads me to ask a question: What is Ofsted for?

And why is the government continuing to fund Ofsted, to the tune of £151 million, when it has no evidence to suggest that Ofsted achieves what it says is its mission statement – improving education and lives? Indeed, there is increasing evidence that, far from being a force for good, Ofsted discriminates against schools with high percentages of disadvantaged pupils.

Ofsted itself recently produced graphs which show the full extent of the lack of a level playing field for some schools when it comes to Ofsted judgements. Shockingly, nearly half of secondary schools (47 per cent) in disadvantaged areas with a high percentage of White British pupils are rated as requires improvement or inadequate. Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, refutes any suggestion of Ofsted bias against these schools.

She argues that there are a range of factors which lead to negative judgements – factors outside the control of these schools such as poverty and cultural isolation, which have an impact upon these schools’ ability to recruit and retain teachers. Ofsted, Ms Spielman asserts, simply “speaks truth to power”, shining a light on the effects of disadvantage on education and on these pupils’ life chances.

Which, in my opinion, misses the point and evades Ofsted’s crucial role in compounding and worsening educational inequality.

A negative Ofsted judgement on a school makes it even harder for school leaders to recruit and retain teachers. It makes it harder to keep subject specialists, particularly in shortage subjects. It means that those pupils who most need the best teachers, because they suffer so much disadvantage in their lives outside schools, are less likely to get them.

Ofsted argues that while this is regrettable, it is not their fault. Their judgements are made without fear or favour, and Ofsted proudly asserts that it is not going to excuse poor educational performance because of inequality and disadvantage.

Fair enough, you might think. Only there is also evidence that Ofsted’s judgements on schools are not reliable and equitable.

In its 2016 research, the Education Policy Institute found that, based on value-added performance, the number of schools with advantaged pupil intakes given an “outstanding” Ofsted grading would be halved.

And, on the same value-added criteria, the number of schools with disadvantaged pupils which would be rated “outstanding” would be doubled. The researchers concluded: “If schools were rated according to levels of pupil progress, we would expect many fewer ‘outstanding’ schools with very low proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals, or low prior attainment when they joined the school.”

Which puts me in mind of a conversation I had with a senior government advisor who said: “I don’t need Ofsted to tell me which schools educate middle class kids and which schools educate working class kids.”

More than at any other time in its history, Ofsted is now under immense scrutiny, and it is not bearing up well. The National Education Union has done extensive research into inspection – its effects in English schools and possible alternatives.

The idea that there is another, more constructive and nuanced way to hold schools to account is gaining ground. And not before time.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

Further information

Ofsted’s Inspection of Schools, National Audit Office, May 2018: http://www.nao.org.uk/report/ofsteds-inspection-of-schools/


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