Ofsted is 20 years old but what is its legacy after two decades?


It is 20 years since Ofsted was formed to scrutinise England's schools. Dorothy Lepkowska looks back at how the inspectorate has changed over the years and some of its more controversial moments.

It is hard these days to imagine an education system without Ofsted. Over the past 20 years, a whole generation of teachers has entered the profession never having known their working life free of the fear and trepidation of an inspection. 

As one senior HMI put it, before Ofsted a teacher could shut the classroom door on the world on their first day and keep it so for the next 40 years. 

Two decades on from its inception, an analysis has been carried out of Ofsted’s performance in the intervening years and its effect on schools, the teaching profession and the education system as a whole.

The study, from RISE (Research and Information on State Education), chronicles the evolution of the inspections system following a period of sustained criticism of schools going back to the 1960s. In 1992 it became government policy that every school was to be inspected as part of a rigorous and transparent process. 

Ofsted was to replace a largely slap-dash system of HMI and local inspections which, the Conservative government of the time believed, merely encouraged liberal attitudes.

The first chief inspector of schools, Stewart Sutherland, was replaced by Chris Woodhead, who proved to be the most controversial incumbent to date. Critics accused him of using data out of context to attack schools and his pronouncement that 15,000 teachers were unfit to teach left the profession reeling.

In reality, this represented only three per cent of the total workforce and so was hardly a contentious figure. But the remark set him on a collision course with schools that was to remain throughout his time in office. Nevertheless, Woodhead, due in part to his combative style, had established Ofsted as a permanent and influential part of the education system – to the point where it is unlikely any future government would now abolish it.

The mid-2000s saw a less bureaucratic inspection regime which was more responsive to the circumstances of individual schools. Both Mike Tomlinson and David Bell, as chief inspectors, adopted a more positive and less belligerent style, while at the same Ofsted’s remit widened to include adult education, early years and social care.

The watchdog’s darkest hour was probably the Baby P case in 2008, forcing Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector to admit failings in Ofsted’s oversight of Haringey council. She admitted that inspectors had used data provided by the local authority and given it a “good” rating just weeks after the child had been killed by his mother’s partner.

From 2009, Ofsted’s remit changed once again with greater emphasis put on the performance of particular groups of pupils and child protection issues.

The change of government in 2010 established a slimmed down but tougher Ofsted, led by former headteacher, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who made clear his intentions shortly after his appointment. He said schools had to “up their game” and that mediocrity had been allowed to settle into the system. To many, it smacked of a return of the dark days of Chris Woodhead.

Ofsted continues to divide opinion. Parents are thought no longer to pore over its findings to the degree that they used to when choosing a school for their child – they are just as likely to speak to other parents to get an opinion.

Headteachers continue to challenge inspection findings, more so now that it has become harder to get a good grading, though on occasions they have complained that a good report for an ineffectual teacher has undermined their efforts to deal with the case.

Academics have also been critical. Earlier this year Professor Dylan Wiliam, of London University’s Institute of Education, challenged Ofsted to analyse its inspection findings. He was keen to know if different inspectors would pass the same judgement on a school. 

So, has Ofsted improved schools? RISE’s review suggests it has not, and certainly heads and teachers, amid concern over accuracy, remain unconvinced of its merits in its current form. A study by Ofsted found only five per cent of teachers believed inspection had had a positive effect on teaching, while 40 per cent said it had had no effect at all. And despite Ofsted inspectors themselves suggesting schools have improved generally over time, the debate about standards continues unabated, with successive governments raising the bar and revising the curriculum and examinations system in the clamour for better and higher pupil attainment.

Has Ofsted been outstanding? Never. Good with outstanding features? Over a short period, at some point, perhaps. Requiring improvement? On the current framework’s grading this is probably the closest and most appropriate conclusion to reach.

• Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information
You can read the RISE review at www.risetrust.org.uk

Reaction: Ofsted Annual Report

Ofsted’s annual report last week reported an on-going trend of improvement across England’s schools. Seventy per cent of schools are rated as good or better, compared with 66 per cent three years ago.

There are nearly 1,000 more outstanding schools than there were three years ago, and 1,000 fewer ranked as “inadequate” or “satisfactory”. For secondaries, 26 per cent are ranked outstanding compared with 24 per cent a year ago; 40 per cent are good compared with 42 per cent last year.

Around 30 per cent remain satisfactory and three per cent inadequate. Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, focused his report on the inequality of access to the best schools and promised to focus on inconsistencies in provision between local authorities. 

Reaction to the report is below, and you can read SecEd's coverage by clicking here.

Cllr David Simmonds, Local Government Association: “Councils want to intervene more quickly, but decades of giving schools ‘greater freedom’ and ‘protecting’ them from council interference means that local authorities now have very indirect and bureaucratic ways to tackle poor performance. As more schools move away from local authority maintained status, council leaders are concerned it will become impossible for the performance of such a large number of schools to be monitored from the centre.”

Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders: “The increasing number of good and outstanding schools is a reflection of the intense efforts of school leaders and their staff to continue to raise standards. With this strong evidence of improvement, it is now time for the government to trust school leaders and to stop adding further layers of accountability. For the majority of schools, which are successful and improving, Ofsted inspection should be a ‘light touch’ validation of schools’ own self-evaluation.”

Russell Hobby, National Association of Head Teachers: “There are surely few walks of life where excellence so dramatically outnumbers failure. Every year we ask more of our schools and the people who work in them, and each year they rise to the challenge.”

Christine Blower, National Union of Teachers: “If Ofsted was serious about promoting regional successes, it would be championing the huge success of the London Challenge and City Challenge schemes which the government brought to an end in 2010. It is clear from all the evidence that the improvement in schools in London, Greater Manchester and the Black Country came as a result of the opportunities for schools to work together and the additional funding of over £160 million that they received.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers: “Ofsted’s inspection regime is past its sell-by date, instead local authorities should help develop accountability and support systems appropriate for the schools in their area. And Ofsted’s role should be to ensure the local authority accountability and support are effective and to report national education trends to parliament.”




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