Ofsted inspection – Let’s unpack the ‘hit squads’ myth

Stylised abstract graphic that combines a pair of eyes with a pair of crosshairs representing Ofsted inspection

Adrian Lyons ponders the accusations that Ofsted are dispatching ‘hit squads’ to rob schools of their hard-earned Outstanding ratings…

Adrian Lyons
by Adrian Lyons

Back in December 2022, there was much discussion in the press regarding so called Ofsted inspection ‘hit squads’ being deployed to downgrade previously Outstanding schools.

Yet in my experience, schools that enjoy exemption from routine inspection for many years often fail to stay up to date with Ofsted requirements.

Having led many inspections, I soon became familiar with the danger signs. A big one was school leaders’ evident lack of familiarity with the School Inspection Handbook.

I’ve sat in on meetings where a member of staff had to lend their copy of the Handbook to the school leader in order to explain the evaluation criteria.

Two measures

The current Ofsted inspection framework is built on the Chief Inspector’s assertion that schools have two accountability measures. One is academic outcomes and the other is Ofsted inspection.

She (sensibly) sees no point in Ofsted basing its ratings solely around the first measure, since in her view, some schools have become highly adept at training pupils to gain high grades in exams. This is without them actually learning enough about the subjects in question.

As the Chief Inspector noted when introducing the latest inspection framework, “If their entire school experience has been designed to push them through mark-scheme hoops, rather than developing a deep body of knowledge, they will struggle in later study.”

In many ways, school inspection is far from being a level playing field. But at least with regards to Ofsted’s expectations of curriculum planning, it now is.

Whether outcomes are very high or merely average, inspectors expect to see a curriculum for each subject that builds up knowledge in a clear sequence. It should help pupils remember knowledge by building on previous learning and repetition.

This focus on curriculum isn’t exactly new. But Ofsted’s balancing of outcomes against how those outcomes are arrived at marks a significant change. I’d argue that a failure to understand this in relation to Ofsted’s ‘quality of education’ judgement is what’s led to those complaints of ‘hit squads’ downgrading schools.

Huge flaw

‘Quality of education’ might be the limiting judgement in assessing a school’s overall effectiveness. But Ofsted also judges other areas where expectations are now higher – chiefly safeguarding and the related area of ‘personal development’.

Almost two years ago, one of the country’s highest performing schools in terms of academic outcomes – one that had been sitting on an Outstanding grade for many years – received an emergency inspection.

According to the subsequent report, “A significant number of pupils feel uncomfortable or unsafe in school and report being the subject of insulting and damaging comments regarding their gender, appearance, race or sexual orientation. Pupils are too often reluctant to pass their concerns on to staff.

“Systems for dealing with safeguarding matters do not work properly. Consequently, leaders are largely unaware of the difficulties some pupils face.”

Soon after, a parent of a student at the school asked me how Ofsted could rate the school as Inadequate when it gained such strong results. I asked if he’d read the report. He hadn’t.

I countered that if he did, he’d see how said results were acknowledged in the school’s ‘Good’ grade for ‘quality of education’. However, this didn’t make it a good, or even safe school to attend. This was always the huge flaw in Michael Gove’s exemption from inspection for ‘Outstanding’ schools.

Unnecessary arguments

When the current Chief Inspector was appointed, there was hope amongst many HMI that the four-grade scale would be abolished altogether. The Outstanding grade was widely seen as the cause of numerous unnecessary arguments with school leaders, particularly over the awarding of Good, rather than Outstanding ratings.

The grading remained, but HMCI concluded that far too many Outstandings were being awarded. In the current framework, Good judgements are therefore a ‘best fit. However, before Outstanding can even be considered, every point in the Good criteria must be met securely.

This has significantly raised the bar – and not before time.

Adrian Lyons worked as a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectors between 2005 and 2021 and now works with MATs, teacher training providers and LAs to support education; find out more at

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