Ofsted inspections – What the documents leak reveals about the regulator’s priorities

isolated stack of colourful document storage files

Adrian Lyons considers what the emergence of hitherto non-public Ofsted training materials says about the regulator’s memories of its own recent history…

Adrian Lyons
by Adrian Lyons

Some may be familiar with the term ‘corporate memory’.

This refers to how corporations and businesses will draw from all the areas in which they store knowledge when it comes to their sense of identity and purpose. This may include formal records, but also the knowledge embedded in its people, culture and the processes it has in place.

While Ofsted has a history dating back just 30 years, His Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) have a tradition stretching back for nearly 200. When I was appointed an HMI in 2005, a first-class induction process that lasted most of my first year inculcated in me in HMI traditions. This included remembering that whilst each inspection may be just another day at work for an inspector, it was a major event in the life of those we were inspecting.

QTS and inspectors

In the years since then, the regulator has developed a practice of appointing Chief Inspectors (HMCIs) from outside the organisation, who have tended to surround themselves with trusted advisors unfamiliar with HMI traditions. This has sometimes led to those outside the organisation picking up on unexpected U-turns – as happened soon after Sir Michael Wilshaw’s appointment as HMCI.

I remember driving to a hotel, ready for the following day’s inspection, when I heard the start of a BBC Radio 4 programme featuring an interview with our then new HMCI. After arriving at the hotel I stayed in the car to listen, and let out an audible ‘What?’ at a particular response. The interviewer has observed that some inspectors didn’t have QTS, to which the HMCI immediately replied with words to the effect of, ‘We can’t have that.

That response stemmed from a lack of knowledge as to why this was indeed the case. Ofsted’s corporate memory could have filled him in on the history behind ‘lay inspectors’.

Training materials

Briefly, Ofsted was established in 1992 as part of the Major government’s philosophy of transferring power in public services from providers to users. The rebalancing of power in education from teachers to parents was originally planned to go via Ofsted inspectors who didn’t possess backgrounds in education.

That plan didn’t materialise, but what survived was that up until 2005, every Ofsted inspection team contained one ‘lay’ inspector – somebody without an education background, whose role was to apply the ‘user’s perspective’. Then in 2005, following a series of reforms that resulted in the shrinking of inspection teams, the designation of ‘lay inspector’ was abolished, with these sometimes highly experienced and skilled inspectors redeployed as standard inspectors.

In 2012, an HMCI (who themselves lacked the background knowledge in question) decreed that inspectors lacking QTS could no longer be deployed.

More recently, we’ve seen a lack of corporate memory in Ofsted’s refusal to make public the subject-specific training materials produced by its ‘Curriculum Unit’. The resulting online furore saw several former HMI take to social media and declare that there should be no inspection materials that are not available in the public domain.

Like me, they remember a period during the reign of Sir Michael Wilshaw that saw Sean Harford become Ofsted’s director of education in 2015, and immediately decree a ‘bonfire of guidance’. All the aide memories that had been built up over time were immediately withdrawn, on the basis that the only inspection materials to exist should be the publicly available Inspection Handbook and framework.

This irked some of us at the time, since we had put a lot of work into those documents – but Sean was ultimately right.

Highly prescriptive

Back to the present, and the leadership of Ofsted’s curriculum unit wasn’t happy to be told that the regulator had previously inspected subjects through its curriculum and dissemination division. The rather different focus back then had been on gathering information and evidence from schools through inspection and thematic surveys.

Those subject reports gathered evidence of ‘features of good/weaker achievement’, with Ofsted simply disseminating good practice that seemed to work well. By contrast, Ofsted’s recent subject research reports and those leaked training materials seem to indicate a highly prescriptive, and perhaps ideologically-driven shift from ‘no preferred style’ to ‘very much a preferred style’…

Adrian Lyons was one 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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