SecondaryAssessment

Ofsted – Overhauls, HCMI expertise and inspector oversight

Magnifying glasses, representing Ofsted inspections

We delve into the multifaceted world of Ofsted, exploring how it needs to improve, the expertise we expect from HMCI and the mechanisms in place for inspecting inspectors…

Teachwire
by Teachwire
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Speedy Assessment CPD for secondary teachers
SecondaryAssessment

Will the Ofsted Big Listen have any meaningful impact?

The Ofsted Big Listen concluded in May 2024. Tens of thousands of people gave their feedback to the consultation. It was reportedly the biggest response to a public sector consultation there has ever been.

If anything were to sum up the weight of feeling around Ofsted and its current and future role, it must be this. Since the tragedy of Ruth Perry, there has been an outpouring of emotion, anecdotes, suggestions, criticisms, and no short amount of feedback for Ofsted.

The appointment of Sir Martyn Oliver felt welcome, and it seemed to be a move in the right direction. The announcement of the Big Listen and positive recognition of the need to change, and the assurance that nothing was off the table, felt positive; like change could come. 

Positive moves

In the interim period, there have indeed been positive moves, including the pause policy, and the opportunity to share outcomes with trusted colleagues and families – and with medical professionals, which surely tells a story in itself.

Most recently, there came the news that deep dives would no longer happen in ungraded inspections from September. This was also another step in the right direction. 

I can’t help but feel, though, that the opportunity for change is slipping away. Perhaps I’m being unfair – we don’t know the outcomes of the consultations, nor any potential response.  

Ofsted Roadshow

However, I recently attended an Ofsted Roadshow, with the hope of the Big Listen being high on the agenda.

I was dismayed to find that Ofsted spent nearly two hours of the three-hour session giving updates about topics that have been in the public domain for several years.

Ofsted squeezed the session about feeding back on the areas of the consultation into 45 minutes. What’s more, the setup of the session was not conducive to gathering input from the many headteachers who were there.

The fact that Ofsted condensed this part so that people could get home was frustrating. I could easily have spent the whole three hours discussing the future! 

I really hope this is not indicative of the approach that will be taken, but I worry that it just might be. 

Perhaps there is a real appetite for change and real impetus behind the doors of Ofsted. However, Ofsted is an organisation inextricably entangled with the Department for Education.

This causes problems with any response to this consultation, as the DfE has a clear idea of what it wants Ofsted to be and how certain parameters cannot change.

Surely, this will limit the scope of how much can be altered? Throw the 2024 General Election into the mix and everything that is decided could be thrown in the air again.

That means decisions and changes may wait, and we will once again end up with stagnation of a system that almost everyone within education is crying out to change. 

What could change look like?

There is so much that could be done – area inspectors linked to specific schools; visiting more often and building meaningful relationships with a school, its community, and its leaders; visits based around short, sharp foci that can be easily evidenced and show real school improvement.

Ofsted could become a true partner with a school, not a cause of anxiety and worry.  

Another change could be a greater pledge to consistency and transparency. Share training materials, and allow all serving headteachers to access the same CPD as those who are inspecting.

If inspectors are fully aware of all the best aspects of current practice, surely it makes sense to offer that training to all schools? 

The reports could be open to change, too – remove the single-word judgements, focus on what is going well and what could be better, but without the fear of reprisals should things be identified as needing work.

Currently, the job of a school leader often feels like it depends entirely on the opinion – or whim – of whoever might walk through the door on the morning of your Ofsted inspection. 

There has been a Big Listen. Now, we need to see the Big Change. It is the only way Ofsted can rebuild and rebrand itself and regain the trust of the whole profession. Time will tell. 

Secret Headteacher is a headteacher in England. 


How new HMCI Sir Martyn Oliver is navigating the storm

Abstract illustration showing several figures in a small boat navigating a stormy sea

Adrian Lyons reflects on what we can expect from Sir Martyn Oliver’s tenure as HMCI, given the events of the past few months…

On January 1st 2024, Sir Martyn Oliver assumed the role of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) at Ofsted. This marked a new chapter for the organisation responsible for inspecting and regulating services that care for children and young people.

This change of leadership came at a particularly tumultuous time. His predecessor left significant challenges and a legacy of contentious issues.

A troubled inheritance

Ofsted, under the leadership of the HMCI, isn’t a democratic assembly of education experts, but rather a body dedicated to implementing the policies and vision of its Chief Inspector. Historically, each new HMCI has brought about a distinct shift in direction, often repudiating the policies of their predecessor.

The tenure of Sir Martyn’s predecessor, Amanda Spielman, was marred by controversy – particularly around her handling of the aftermath following the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry. Despite the coroner’s findings pointing to significant stress caused by the inspection process, Spielman had publicly commented that the case was being used to ‘discredit’ the regulator – a remark perceived by many as being callous.

Sir Martyn sought to signal a change in approach early on, by briefly pausing inspection activities to provide inspectors with basic mental health training. Yet this initiative, while well-intentioned, has done little to address deeper issues within Ofsted’s culture and operational framework.

The elephant in the room

Sir Martyn faces two fundamental problems that contribute to the stress experienced by both inspectors and the schools they evaluate – unrealistic inspection targets, and the retention of the four overall effectiveness grades. These issues are intertwined, and have led to a crisis of confidence in the reliability of inspection outcomes.

Former HMCIs and educational experts alike have criticised the current grading system, noting that it has become easier to achieve a Good rating. Anecdotal evidence suggests that inspectors, wary of backlash and unsupported by the system, often opt to avoid the hassle of issuing lower grades.

Another of Sir Martyn’s big early initiatives has been to launch the ‘Big Listen’ survey, in an effort to gather insights from educators – though this too has been critiqued for avoiding the elephant in the room that is the continued use of the existing overall effectiveness grades.

A shift in focus

That said, Sir Martyn has signalled a willingness to address some of the more contentious aspects of the current inspection framework. One significant change taking effect in September this year is the elimination of subject deep dives from ungraded inspections.

While welcome, if this is done in isolation then we’ll be in the strange situation of having a framework built upon a model of judging the quality of education via ‘subject deep dives’ which most schools previously judged Good or better won’t be subject to.

Another notable departure from the previous regime’s approach is the disbandment of Ofsted’s Curriculum Unit. Under Spielman, there had been a strong emphasis on curriculum quality over mere exam results – though this focus often manifested through a narrow ideological lens, sometimes alienating educators and subject specialists. The end of the Curriculum Unit thus signals a potential return to a less ideologically-driven evaluation of educational practices.

A complex legacy

Prior to 2012, Ofsted’s subject reports had been based on practical, observed evidence of effective teaching practices. The Curriculum Unit was different, in that it promoted a preferred ideological approach for a comparatively limited range of subjects, based on a narrow field of ideological research.

(I have to declare an interest here, however, since my own subject area of economics and business, with its 83,993 A level entries and 127,004 GCSE entries in 2023, was among those subjects not considered worthy of the Curriculum Unit’s attention).

Sir Martyn Oliver’s role as HMCI is undeniably challenging. With an imminent change of government on the horizon, there’s limited appetite for sweeping reforms. Yet his initial steps indicate a commitment to mitigating some of the most pressing issues within Ofsted. The task now is to balance the immediate need for practical improvements with the longer-term goal of restoring faith in the inspection system.

Adrian Lyons was one of His Majesty’s Inspectors between 2005 and 2021 and now works with MATs, teacher training providers and LAs to support education; find out more at adrianlyonsconsulting.com


What has Ofsted learnt in the wake of Ruth Perry’s death?

Following Ruth Perry’s death, Ofsted has resolved to inspect schools differently – but has the regulator learned the right lessons?

At the start of January 2024, it was announced that Ofsted would be suspending its inspections (although not in early years settings, for reasons unclear), pending completion of mental health training for its inspectors.

This move followed the high profile and tragic death last year of Ruth Perry – a headteacher whose suicide was deemed by senior coroner Heidi Connor to be at least in part the result of a negative Ofsted ruling her primary school had received.

Systemic issues

Inspectors attended a half day online mental health seminar later that month, which included awareness training provided by Mental Health First Aid England. Inspections then resumed before the month was out, alongside what was – rather condescendingly – dubbed the ‘Big Listen’, whereby Ofsted sought feedback from educators and parents on how it could improve.

Look, I’m all for more people receiving mental health first aid training. Indeed, I’m the co-founder of a campaign called Where’s Your Head At, which calls for parity between mental health and physical first aid provision within all workplaces. Where correctly applied, I have no doubt that the skills delegates learn on such courses have the power to save lives.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that there’s been more than a hint of gimmickry surrounding this exercise, coinciding as it did with the arrival of new HMCI, Sir Martyn Oliver. And it’s not just me – NEU general secretary Daniel Kebede told The Guardian, “Ofsted is prioritising fanfare for the new chief inspector over the wellbeing of school staff.”

It’s all infuriatingly symptomatic of the ‘firefight the symptom, rather than address the cause’ strategy I’ve often observed when organisations attempt to tackle mental health concerns.

In her report, Heidi Connor noted that Ofsted’s role in Perry’s death couldn’t be attributed to the actions of any one individual inspector – which would suggest that the issues involved were systemic, rather than interpersonal. The real problem is the way in which Ofsted operates. No amount of training inspectors in spotting symptoms of mental ill health among staff during visits (however sensible this is, generally) will manage to address that.

Punitive ineffectuality

To anyone working in education, this will come as no surprise. Since Michael Gove’s sweeping reforms starting in 2010, Ofsted has become ever more punitive, yet less effective in fulfilling the role for which it was ostensibly created – namely holding schools to account in a transparent way. Instead, it’s helped contribute to a worsening of staff morale and wellbeing across the teaching profession.

Concerns

Whilst researching this article, I invited school staff to contact me anonymously if Ofsted had ever negatively impacted their mental health. I was inundated with responses. Staff consistently cited the same concerns, namely:

  • The length of time leading up to possible inspections, causing them to hang over schools like a dark cloud, sometimes for up to months on end
  • SLTs making unreasonable demands in the run-up to inspections, amid insistences that ‘Ofsted will be looking for this’
  • No one knowing if such demands are legitimate, given the inspection framework’s lack of consistency. The same actions earning praise in one school can be overlooked or even criticised in another.
  • A persistent sense that that inspectors are there to ‘catch teachers out’, rather than help them improve.
  • A teacher’s entire job being summed up in a one-word grading, with all the high stakes that accompany that (Ruth Perry was reportedly worried about the impact of her school’s Ofsted rating on house prices in the local area).

One school governor additionally told me that inspectors had failed to take into account the extra pressures schools faced as a result of the near total decimation of external social and health services in some local areas, as well as COVID.

In light of all this, as former Ofsted Inspector Julie Price-Grimshaw told me on my LBC show, “Having a smiling assassin isn’t going to make a difference.”

Natasha Devon is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner on issues relating to education and mental health; to find out more, visit natashadevon.com or follow @_NatashaDevon.


Why Ofsted requires improvement

We need a different Ofsted, says Ian Mitchell – one that operates not on fear and intimidation, but on mutual support and optimism…

I’ll say one thing for Ofsted inspections – you never forget your first time. Whenever Ofsted makes the headlines (a regular occurrence at present) I think back to my first experience of the regulator. I’d been qualified for less than a year when, in the first week of January 1999, my new employer announced their imminent arrival.

Though Ofsted were technically independent of the government, that didn’t make it an apolitical organisation. Tony Blair’s rallying cry of ‘Education, Education, Education’ had already cast a spotlight on the teaching profession.

This was before then-HMCI Chris Woodhead’s subsequent assertion that he was going to ‘name and shame’ 15,000 ‘incompetent teachers’.

Air of pretence

Back then, Ofsted graded every observed lesson. It also gave schools several weeks’ notice – giving headteachers ample time to send their most dysfunctional Y11s off on a ‘team-building break’ somewhere in the Lake District.

The stress would be palpable, underpinned by an air of pretence. An impending Ofsted inspection was as much an act of immersive theatre as it was an educational formality.

It was a week where, ironically, nothing was allowed to run as normal. Teachers wrote objectives on the board. We constantly supervised corridors. No one seemed to call in sick, or require use of the toilet during lessons.

We were all well-versed in the inspection script; what to say and how to say it. And through all this make-believe, we just got on with things. We were professionals, after all.

Of course, that professionalism didn’t stop a few jaded comments from some colleagues during those long weeks of rehearsal. ‘It’s already ruined Christmas!’, complained one. ‘After this is all over, I’m going to introduce myself to my husband again,’ said another.

The school inspection began to resemble a farce. ‘As soon as we get this over with, the sooner we can start doing our jobs normally again…

Sense of conformity

Even then, the culture of fear that Ofsted created and seemed to nurture struck me as profoundly counter-productive. In ‘naming and shaming incompetent teachers’, Woodhead had apparently overlooked the inconvenient truth of teacher shortages, with recruitment and retention a problem even before New Labour’s generous funding dried up.

Science and maths teachers, then as now, were hard to find. Remove those ‘incompetent teachers’, sure – but where will their replacements come from?

“The school inspection began to resemble a farce”

Woodhead’s ignominious approach to the teaching profession overlooked another problem. It had never occurred to the Chief Inspector that, in the face of Ofsted pressure, it tends to be the most conscientious colleagues who burn out first.

This makes sense, if you think about it. Why would the few staff room malcontents, determined to do as little as possible, care any more for Ofsted’s wrath than they did for anything else? In the pursuit of ‘regulating educational standards’, highly competent people are liable to become too ill to function. Then eventually, many of them quit.

Yet for all its folly, Ofsted has somehow fostered a remarkable sense of conformity among teachers. Many (though by no means all) enjoy working in schools, because they once enjoyed being at school themselves.

They would have been achievement-oriented students, and largely continued that way upon becoming qualified teachers.

In the face of Ofsted, however, this kind of mindset is self-defeating. All of a sudden, your ‘success’ depends on servility to a mindless tick-box culture that’s as thankless as it is draining.

Teachers want to be associated with the good or excellent. That’s why they’re so invested in the process of teaching. So rather than let the side down, many will resort to paradoxical extremes. For instance, they conceal from inspectors very poor pupil behaviour that’s become the bane of their lives.

‘Satisfactory’ versus ‘Good’

More recently, Ofsted has put some distance between itself and the kind of practices that once made them so feared under the Blair administration. Individual teacher grades are long gone. Grades for schools have been simplified and streamlined. The inspection notice period is now just a matter of days.

Nevertheless, the inspection-related stress experienced by school communities remains greater than ever – sometimes exacerbated by authoritarian senior managers willing to do whatever it takes to achieve favourable outcomes.

Whether Ofsted has presided over improved educational standards is debatable. The regulator’s own 2021 finding that 88% of schools are Good or Outstanding appears incompatible with evidence elsewhere of poor staff retention and falling pupil attendance. Would a ‘Good’ school not be a place where most would want to teach and learn?

“The inspection-related stress experienced by school communities remains greater than ever”

In surveys, it seems parents overwhelmingly find Ofsted’s four-tier grading system to be ‘useful’ – but frankly, it’s hard to see what use a single word like ‘Good’ can be to any education stakeholder.

It was Ofsted that opted to abandon its earlier ‘Satisfactory’ grade. This was on the grounds that a Satisfactory school isn’t a Good school – because all schools should be excellent.

The statistics are fooling no one, though. Ofsted’s survey data as it stands is simply incompatible with reality.

What’s a school ‘worth’?

We badly need inspection reform. I don’t blame parents for believing that Ofsted’s existing grades can objectively measure a school’s value. However, I would urge that we regard all inspection grades with scepticism.

Numerical data, contrary to appearances, simply can’t measure a school’s real worth. If parents, teacher applicants and prospective students want to find out about a given school, then they should take the time to read full reports. We should abandon the grading system in its current form.

The written inspection report should then focus on two broad areas. What does the school do well? And what should it prioritise moving forward? Specific areas will naturally differ from school to school – which is precisely the point.

Every school should be evaluated independently and its unique challenges understood in context. It’s time to accept that only qualitative data can provide a meaningful representation of what a school does.

Redefining ‘regulation’

Crucially, the inspection model itself needs redefining, including the question of its own regulation. What exactly should inspectors be responsible for? Should educational regulators not play a role in finding solutions, rather than merely identifying problems?

Every school should have its own attached inspection team that’s accountable for the school’s development, and which re-visits the school at each inspection.

If they’ve previously identified weaknesses in any of their assigned schools, the regulator should oblige inspectors to advise on and support the improvement process. Inspectors would be regulated by virtue of their own investment in the school community.

Such reforms needn’t make existing inspectors redundant, many of whom bring much to the table. There’s still a place for those who understand that educational standards don’t improve when teachers feel intimidated and humiliated.

Perhaps there’s also scope for including educational writers and consultants as part of inspections – who might start by asking why so many people leave the classroom in the first place, and how to convince growing numbers of graduates that teaching might be a good career for them.

‘The name and shame’ approach hasn’t worked. Would it be too much to ask now that reforms to the system try to inject a little optimism?

Ian Mitchell has worked as a teacher of English and psychology across both the state and independent sectors.


What experience and expertise should an HMCI have?

With Ofsted about to welcome a new HMCI, Adrian Lyons ponders the qualifications and characteristics needed to thrive in the role

In the complex landscape of England’s education system, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) holds a pivotal role in setting Ofsted’s policies and priorities.

Importantly, while we consider most Ofsted employees civil servants, HMCI is not. Instead, HMCI holds the unique position of being a ‘Crown appointment’. This makes it very difficult to remove an HMCI once you’ve appointed them for their five-year term.

This is something which has previously been, and could well be again, problematic when governments change.

Checks and balances

As the former HMI senior manager Frank Norris has argued, an updated inspection framework is generally much more effective at delivering change across the education system than any Act of Parliament – yet a change in the inspection framework happens entirely at the whim of HMCI, with no checks or balances in place.

In this sense, Ofsted operates more as an autocracy than a collective of professional experts. And within Ofsted itself, there tend to be few opportunities for speaking truth to power.

During my tenure as an HMI, I served initially under Sir David Bell. He began his career as a primary school teacher before later becoming a headteacher.

A large LA subsequently appointed him as a director of education and libraries. He was then chief executive of Bedfordshire County Council.

Dame Christine Gilbert succeeded him. She had previously been a secondary history teacher and headteacher. She was then a successful director of children’s services in Tower Hamlets and latterly that borough’s chief executive.

As HMIs, both possessed extensive experience of school leadership, combined with high level skills at running an extensive bureaucracy. Prior to being appointed as HMCIs, both also had connections to the governing Labour party of the time.

Standards and behaviour

Following the Conservative-led coalition victory in 2010, incoming Education Secretary Michael Gove was keen to remove Christine Gilbert.

Her inspection framework was steeped in the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda, which he detested. I remember encouraging her to stay in post, but by 2012 her time was up. She was replaced by someone else with a successful record as a headteacher – Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Sir Michael had gained his knighthood for the impact he’d had in improving a London secondary school. He then went on to establish a school in Hackney where he stayed as leader for seven years, witnessing pupils from his original Y7 graduate Year 13 and enter some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

He had a reputation for firm discipline, and became known as ‘the Sergeant Major’. Gove concluded that this was precisely the skill set you need to be HMCI. The new HMCI thus emphasised ‘standards’ and ‘behaviour’ during his tenure, just as the government had hoped – but he also turned out to be fiercely independent.

Gove’s special advisor at the time – one Dominic Cummings – even briefed against HMCI, leading to a public showdown that Sir Michael eventually won. Yet despite bringing considerable educational expertise to the role, Sir Michael’s comparative lack of high-level experience in local government or administration proved frustrating.

Gaps in experience

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s term came to an end in late 2015, much to the DfE’s relief, whereupon Ministers resolved to not make the same mistakes again. So it was that the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, appointed Amanda Spielman to the role, whose professional background was in accountancy and finance.
At the time, the Conservative-dominated Education Select Committee voiced ‘significant concerns’ over her suitability for the job – chief among them, her lack of teaching experience and failure to demonstrate understanding of the ‘complex role’.

The appointment of Sir Martin Oliver as HMCI, who assumes the role in January 2024, will thus see a return to an individual with considerable school leadership experience running Ofsted. Though like his predecessors, he will be leading an inspectorate without having had any personal inspection experience.

The Education Select Committee heard during his pre-appointment hearing that he was keen for his own school leaders to be part-time inspectors, but that he himself had been ‘Too busy improving schools’.

In common with my former HMI colleagues, I believe that if there’s one key gap in the CVs of Ofsted’s last few HMCIs, a lack of inspection experience would be it.


Who inspects the inspectors?

Given the increasingly fractious relationship between the profession and Ofsted, Adrian Lyons asks, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes…?’

Lead Ofsted inspectors have immense power and responsibility during inspections. During my time as an HMI, my colleagues and I often discussed the huge authority we had when in schools. Yet this power isn’t entirely unconstrained.

The key way in which we marshall inspectors is via the inspection handbook. Grading must always be justified against the criteria it sets out. The first question to therefore ask when reading a report for quality assurance purposes is ‘Does the text justify he grade?

Selective evidence

That said, it’s possible to be highly selective in the evidence you record, in order to justify the final grade. Ofsted is very hot on ensuring that reports meet a fixed set of writing requirements. In reality, however, for most inspections Ofsted only checks the report writing, not the actual gathering of evidence.

The main purpose of Ofsted’s training is to disseminate central messages. This is so that it can maintain consistency in how we carry out inspections.

This results in enormous, centrally-produced slide packs. One very experienced HMI once described in-person Ofsted training to me as ‘A long session where we’re talked at non-stop from 9am to 4pm, with just a quick comfort break at lunchtime.

Quality assurance

Occasionally, inspections will receive a quality assurance visit from an HMI (or a more senior HMI if it’s an HMI-led inspection). This is usually to ensure that the lead inspector has followed the pre-inspection guidance set out in the inspection handbook.

A quality assurance inspector will check that evidence base is evaluative, and closely follows the methodology for gathering and recording evidence, as set out in the inspection handbook.

They will judge this by looking at the evidence recorded by inspectors, speaking with inspection team members and interviewing the headteacher about the inspection’s progress. They will also check that inspectors are following the prescribed methodology, with the requisite number of ‘deep dives’.

A judgement will then be made as to whether the lead inspector’s ‘Integrity, professionalism and thoroughness strongly reflect Ofsted’s values and code of conduct.’ However, given that key strategic priority for Ofsted at the moment is for ‘Lead inspectors [to] contribute to achieving the 2023/24 corporate volumes’, relatively few such quality assurance visits are actually taking place.

Ofsted’s culture of conformity

Then there are the contracted inspectors. HMI monitors their work largely through checks of their reports and occasional on-site visits.

Again, though, a contracted inspector’s work will be largely assessed on the basis of their report writing alone. Hence the somewhat formulaic nature of Ofsted’s school reports.

If your continued allocation of work depends upon the conformity of your report writing, then there’s little incentive to inject any personalisation.

Ofsted inspectors are effectively on ‘zero hour’ contracts. So the easiest way of managing a given inspector’s poor performance is to simply not allocate them any further work.

“Ofsted inspectors are effectively on ‘zero hour’ contracts”

The primary incentive for inspectors is to thus play it safe – by deciding on your judgement, and then ensuring that your final report only mentions that which supports said judgement. There is no room for nuance.

Working relationships

Of course, the human factor of inspections produces a degree of subjectivity. This is where Ofsted’s command and control approach comes in. Ofsted’s priority is consistency, but professional relationships between inspectors and school staff can be difficult to control.

Ofsted’s code of conduct states, “It is important that inspectors establish and maintain a positive working relationship with providers, based on courteous and professional behaviour. Inspectors will take all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and to minimise stress during the inspection or regulatory activity.”

If that isn’t happening, then filing a post-inspection complaint will be too late. Immediately raise any concerns with the lead inspector, and if you’re still unsuccessful, contact your nearest Ofsted regional office.

Adrian Lyons was one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors between 2005 and 2021. He now works with MATs, teacher training providers and LAs to support education. Find out more at adrianlyonsconsulting.com

You might also be interested in...