The role and peformance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

5  Experiences and mechanics of inspection

Ofsted and stress

90.  It is, of course, the case that any form of examination or inspection has stress, as one witness told us, "built into the system".[131] To a degree, we believe that an element of stress is, as the same witness said, "never going to go away"[132] from inspection, and indeed it could be argued that an element of that inevitable stress is, to quote another witness, "probably how life is and should be",[133] and makes settings focus more keenly on their potential weaknesses in advance of inspection.

91.  However, an element of healthy stress is a far cry from the "headteachers and governors hamstrung by fear" which the Association of Teachers and Lecturers drew our attention to with regard to Ofsted inspection. Serving head teacher Lynn Jackson acknowledged that "the fear that Ofsted brings is very much in every head's mind as soon as we get that phone call."[134] Social workers appear to agree that Ofsted has "built a culture of negativity around inspection."[135]

92.  We were particularly concerned to hear evidence suggesting that the stressful impact of Ofsted inspection might be deterring people from entering, or continuing in, their chosen profession. Professor Nick Foskett of Keele University said to us:

I am certainly aware of quite a number of people within ITE [initial teacher education] who have experienced quite severe personal health issues as a result of their experiences of Ofsted inspection, particularly where those judgements were deemed to be unfair, unrealistic and based on inappropriate evidence and where there was a high-stakes negative consequence that came with that.[136]

Similarly, Anthony Douglas of CAFCASS reported:

The impact of inspection... is profound on social workers. It generally contributes to a low-level anxiety, which, when you are doing very anxious work anyway, is a factor that we need to be much more aware of. If we are not really careful, we will drive people out of this work; they won't be coming into it.[137]

Similarly, we read evidence which reported that inspection can be stressful enough to produce negative results in an institution's performance. Leslie Rosenthal, of the Department of Economics at Keele University, has suggested that "the efforts required by teaching staff in responding to the demands of the school inspection system are great enough to divert resources from teaching so as to affect pupil achievement in the year of the visit."[138] A study conducted by Hertfordshire secondary students reported "a tenser relationship with their teachers" in advance of inspection.[139]

93.  It is the responsibility of the inspectorate to ensure that inspection processes are not unduly burdensome, and the responsibility of those being inspected to prepare for a process which may be stressful. The inspectorate and the inspected should do everything possible to minimise any negative impact of inspection on young people and learners.

94.  Inspectors themselves considered the job to be stressful: only 10% of those responding to our survey said that inspection was not a stressful process for teams, although a good number also said that pressure was an important part of the job which they did not resent. The most common reason cited for this was the lack of preparation time built into inspection regimes. We suggest that the new Chief Inspectors of Education and Children's Care, whilst having due regard to the financial efficiency of their organisations, consider how best to build further preparation time into inspection schedules.

Notice of inspections

95.  Panels of witnesses were very split over the subject of notice periods for inspections. Currently:

Schools receive between zero and two working days' notice of a section 5 inspection, with most receiving between one and two days notice. HMCI may arrange for any school to be inspected without notice where there are particular reasons, such as those connected to pupils' welfare, or where there are concerns about safeguarding or rapid decline in performance. Monitoring visits will be conducted without notice.[140]

There are, however, some problems with no-notice inspections, particularly in non-schools settings, as former HMCI Maurice Smith explained to us:

We introduced no-notice inspection for early years, so in early years inspectors turn up on the doorstep... that is partly because early years are always there. We can't do it with child minders—we've had a miss rate of 25%, because they've gone to the park.[141]

Sir Mike Tomlinson said that could also happen with schools: "if you just pull up with no notice, there is the possibility that the school is not in operation and you've wasted an awful lot of public resource."[142]

96.  Despite this, Mr Smith went on to say that he thinks "little or no notice works pretty well with schools", and that in other settings inspectors "have the power and... should use it occasionally."[143] His former HMCI colleague Lord Sutherland, however, noted that "one thing you lose with no notice is the possibility of a school saying that they have a particular issue on which it would be very helpful to have an inspector's professional view", although he too felt that "generally... the less notice, the better."[144]

97.  Other witnesses were far less positive about the merits of unannounced inspections. David Sherlock said that giving three months notice provided time for "a dialogue between the provider's nominee and the lead inspector", and that this could bear significant fruits: "if the organisation improved itself during those three months, because they knew that an inspection was imminent, the learners benefited, and generally speaking that improvement was permanent."[145] Christine Ryan agreed that with only two days' notice "you have no opportunity to establish a dialogue with the school"[146] and expressed relief that the Independent Schools Inspectorate was able to offer five days' notice.

98.  One concern, however, associated with giving notice of inspection is that it allows time for "window dressing" by the setting.[147] For instance, one governor told us of a school which "having received notice of inspection gave two days holiday to all the pupils they did want the inspectors to meet."[148] Evidence suggests that young people themselves would also rather be spared the notice period, as one headteacher notes:

I asked my pupils what their suggestion for an improvement to the inspection process would be: they said that there should be no notice given to schools. Inspectors should come and see us as we are![149]

99.  Despite Mr Smith's concerns about the cost of unannounced inspections' "miss rate", witnesses from the children's care side of the Ofsted house expressed support for no notice inspections. Eleanor Schooling, representing the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said that "once you get used to the fact that it will be unannounced" it is "an easier situation to be in."[150] Anthony Douglas of CAFCASS was more positive still about unannounced inspections, for two reasons:

First, they don't cost as much. The announced full monty is really an industry, and just too big. [But] unannounced inspections... are not costing much, and I do not personally think they should be confined to poorer-performing organisations, because the best...can quickly become the worst, and the worst can quickly become the best... A random, unannounced, focussed inspection...would help us all.[151]

100.  On 16 February 2011, Ofsted launched a new framework for the inspection of children's homes, which set out that all future inspections will be unannounced.[152]

101.  We welcome the intention, in the new framework for the inspection of children's homes, for all future inspections of those settings to be unannounced. Whilst we accept that for certain settings a notice period is appropriate, we recommend that in the future little or no notice to providers should be the norm. We believe that the disadvantages raised by some witnesses are outweighed by the merits of unannounced inspection, particularly in ensuring that inspectors see the setting as it truly is.

The role of school governors in the inspection process

102.  The recent Schools White Paper undertakes to increase the recognition, support and attention of schools governors, claiming that they are still not accorded the respect they deserve.[153] Evidence from the National Governors' Association suggested that "there is some concern that inspectors do not fully understand governance or the role of governors."[154] The NGA "does not feel that governance is given sufficient scrutiny" under the existing framework,[155] and we agree that it would be beneficial for inspectors and schools to have a spotlight shone more brightly on governance arrangements. We will return to this issue in the light of the new schools inspection framework proposed by the Government, in Chapter 6.

103.  The NGA also told us that it is not "entirely clear" whether Ofsted reports to the head teacher or the governors following an inspection.[156] There is a clear tension inherent in existing arrangements, as the NGA notes:

The governing body is the accountable body in the school and is responsible for disseminating the [inspection] report, but it is not currently compulsory for governors to be invited to the feedback session.[157]

Similarly, we acknowledge that there is a tension between including governors more and yet giving schools very little notice of inspection: governors, of course, are not always on-site.

104.  We agree with the National Governors' Association that chairs of governors' attendance at post-inspection feedback sessions should be encouraged by inspectors (and preferably that of other governors as well). This is particularly worthwhile in light of the changing responsibilities governors will have in schools. Outside feedback sessions, the inspectorate should have a clear policy of engaging governors as much as possible throughout the inspection process.

Voluntary Childcare Register

105.  As part of its regulation of childcare professionals, Ofsted operates two registers. The Compulsory Register is for childcare providers of children under the age of eight years, although there are some exceptions. However, registration is not compulsory if, amongst other reasons: care is provided for children over eight only; care is provided for less than two hours a day; care is provided in the child's own home; or you are part of a home education arrangement, or are a foster parent.[158]

106.  For those for whom registration is not compulsory, a Voluntary Childcare Register exists. We received evidence from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC)—which represents around 8,000 recruitment company branches and over 140 childcare recruitment agencies—that the current operation of that Register is seriously flawed:

A system of self-declaration (the applicant simply ticking boxes to say they meet the criteria) appears to be acceptable to Ofsted and they rely on a small number of physical inspections each year to verify these... Nannies have also been found to be producing false documents to support their application... [one] nanny who had successfully registered on the Voluntary Childcare Register had a false visa and was illegally working in the UK, yet was able to produce a letter from Ofsted confirming her registration... Once a nanny is registered, they receive a letter from Ofsted confirming their registration. This has no expiry date on it, which means that even if a nanny is "removed" from the register, they would still have a letter to show to unsuspecting parents.[159]

The Confederation further explained to us that "the name Ofsted has meant that parents view the register as a verification that a nanny is suitable to work with children", even though Ofsted - by its website's own admission - carries out minimal checks.[160] A survey conducted by the REC and Mumsnet revealed that 67% (on a sample of 1,000 mothers) saw Ofsted registration as a "thorough stamp of approval."[161]

107.  In her oral evidence to this inquiry, the Chief Inspector at Ofsted said the Voluntary Register "very much concerns me, because I think it gives false reassurance to parents."[162] She went on to acknowledge that Ofsted conducts "absolutely minimal checks" on people applying to the Voluntary Childcare Register, and encouraged Government to look into changing the legislation surrounding it.[163]

108.  We agree with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation that the current set-up of the Voluntary Childcare Register is misleading and in need of very urgent reform. We are concerned that the current procedures, far from providing the public with a reliable system of registration and safeguarding, might mislead parents by suggesting a level of quality assurance that has not been undertaken. We urge the Government to improve the existing Register, through legislation where necessary, and to provide the public with a more reliable system for vetting carers which provides greater scrutiny of applicants. In the meantime, we recommend that Ofsted takes immediate action to improve the existing system—such as adding expiry dates to letters of registration.

Inspection of sixth form and further education colleges

109.  The Committee received written evidence from the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum concerning the inspection of colleges:

Ofsted use differentiated judgments which set different standards for schools, FE colleges, other providers and Sixth Form Colleges. If a sector, like Sixth Form Colleges, is high-performing, then the standards are high and vice-versa. This means that a school or FE College, judged outstanding, often has a lower performance than a Sixth Form College judged good or even satisfactory. This can happen where institutions are in close geographical proximity and compete for students with each other.[164]

When we investigated this further during oral evidence, Lesley Davies, representing the Association of Colleges, supported the Forum's statement, saying that the existing system offers "completely different way[s] of looking at the same age group."[165]

110.  Ofsted itself, in oral evidence, acknowledged that two different methods of data collection for college inspections is not an ideal situation, saying that Ofsted "would welcome—and it would be much easier for parents and learners to deal with—a level playing field in relation to data" for inspection of colleges and school sixth forms.[166] Lord Hill, the responsible Minister at the Department for Education, agreed on this issue that "the more we can have consistency, the better."[167]

111.  We are concerned that the current inspection processes for sixth forms, schools and colleges are not consistent with each other, giving a potentially misleading impression of those institutions' performance. The data used to judge institutions need to be the same for students in the same age groups, and we recommend that this is remedied as swiftly as possible.

131   Q 198 Back

132   Ibid. Back

133   Q 305 Back

134   Q 78 Back

135   Ev 148 Back

136   Q 197 Back

137   Q 276 Back

138   Rosenthal, L., 'The cost of regulation in education: do school inspections improve school quality?' (Department of Economics, University of Keele, 2001), quoted in MacBeath, J., 'A New Relationship with Schools?', in de Waal, A. (ed.), Inspecting the Inspectorate (Civitas, 2008) Back

139   See Macbeath, J., 'A New Relationship with Schools?', in de Waal, A. (ed.), Inspecting the Inspectorate (Civitas, 2008) Back

140 Section 5 refers to section 5 of the Education Act 2005, under which school inspections are carried out Back

141   Q 24 Back

142   Q 23 Back

143   Ibid. Back

144   Ibid. Back

145   Q 24 Back

146   Q 217 Back

147   Ev w239 Back

148   Ev w30 Back

149   Nanthabalan, B., 'The Experience of an 'Outstanding Provider'', in de Waal, A. (ed.), Inspecting the Inspectorate (Civitas, 2008) Back

150   Q 257 Back

151   Q 259 Back

152   Framework available at Back

153   See The Importance of Teaching-The Schools White Paper 2010, p. 71 Back

154   Ev 120 Back

155   Ev 122 Back

156   Ev 121 Back

157   Ibid. Back

158   More information on the Early Years and Childcare Registers can be found at Back

159   Ev w149 Back

160   See Back

161   Ev w149 Back

162   Q 406 Back

163   Q 406-Q409 Back

164   Ev w73 Back

165   Ibid. Back

166   Q 427 Back

167   Q 482 Back

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Prepared 17 April 2011