The role and performance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the National Association of Head Teachers

1.  The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into the work of Ofsted.

2.  NAHT currently represents over 28,000 school leaders in early years; primary; special and secondary schools; independent schools; sixth form and FE colleges; outdoor education centres; pupil referral units, social services establishments and other educational settings, making us uniquely placed to represent the views of the sector.


3.  NAHT supports an effective school inspection system. The alternative is a data driven, mechanistic approach to measuring school performance, which would damage the accountability, effectiveness and morale of the system. We need a system which rewards those who choose to work in the most disadvantaged communities and which asks how results are achieved.

4.  The purpose of a school inspection system should be (in order of priority):

(a)  To help schools improve their performance; and

(b)  To provide an independent evaluation of school performance on behalf of various stakeholders.

(c)  It should meet these aims by providing an external, expert judgement of the school - focused on progress and rooted in the school's context.

5.  We believe that there are certain principles that an effective school inspection system should meet.

  • It should be founded on school self evaluation, to enable a dialogue between inspector and institution. The school should have flexibility to choose the method of self evaluation rather than being constrained by an excessively bureaucratic framework.
  • It should be simple, with the minimum of regulation and red tape.
  • It should be proportionate to school performance in both frequency and scope, but it should be available to all schools.
    • Inspection could be triggered by a risk assessment (and perhaps a randomised sampling) rather than a fixed cycle of time.
  • It should be focused on teaching and learning, and the curriculum, making use of the evaluations of teaching quality generated by the school's own programme of externally moderated lesson observation.
    • This would eliminate the need for separate subject inspections, which would be generated from the aggregate of ordinary inspections; thus saving money.
    • It would be helpful to distinguish between "core" activities, subject to the full investigation, and "enabling" activities, which would be evaluated on a lighter touch check of compliance.
  • It should make a virtue of expert judgement, which takes full account of the progress the school is making given its particular circumstances. It would treat data as a starting point for enquiry and there would be no limiting judgements.
  • It should be developmental. The end result of an inspection should be a jointly created plan of improvement - drawing on both the school's perspective and the inspectors' experience of what works in other similar contexts. An inspection should be something a school wants and values.
    • This would also imply that outstanding schools should be inspected, in order to generate good practice.
    • The tone and conduct of inspectors would also be critical. It may be helpful to look at the current inspection categories and alter them so that satisfactory genuinely means satisfactory - a scale using an odd number of levels would assist this.


6.  Above we have highlighted how we believe inspection should impact on school improvement. Sadly, we are currently some way from this position. A recent NAHT poll on the subject of Ofsted attracted almost 1,500 responses from serving school leaders. Whilst most agreed that supporting school improvement should be a key purpose of school inspection, only 16% believed that inspection accelerated school improvement. The remaining respondents believed that Ofsted inspections have little or no impact on school improvement with the largest group (38%) claiming inspection was a distraction from school improvement and 12% stating that Ofsted actually hinder school improvement.

7.  School leaders are clear about what the problems are and why Ofsted inspections are failing to deliver what schools need to drive performance:

8.  Ofsted's well documented focus on data (particularly but not exclusively attainment data) frequently results in schools coming out of inspection with no new information that they can use to drive the school forward. It is easy to identify patterns of performance on paper - it is significantly more difficult to tackle those problems in the classroom. Ofsted inspectors are not seen as able (or willing) to provide advice or strategies to overcome difficulties and improve performance.

9.  The tick box culture of inspections continues to reign supreme. In response schools spend time "jumping through hoops" which serve only the inspectorate - not the pupils or staff.

10.  Ofsted inspections are seen by many in the profession as punitive in their approach, not supportive. The failure of many inspection teams to recognise the contextual factors affecting schools and the perception that satisfactory is not good enough, can and does have a devastating effect on staff and pupil moral. It can take schools months if not years to recover from a poor inspection experience, setting back the school improvement agenda immeasurably. This is particularly the case when good schools have fallen foul of limiting grades.

11.  Limiting grades and ever changing requirements have also been a major setback in the school improvement agenda. Schools who have worked hard to drive up standards and transform the learning environment have been prevented from achieving the grades they deserve and the community expects because of changes in the inspection framework, so schools that would have moved from satisfactory to good under one framework, stay as satisfactory or are given notice to improve under another. This disguises real school improvement and demoralises students, staff and whole communities.

The performance of Ofsted in carrying out its work, including the consistency and quality of inspection teams.

12.  Only 3 (0.2%) respondents to the NAHT poll described Ofsted's performance as outstanding, and 17% described it as good. For the majority (58%), their performance was rated as satisfactory but worryingly, almost a quarter (24%) described Ofsted's performance as Inadequate.

13.  The most frequently expressed concerns focus on issues of consistency. 61% of respondents to the NAHT poll rated Ofsted as inadequate for consistency of inspection teams. School leaders believe that the quality of inspection is down to chance - which inspectors turn up on the day.

14.  It is important to stress that there are many highly-skilled inspectors working in the system and school leaders value and welcome their assessments. However, questions remain about the selection, training and support for others within the system.

15.  Many are concerned that inspectors have insufficient knowledge and experience of the sector they are inspecting. Secondary specialists are inspecting primary and early years settings and the small teams and single inspectors evaluating Special Schools often do not have inspectors with senior or up to date leadership experience - essential with the complex management decisions undertaken in that context. Others are rightly concerned that some inspectors have been "out" of education for long periods of time and have not kept abreast of key initiatives or school based activities and so are unable to effectively assess their appropriateness.

16.  The extent to which inspectors are prepared to use their discretion when assessing a school's circumstances is another issue as indeed is the complaints procedure.

17.  Feedback from our members suggests that there is considerable variation in the way that inspectors interpret the inspection framework and evaluation schedule. Good inspectors, widely respected by the profession, draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience and use a combination of professional judgement and common sense when reaching conclusions about appropriate grades. Ofsted itself clearly advocates this position. However, too many inspectors either believe (or use as an excuse) that they have no choice or discretion in the grades they assign, slavishly following data-based formula irrespective of the reality of the school's performance. Sadly, these same inspectors are often perilously behind with their reading and often oblivious to the most recent Ofsted guidance on interpretation and application of the framework.

18.  The problem of inspectors failing to keep up with guidance is undoubtedly exacerbated by the volume and frequency of additions and amendments made to such guidance. Whilst we value the fact that Ofsted have been responsive to the concerns of the profession and tried to steer inspectors in the right direction, the need for so many clarifications undermines confidence and supports our claim that inspectors do not always proceed correctly.

19.  It is worth re-stating, that NAHT believes there are many excellent inspectors working in the field and would add that we receive very few complaints about HMI. The overwhelming majority of the "problem" inspectors described above are "Additional Inspectors". This in itself points to on-going selection, training and monitoring issues - within Ofsted's partner inspection service providers (CfBT Education Trust, Serco Education and Children's Services, Tribal Group and Prospects Services.

20.  There is undoubtedly a significant gap between the inspection process envisioned and described by Ofsted and the inspection process delivered by some teams.

21.  Despite improvements in recent months, many school leaders believe that using the complaints procedure is futile as Ofsted are rarely prepared to change their initial position, or engage with additional evidence. Ofsted's reluctance to publish data on the number, nature and outcomes of complaints they receive does not inspire confidence amongst the profession. Inspectors are seen as unaccountable, with some individuals notorious within localities for their unprofessional attitudes, complaints are made, but in the absence of "evidence" (which is almost impossible to gather) few are upheld.

The weight given to different factors within the inspection process

22.  School leaders have significant concerns about the weighting of the inspection process, and in particular the use of limiting grades. 65% of respondents to the NAHT poll believed that the current weightings were inappropriate. Part of this concern is that the Ofsted weighting appears to be politically rather than educationally motivated. Many of the targets and baselines used to assess schools are arbitrary and unhelpful within the context of some schools - particularly small schools where percentage based models are notoriously unreliable.

23.  The over-use of data and the "domino effect" of some judgements with the framework leave many schools believing that an outstanding grade is impossible to achieve, whatever they do.

Whether inspection of all organisations, settings and services to support children's learning and welfare is best conducted by a single inspectorate

24.  School leaders are divided on whether a single inspectorate is the best way to approach the inspection of all organisations settings and services supporting children's learning and welfare.

25.  "Children's services" are by necessity complex and inter-related and there are undoubtedly times when a holistic approach is beneficial to all parties. However, this is not necessarily best achieved by a one-size-fits-all model. Many are concerned that the expansion of Ofsted has resulted in an increase in power at the expense of a dilution in service quality and scrutiny. Education has undoubtedly suffered from having the attentions of our Chief Inspector pulled in so many different areas and failures or shortcomings in one area of Ofsted's remit inevitably impacts on the faith and confidence that all services have in the inspectorate as whole.

26.  It is clear from the responses of our members, that what matters most is not the external structure of the inspectorate, but the operational structures within it. Although there is much inter-agency work across the sector, it is essential that any and all inspectors have appropriate, relevant experience in and knowledge of the sector they are inspecting. Frameworks must have sufficient flexibility to deal with regional and local variation of practise and structure and the inspectorate much have sufficient resources to operate effectively.

The role of Ofsted in providing an accountability mechanism for schools operating with greater autonomy

27.  We believe that all maintained schools should be subject to the same accountability mechanism. As discussed above, the role of inspection should be about school improvement and sharing good practice, areas of intense interest for all schools whatever level of autonomy they have or aspire to. A separate system of inspection for Academies or Free Schools would suggest a two-tier state education system, with one group of schools seen as being less accountable than others. This, considering the range of inspection outcomes achieved by existing Academies, would be unacceptable to NAHT and the wider profession.

28.  The more challenging question of course is whether Ofsted should be that inspectorate or whether a new body is required for the inspection of all maintained schools. NAHT would be keen to offer oral evidence to the Committee to further explore this and other questions.

October 2010

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Prepared 17 April 2011