The role and performance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Education, University of London


1.  The Institute of Education is the UK's leading centre for education research and one of the world's leading such centres. Over the past two decades its research has contributed to policy development in a number of critical areas. In relation to Ofsted, Institute staff have undertaken a variety of research projects on the nature, scope and impact of inspection, in particular on the relationship between inspection and school and system improvement.


2.  Ofsted was created in order to:

  • ensure that inspection was consistent across the country;
  • to provide accountability, especially to parents, as the local authority role receded;
  • to drive improvement;
  • to shift what could be a "cosy" relationship between local teams and the head teachers from whose ranks they had often emerged.  

In these respects, Ofsted has contributed to some very positive changes in the English education system - it is easy to forget how variable provision was 25 years ago. In the process, the work of Ofsted has provided a critical source of fine-grained knowledge about schools and other elements of the education system and wider children's services. However, the significant contribution that inspection has made to system development should not obscure its limitations.

Issues raised by inspection

3.  Inspection services are expensive, so it is important to ensure that they are effective - in terms of providing an accurate picture of provision and having a positive impact on the effectiveness of that provision.  The hidden costs of inspection include:

  • compliance costs - staff time and other resources devoted to preparing and managing inspections;
  • opportunity costs - beneficial activities overtaken by preparation and management of inspections;
  • avoidance costs - the costs of circumventing inspection or mitigating its effects;
  • displacement costs - activity becoming skewed towards what is inspected;
  • innovation costs - compliance making institutions more conservative and risk-averse;
  • morale costs - the impact of being checked up on and the workload involved (see Davis et al, 2001 and 2008 on the nature and impact of public service inspection).

Underlying assumptions

4.  The English inspection model, which is influential throughout the world, rests on three assumptions:

  • that external inspection against a published framework provides an independent measure of institutional effectiveness;
  • that this institutional effectiveness is best explored through what might be described as qualitative investigation drawing on the "informed connoisseurship" of experienced observers;
  • that individual inspection findings can be aggregated to provide a view of system effectiveness.

These assumptions influence the way policy-makers and practitioners think about the inspection process and its outcomes. Each is worthy of further investigation.

5.  As with any regulatory structure, the Ofsted inspection framework is susceptible to gaming: some of the schools rated by Ofsted as 'outstanding' may simply have become adept at negotiating inspection processes.

6.  The focus of Ofsted on school-level accountability measures ignores the fact that within school variation is a greater challenge for system improvement than between school variation. There can be marked variations within outstanding schools.

7.  These features are problematic in themselves. They have become more significant given the increasing use that is being made of Ofsted inspection outcomes as a basis for policy decisions. For example, schools with 'outstanding' Ofsted grades are being regarded as pre-approved for Academy status, and are to be exempt from further inspection unless there is other evidence that their performance has dipped. It is impossible for any system to design in 100% reliability; while the reliability of Ofsted inspections has improved over the past decade, there remains a concern that the inspection process is being asked to bear too great a weight in policy development.

8.  The inspection of individual institutions and local authorities generates only one sort of system knowledge - inductive, localised and judgemental. Work undertaken by Ofsted outside school inspection is more effective in generating the kind of information about system trends and development (e.g. in relation to subjects or phases) that can usefully inform policy.

The impact on schools

9.  There is no doubt that Ofsted inspection has impacted on the behaviour of schools and local authorities in a number of respects. In effect, inspection frameworks have served as compliance models that have driven decision-making and managerial action - whether in relation to, for example, assumptions about the relationship between teacher strategies and pupil learning, between school- and extra-school actions, or the ways local authorities have developed local improvement strategies. The power of Ofsted in driving behavioural change in schools should not be under-estimated.

10.  One would not expect regulatory frameworks to reflect up-to-date research knowledge, but where they exert a powerful influence on behaviour they may act as a brake on the adoption of desirable practices. In this sense, inspection both raises the floor and lowers the ceiling. To illustrate: we know from international research (notably Viviane Robinson's 2008 Best Evidence Synthesis on school leadership) that the strongest effect size of head teacher leadership is in promoting and participating in teacher development. However, the current Ofsted framework is patchy in its discussion of professional learning. The Leadership and Management section does not mention professional development at all, only visioning, planning, target setting and monitoring.

11.  We need to understand more clearly how improvement is achieved in practice, the ways in which inspection regimes can contribute to improvement by complementing internal drivers of change, and how effectively inspection regimes interact with each other and with other policy instruments.

12.  There is a research tradition (e.g. MacBeath, 2006) that suggests that self-evaluation is a stronger driver for successful, local change than external inspection. Ofsted recognised the importance of self-evaluation and required schools to complete a self-evaluation form (SEF). However, the SEF itself became subject to compliance processes, meaning that schools needed to provide extensive data for Ofsted, which consumed a considerable amount of senior staff time. In September 2010 the DfE announced that, in order to reduce bureaucracy in schools, schools would no longer be required to complete a SEF. This illustrates the way in which an initiative that is itself a good can become corrupted by compliance approaches.

A contrasting example

13.  An interesting example of a contrasting approach to school inspection is provided by the system employed in the Netherlands.

14.  Dutch schools are inspected annually and an inspection lasts between half a day and one day. Inspectors have responsibility for about 100 primary schools or 40 secondary schools and each school will know its inspectors. There is therefore a continuing relationship between the school and its inspector. The inspection framework includes aspects of the teaching/learning process, the school's results and the school organizational conditions (eg policies and processes). Inspection findings are published. When a Dutch school is deemed to be failing or underperforming, the inspectorate can only take action if the school does not comply with the legal regulations. Whereas action plans are obligatory in England, and follow-up school visits in cases of school underperformance take place regularly, this is not always the case in the Netherlands, as recent research from the Institute suggests (Earley and Chapman, 2010).

Concluding comments

15.  We now have almost two decades worth of experience of the impact of regular inspection on the school system. Over that period, and parallel to it, schools have become more self-confident about their autonomy and more expert in their own local management. In reflecting on that experience we would make the following observations about priorities for the future:

  • inspection needs to take more account of context and local priorities, though must at the same time avoid becoming patchy and idiosyncratic, especially given the current government's proposals in relation to the structure of the school system;
  • inspection regimes need to do more to discourage conformity and acknowledge appropriate risk-taking;
  • policy-makers need to achieve a greater balance between the demand for 'early wins' and the pressure for long-term, 'transformational' change, and between spending on external inspection and investment in new capacity building;
  • inspectorates should focus their efforts on those most in need of improvement, but they should not ignore the importance of intra-institutional variation;
  • inspection regimes must address the accusation that external inspection tends to focus on style over substance; and
  • in order to promote an outcomes focus there is a need to develop more rigorous performance measures at both local and national level.

Prepared by Professor Chris Husbands, with contributions from Professors Louise Stoll, Peter Earley and Denis Mongon.

October 2010


Davis, H and Martin, S (eds) (2008) Public Services Inspection in the UK, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Davis, H, Downe, J and Martin, S (2001) The Impact of External Inspection on Local Government - Delivering Improvement or Drowning in Detail?, London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Earley, P and Chapman, C (2010) School Inspection/External School Evaluation International Encyclopedia of Education, vol. 3, 719-725.

MacBeath, J (2006) School Inspection and Self-evaluation: Working with the New Relationship, London: Routledge Falmer.

Robinson, V. (2008) School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why (New Zealand, Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration [BES]).

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Prepared 17 April 2011