Ofsted’s work with schools – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Education Committee

Related inquiry: Ofsted’s work with schools

Date Published: 29 January 2024

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Ofsted was established in 1992 as an independent inspectorate of schools and is now responsible for inspecting and regulating a wide range of education and care settings. The inspectorate has been the subject of intensified public scrutiny and debate over the past year, especially following the tragic death of Ruth Perry, headteacher at Caversham Primary School, who took her own life in January 2023 after the school was downgraded from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’. This inquiry was not set up to look into the specific circumstances surrounding her case, but aimed to take a broader look at the way in which Ofsted inspects schools, and to develop recommendations for the new His Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) to take forward this year. However, we have taken careful note of the issues raised in the coroner’s report and in the public debate more widely, many of which relate to the issues we have heard about in this inquiry. The Committee will want regular updates on how Ofsted respond to the seven areas of concern set out in the coroner’s report and we expect HMCI to report to this Committee on a six-monthly basis on Ofsted’s progress in addressing these significant concerns. We extend our deepest condolences to Ruth Perry’s family, friends and colleagues, and thank all of those who engaged with our inquiry at this difficult time.

There is broad agreement on the importance and value of an independent inspectorate in holding schools accountable and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. However, we heard strong concerns among many about the way in which the system is currently working. We heard that Ofsted has lost trust and credibility among many in the teaching profession and that it is perceived to have become defensive and unwilling to respond to criticism. The appointment of the new HMCI provides a crucial opportunity to reset and restore these relations and doing so should be a key priority for Sir Martyn Oliver in his first year in post.

The inspection process

There is a widespread view that school inspections are not currently carried out in sufficient length or depth to cover the full range of areas of a school’s work. As a result, there is a risk that inspections are not giving an accurate picture of a school’s performance. We accept that the resourcing of inspections is constrained by budget limitations, but think that, in the long term, Ofsted should be funded to carry out more in-depth inspections. In the shorter term, this could be achieved without the need for additional funding by reducing the frequency of inspections for some schools.

The short notice period also appears to be causing operational difficulties for many schools, particularly small schools. While we do not believe that schools should be given several weeks to prepare for inspections, we think there is a case to be made for extending the notice period slightly, to reduce the pressure on school leaders, and let schools know in which term they might anticipate an inspection. Ofsted should also explore ways in which it can improve its engagement with parents, pupils, governors, and trustees before and during the inspection process, to ensure that the voices of all groups are fully heard and taken into account.

We heard some concerning evidence regarding lack of relevant expertise among inspectors, and reports of poor behaviour by some inspectors. There appears to be a particular problem with inspectors lacking relevant experience in primary schools and in specialist education settings. This is exacerbated by high turnover among His Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs). A high-quality inspection regime must ensure that inspectors have sufficient expertise in the phase and subject which they are inspecting. At a minimum, Ofsted must ensure that the lead inspector always has expertise in the relevant type of school and, in larger teams, that a majority of members of the team have the relevant expertise.

Following an inspection

The short and formulaic nature of inspection reports is limiting the extent to which they are useful to schools, and there is mixed evidence that parents find the reports useful despite being their intended audience. Alongside increasing the length and depth of inspections, Ofsted should also increase the length and depth of analysis in inspection reports to ensure that they are a useful tool for both schools and parents.

One of the most strongly criticised aspects of inspection is the single-word overall effectiveness judgement. We heard evidence that this does not capture the full detail of a school’s work, and that it is a key cause of stress and anxiety for teachers and school leaders. While we recognise that the grades are closely linked to many Department policies and that any changes will require broader reform of the system, the extent of the criticism we have heard suggests that change is needed. Ofsted and the Department should work together to develop an alternative to the current single-word grade, looking at other jurisdictions to explore what has worked well outside the English context.

The intervention measures linked to the single-word grades are putting further stress on schools by creating a ‘high-stakes’ system of inspections. In particular, there is an overwhelming fear among headteachers of losing their job following a negative inspection outcome, which has been exacerbated by the extension of academy orders to schools with two consecutive judgements of ‘requires improvement’. While there must be consequences for schools which are performing badly, the Department should assess whether this extension is proportionate, and publish guidance setting out the criteria by which decisions on academy orders are made. The Department and Ofsted should ensure that there is strong support available to school leaders during and following an inspection, and Ofsted must publish a clear policy, and train inspectors, on their approach to dealing with distress among school leaders during an inspection. There must also be a review of the support available to schools to help them improve following a negative inspection judgement, and proper accountability and scrutiny of the work of Regional Directors.

Ofsted’s complaints procedure has come under heavy criticism, with many suggestions that the system amounts to the inspectorate “marking its own homework”. Ofsted’s proposed changes to the process are welcome, but do not go far enough to alleviate the concerns expressed. Ofsted and the Department should explore the option of setting up an independent body with the powers to investigate inspection judgements, and schools must be allowed to gain access to the evidence base used to reach a judgement when making a complaint.

The scope of inspections

We heard broad support for the 2019 Education Inspection Framework’s (EIF) move away from focusing on data, but there appear to be some problems with how the framework has worked in practice. In particular, we heard concerns that it is less suitable for primary schools and small schools, and that it has generated additional workload for schools. Ofsted should review the implementation of the framework in its planned evaluation this year, and work with the Department to undertake a programme of research to fully understand the causes of inspection-related workload pressure. Ofsted must also ensure that inspectors are taking a school’s size and context into account in reports and judgements, to reflect and recognise the challenges faced by schools with high numbers of pupils from disadvantaged groups.

There have been many suggestions that safeguarding should be inspected separately from routine school inspections. Safeguarding is an essential aspect of every school’s work, and we think there is a role for Ofsted in ensuring that schools are identifying and acting on serious safeguarding concerns. However, we agree that there is merit in schools being audited more regularly for compliance with safeguarding procedures and recommend that the Department consult on the best approach to this. We have also heard the concerns about the policy of judging schools ‘inadequate’ solely on safeguarding issues, following the inquest into the death of Ruth Perry, and suggest that Ofsted should review its policy on this and ensure that schools are only being judged ‘inadequate’ in cases where they are fundamentally failing to keep children safe.

There have been repeated calls from this Committee and others for Ofsted to be able to inspect multi-academy trusts, which the Department has so far failed to deliver. Given the significant role that trusts now play in the school system, this must be delivered as a matter of urgency. The Department must authorise Ofsted to develop a framework for the inspection of trusts and ensure that Ofsted is appropriately resourced to develop their expertise in this area.