Ofsted: a briefing paper

by T Wrigley


School inspection in England dates back to 1839, but changed fundamentally when Ofsted was established in 1991. The Government decided to inspect schools every four years, and, to increase capacity at minimal cost, inspection was privatised, i.e. handed over to contractors who hired inspectors by the day. This has been a recipe for unreliability, given the variable quality / experience and limited training of the new inspectors.

Her Majesty’s Inspectors (pre-Ofsted) had the respect of schools for their experience and insight. However the Conservative government regarded them (along with LEA advisors / inspectors and teacher education lecturers) as soft-hearted progressives. HMI had been preparing LEA advisers to share the inspection role, but the Government suddenly changed policy and set up Ofsted instead. The new system would be hard-hitting – reports published in newspapers, schools placed in “special measures” (commonly referred to as “failing schools”), graded lessons. This helped generate market competition between schools, making winners and losers, and within 10 years struggling schools were being privatised as academies.

The punitive style was exacerbated with the appointment of Chris Woodhead as Chief Inspector (1994-2000), who notoriously claimed (without evidence) that 15,000 teachers were incompetent. Tim Brighouse [1] spoke of Woodhead’s “reign of terror”. Although his successors have varied in their style and some have tried to reform Ofsted, it remains a source of fear and mistrust. The latest Michael Wilshaw claims “We have tolerated mediocrity for too long”.

Ofsted’s powers now extend to nurseries, childminders, FE, teacher training and child protection.


There have long been complaints that schools in poorer urban areas were much more likely to be placed in Special Measures. [2] The Social Exclusion Unit found that secondary schools in poor neighbourhoods were five times as likely to be in special measures. Recent research [3] shows that secondary school grades reflect not progress but prior attainment of the intake.

This is partly because Ofsted’s quality controls depend on statistical plausibility rather than truth; even before the report reaches Ofsted, the contractor’s Reader check for apparent inconsistency[4]. This makes it awkward for inspectors to give good grades to teaching in low-attaining neighbourhoods, or poor grades in lacklustre grammar schools whose pupils still manage high GCSE grades.

From the start, the pressures on teams to reach firm conclusions on multiple criteria by day 4 of an inspection were extreme, and some lessons were graded after only 20-30 minutes. This was made worse by the so-called ‘light touch’ inspections introduced in 2005, with schools judged outstanding or failing after only a 2-day visit by 2 inspectors (primary) or 3-4 inspectors (secondary) – about a fifth as much inspector/time as previously. This has resulted in such ridiculous comments as “I couldn’t see SEN pupils making progress during that 20 minutes”.

Ofsted has a history of disastrous mistakes, including its failure to identify serious child protection failings [5]. The school at the heart of the Trojan Horse issue had been judged outstanding to facilitate academy conversion!

There is no external right of appeal, despite the heavy consequences.

Making policy

Ofsted are supposed to be politically independent, yet repeatedly shape policy and practice.

  1. A report on reading in inner London was tampered with to make it more critical [6]
  2. It pressured teachers to adopt the “3-part lesson” regardless of subject or purpose. [7]
  3. The overwhelming focus on literacy and numeracy (primary) has increased curriculum imbalance[8].
  4. Wilshaw’s recent invective against mixed-ability teaching [9]

Impact on teaching

Such examples, often based on prejudice and with scant evidence from research, illustrate Ofsted’s impact on teaching. This is exacerbated because headteachers, fearful of Ofsted, attempt to second-guess what it favours; they employ consultants to promote “what Ofsted wants to see”, and engage in ‘mocksted’ observations based on flawed criteria and understanding[10].

This second-guessing can be seriously misleading, and pull teachers in opposite directions. The system leads them to play safe, favouring “chalk-and-talk” methods, yet in November 2011 Ofsted’s Annual Report pointed out that outstanding teaching was interactive, dialogic, problem-solving. Wilshaw has since devoted considerable effort to arguing that no teaching method is better than any other – in which case, Ofsted is confusing and unhelpful.

Thematic HMI reports on particular subjects complain of the ‘narrowing of teaching approaches’ and ‘play-safe lack of practical approaches’ yet standard Ofsted inspections fail to spot this.


There is a clear alternative to regular external inspections: school self-evaluation. A rich set of methods has been collected by John Macbeath and colleagues from across Europe to help students, teachers and parents articulate the quality of their experience[12]. The criteria were based on extensive discussions with teachers, students and parents. To avoid complacency or denial, schools use an experienced teacher from another school as a ‘critical friend’. The NUT has supported this Schools Speak for Themselves approach since 1995. This process would not need an army of inspectors, but support from local authorities and HMI.

This was eventually recognised by Labour minister David Milliband who promised a ‘new relationship’ (2004). What resulted, unfortunately was a parody of school self-evaluation, namely headteachers completing forms which themselves became the object of Ofsted inspection. Instead of being critical friends, School Improvement Partners became a further threat.

Beyond reform

Several attempts have been made to moderate the Ofsted regime, but it is clearly beyond reform. The history of fear make it a toxic brand, which produces knee-jerk responses and play-safe teaching rather than intelligent and creative development.

Those who claim that quality would fall without Ofsted should consider the benefits from strengthening local democratic accountability. There were massive improvements pre-Ofsted in terms of numbers passing qualifications at 16 and 18 and going to university. If Ofsted has been so effective, why are 1 in 3 secondary schools receiving negative grades? Finland, notably, has no external inspection but a system of discrete and respectful collegial support.


[1] Chapter in C Cullingford ed 1997 p106

[2] SEU (1998) Bringing Britain Together: A National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal.

[3] http://jtbeducation.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/whats-the-easiest-way-to-a-secondary-ofsted-outstanding/

[4] see M Waters (2013) Thinking Allowed, p127

[5] The Baby P case, Haringey, 2007

[6] Reported by former HMI Colin Richards, see Bangs, Macbeath and Galton 2011, p6

[7] Ofsted (2002) The curriculum in successful primary schools, p19

[8] see Robin Alexander (2010) Children, their world, their education [Cambridge Primary Review] p215 etc for evidence that a broad curriculum strengthens these key skills

[9] http://theyweewords.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/the-old-mixed-abilitysetting-debate.html

[10] Mick Waters (2013, p133) refers to ‘Ofsted tweeting’: if an inspector refers favourably to the use of 3D replicas to bring learning alive, within no time everybody is using them!

[11] Waters (2013), p109 and 133).

[12] Macbeath (1999) Schools must speak for themselves, and (2000, with Schratz, Meuret and Jakobsen) Self-evaluation in European schools.

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