Ofsted: notoriously unreliable

Ofsted judgments have never been trustworthy. There have been problems from the start. It should come as no surprise that none of the 46 schools wearing an Outstanding label which were inspected this January retained that label: 37 became Good, 8 Requires Improvement and 1 Inadequate.

Many had flown the Outstanding banner for years without review and were only re-inspected because of pressure from outside. The National Audit Office in 2018 discovered that 1620 schools had not been inspected for six or more years, and 296 of them had flown the Outstanding banner for over 10 years without reinspection. The most recent Chief Inspector’s report admits that 17% of schools badged Outstanding had not had a full inspection in the last 10 academic years.


This is not, of course, an attack on teachers who are genuinely excellent, but there are also many outstanding teachers in wonderful schools in more challenging areas – schools which Ofsted stigmatises. Ofsted inspections and labels simply provide misleading information to teachers and parents.

Ofsted carefully maintain the illusion of infallibility. There have been hundreds of complaints from schools (5% of all inspections) but Ofsted has not changed a single grade in three years. A survey by the National Audit Office showed that most dissatisfied heads didn’t bother to complain because they didn’t trust the process.

In truth however, Ofsted headquarters have never trusted its inspectors’ competence to base judgments on what they actually see in the school. From the start of Ofsted, their judgments have been checked against test data; in case of doubt, the data rules.

Ofsted was initially set up as a privatised organisation on a contracting out basis. Responsibility for individual inspections was contracted to hundreds of different companies, who in turn sub-contracted to thousands of individual inspectors for a duration of 2-5 days. Because there was no sick pay, holiday pay, pensions or employment rights, the quality of inspectors was extremely variable. The contracting process was eventually concentrated into three main regional contractors CfBT, Serco and Tribal, who employed individual inspectors directly as Additional Inspectors. In 2012 Ofsted was forced to admit it had carried out no checks on their suitability.

Finally in 2015 Ofsted brought everything in-house. 2800 of the 3000 Additional Inspectors applied to work directly for Ofsted but 1200 were rejected as inadequate. Ofsted however has made no attempt to review these inadequate inspectors’ judgments. Indeed, its spokesperson declared: “We stand by the inspections that we have done in the last few years.”

There is no reason to think Ofsted inspectors are any more reliable now. One problem is the very high turnover (19% each year). The National Audit Office study found high levels of dissatisfaction among inspectors, with comments such as “more about checking compliance and less about improvement and follow-up work.” They also found that these Additional Inspectors were in schools for an average of only nine days a year – far too little to develop consistency. Whatever Ofsted’s claims to be turning a new leaf, it is almost inevitable that grades will be based primarily on test and exam data studied before they cross the threshold.

Now Ofsted inspectors are rushing round all secondary schools which have scored low on Progress 8 to downgrade on previous judgments. This is despite ample evidence that Progress 8 is unreliable, and particularly for schools with large numbers of ‘white British’ pupils growing up in poverty. Inspectors seem incapable of recognising the multiple challenges of young people growing up in de-industrialised northern cities or decaying coastal towns.

On the other hand, schools in more privileged situations are highly favoured by Ofsted, and particularly for secondary schools. Ofsted divide schools into five equal bands according to free school meals entitlement. According to Ofsted’s own data, obtained by one headteacher, 55% of those with the least deprived population were given Outstanding, compared with 16% of those in the most deprived. When schools were regrouped to identify levels of disadvantage among ‘white British’ pupils, 58% of the least deprived got Outstanding but only 4% of the most deprived fifth of schools – a ratio of 15 to 1.

As Blackpool headteacher Stephen Tierney rightly points out: Your intake dictates your Ofsted outcome. Ofsted are damaging schools who are already most fragile, serving the most disadvantaged communities.

In parts of England which are still selective, the secondary modern schools do far worse than grammar schools. For example, they are ten times as likely to get Requires Improvement. (This is better than 2013, when they were 30 times as likely!) Grammar schools are almost invariably given Outstanding – 83% of those inspected in 2017.

The conclusion reached by York headteacher Trevor Burton some years back still holds: If you want an Outstanding, choose the right pupils.

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