One of four in the series Propositions for a Labour Government 2023/24

The current situation

Formal accountability is essential in our school system, not only to support the raising of standards  and to provide information to parents but also to protect those young people in schools that are failing to provide a satisfactory education.  In some schools right up to the 1990s expectations and aspirations were unacceptably low and the introduction of regular OFSTED inspections has contributed to improvement across the school system.  However the current model, having served this function, now urgently needs reform.

All schools, virtually without exception, are pre-occupied with when their next inspection will come. Headteachers who are  expecting an inspection will quite openly tell you that they worry every week about receiving ‘the phone call’ and when it has not come by Wednesday they breathe a sigh of relief and tell their staff that they are ‘safe’, for another week. This climate of fear, acknowledged by HMCI, frequently prevents longer term planning, distorts behaviours  and undoubtedly creates significant and unnecessary stress.

It is simply not possible to make reliable judgements about a school in one or two days, nor is it possible to judge accurately or draw reliable conclusions about the quality of teaching and learning via short drop-ins to lessons. ‘Deep dives’ are particularly problematic as they are aften not conducted by suitably qualified specialists. They are actually a misnomer and frequently superficial.

Evaluating the quality of teaching should not, involve looking for particular teaching methods and then gauging their effectiveness in terms of promoting learning and should not be carried out by a non-specialist nor indeed an inspector who has not taught or held a senior position in a school in the same sector.

During the years since Ofsted was first introduced monitoring and evaluation in schools has developed beyond recognition. In the vast majority of schools and trusts, leaders have detailed understanding of the quality of teaching and the relative strengths and weaknesses of their staff and have strong systems in place to provide appropriate leadership , support and challenge. Lessons are routinely visited by senior and middle leaders. In many cases therefore they possess a far more accurate understanding than a ‘snapshot’ inspection can possibly achieve.

Reducing the inspection of a school to a single grade, especially when 80%+ have the same grade does not address the diverse nature of our schools – they are much more complex than a four-fold categorisation. However under the current system the grade a school is awarded has huge implications.  It is crucial to how a school is perceived, locally and nationally, and in particular it impacts on each school’s relationship with its community. How do parents view a school’s report which uses the pernicious phrase ‘this is not a good school’? Many, many Headteachers and teachers who run and work in excellent schools feel that their career has been a failure if they do not achieve an ‘Outstanding’.

Because of the complex mix of reality and value judgments involved, an inspection team can never claim that their interpretation of a school is the definitive one.  In addition, especially bearing in mind the significance of the grade, it is important to remember that it is extremely difficult to attain consistency in the judgements made by inspectors.

Furthermore the focus on final grades has supported a very narrow view of what an ‘outstanding’  school is, such that grammar schools and schools in more affluent communities are much more likely to be awarded this grade. Why should the achievement of a school that is highly inclusive and has SEN of the highest order not be recognized as outstanding – in the normally accepted meaning of the word? And why should a secondary school’s level of entries for EBACC be a limiting judgement?

Whereas it could be argued that OFSTED inspections did initially drive improvement, the extent to which school priorities  are now determined by OFSTED has become a problem. Too much of what schools do is designed to tick an OFSTED box and there is a widely held view that the independence of HMI has been undermined through making OFSTED’s priorities synonymous with Government political objectives.


A way forward

In 1992 Ofsted was set up to assess the quality of education in each school partly to inform parents and other stake-holders. It was not established primarily or directly to improve schools or the system generally. It aimed to provide impartial,independent, professionally subjective judgments to assist leaders, governors, teachers and LA officers in evaluating their policies and provision so as to help determine priorities for development. It was for schools to consider the inspection findings and recommendations. Any reform of the current system should recognise the value of the more limited purposes set out in the original legislation and the important, but forgotten, requirement also to hold government to account for the impact of their policies.

On Labour’s coming into government there are aspects of policy with regard to the role of OFSTED that will need time for planning and consultation but there are also changes that could be implemented immediately. Almost certainly the greatest impact on schools would be a  decision to cease giving summative OFSTED grades and move to a system based on identifying each school’s strengths and areas for improvement.  Using words such as Report Card or Scoresheet may not be helpful. Why not simply an Inspection Summary? This could be comprised of the following sections:-

Inspection Summary

    • What is this school doing well?
    • What does this school need to improve before its next inspection?
    • What does this school need to improve in the short term that would require external intervention/support, monitored by Ofsted.

Other early actions might include –

    • the requirement for multi-Academy Trusts to be inspected focusing on how well they know, support and challenge their schools and their impact,
    • the restoration of the independence of HMI from government,
    • a possible 2-5 year moratorium on whole-school inspections as this would help to mitigate, even perhaps largely remove, the fear-ridden negative mind-set that is inhibiting much-needed reform. During this period OFSTED could conduct sharply focused surveys of the kind formerly undertaken by HMIs providing a much stronger evidence base across a larger sample than current surveys do,
    • ensuring that all inspections are carried out by an inspector who has extensive experience of that sector or subject area.

If these measures were implemented on Labour’s coming into Government a powerful message would be heard by schools, and it would then be possible to initiate a more comprehensive review, in partnership with all stakeholders, to create an inspection system that supports schools in providing an excellent education for all their pupils.

Finally the teaching profession does need to be held accountable but in a way which embodies a duty of care in a climate of trust and which preserves both accountability and humanity. Any successor to Ofsted needs to consider what that duty of care involves and to monitor how far it characterises all inspection activities and pronouncements.


Sir Alasdair Macdonald’s article is one of four papers together published by the New Visions for Education Group as “Propositions For The Next Labour Government”