Ofsted no longer fit for purpose and requires ‘transformational change’


11th December 2023

A new report published by the Beyond Ofsted Inquiry has deemed Ofsted as not fit for purpose and as having a detrimental impact on schools, which some perceive as toxic.

Last week, the coroner verdict into headteacher Ruth Perry’s death in March 2023 recorded a verdict of “suicide: contributed to by an Ofsted inspection carried out in November 2022.” Mrs Heidi Connor, Senior Coroner for Berkshire stated in her concluding remarks that: “The evidence is clear in this respect, and I find that Ruth’s mental health deterioration and death was likely contributed to by the Ofsted inspection”. Ms Perry took her own life following the publication of an Ofsted report which downgraded Caversham Primary School in Berkshire from “Outstanding” to “Inadequate”.

Her death was described by many as a watershed moment and highlighted the pressure that Ofsted inspections inflict on schools and triggered the Beyond Ofsted Inquiry, which has published its report in November 2023.

In the opening line of the report, the chair of the inquiry, the Rt Hon Lord Knight of Weymouth, makes it plain:

The evidence is clear. Ofsted has lost the trust of the teaching profession, and increasingly of parents. There is now an opportunity for transformational change.

The report found that Ofsted’s approach negatively impacts on the health and wellbeing of staff and therefore impacts teacher retention. Teachers’ working practices were heavily influenced by Ofsted inspections, with teachers working 50-57 hours a week on preparation meetings and data-focused tasks which reportedly triggers extreme emotional stress in staff. The report also found   that increased accountability to parents and the wider community is required. Ofsted enforces a culture whereby schools change their behaviour to fit the system, in order to operate according to ‘what Ofsted wants’. Therefore, the report stresses that a new system based on support and developing teacher expertise, rather than one based on fear and compliance, is needed. Unsurprisingly, the most popular reform was the removal of labelling and grading of schools associated with Ofsted and for support to be given for the school to achieve the changes recommended by the inspection.

The report has outlined recommendations which will reform the system for school improvement and aims to restore trust in the profession.

In summary, the inquiry’s recommendations are as follows:

Self-evaluations

  • Schools should conduct their own self-evaluations of their strengths and challenges, known as a “school performance reviews” (SPRs), and formulate an action plan for improvement. The government should work closely with the whole sector to produce guidance on what information the SPR should contain, such as mandatory and optional sections. However, schools can add or adapt the SPR according to the circumstances. The SPR will then be circulated to stakeholders.
  • The report states that “the SPR should prioritise pupil and staff mental health and wellbeing, a broad and balanced curriculum, inclusive and supportive practices, and a sense of belonging, i.e. the school’s environment where all can flourish personally and academically”.
  • There are no grades on the SPR and will not form part of school accountability to the DfE or Ofsted.

School Improvement Partners

  • Schools should also work alongside an external “school improvement partner” (SIP), who is experienced in school leadership and improvement e.g. a serving head teacher, to validate and deliver the SPR’s action plan.
  • Lord Knight states that “there is good evidence that a long-term relationship with an external partner of improvement builds trust and drives improvement. It allows that person to get to know the school’s unique context and advise accordingly”.
  • Schools in a trust may have a SIP appointed to them by the trust, otherwise the SIP will be provided by the school’s governing body. However, the Inquiry have advised that local authorities may require additional funding in order to increase their capacity to allow for this.

Annual Safeguarding Audits

  • Annual safeguarding audits should be conducted by a separate body, overseen by a national safeguarding body. However, when deemed ready by the national safeguarding body, the school’s local authority will undertake these visits.

The inquiry explains that “it will eventually be the responsibility of LAs but, given that LA safeguarding competence has been allowed to erode due to lack of resourcing over the last decade, the national safeguarding body would have to carry out the routine inspections until LAs are deemed ready”.

The role of inspectors

  • Inspectors’ roles should change to focus on the “governance of, and capacity for, school improvement and respond to any challenges faced”. This includes challenges arising from the relationship between schools and their respective SIPs. In addition, inspectors should not routinely scrutinise teaching practices and pupil outcomes. Furthermore, inspections of schools in multi-academy trusts will focus on the trust’s capacity and approach to evaluating their schools’ SPRs.
  • The report explains that inspectors should also ‘develop and maintain appropriate training and expertise in the area of school improvement, to be able to build the capacity of the school leadership team. This must include understanding the context of the school, including relevant expertise for specialist settings such as special schools and alternative provision. It must also include a thorough understanding of good school governance”.
  • The inspectorate should be fully independent of government to enable it to hold the Government, its policies and the effects of its policies, to account.

However, the existing right of parents to trigger an inspection if concerns are raised would remain. Under Section 11A of the Education Act 2005, Ofsted can investigate qualifying complaints about schools. Where an inspection is carried out as a result of issues raised in a qualifying complaint, the inspector will inform the school of this as well as the wider issues raised by the complaint. The inspector will explain that the inspection will focus on the whole-school issues raised by the complaint and will not investigate the complaint itself. As a result of these fundamental changes, the inquiry recommends an immediate pause of routine inspections to allow time to reset and restore the trust of the profession.

At Blake Morgan we have developed significant expertise in advising clients about how to respond to criticisms in the wake of Ofsted inspections and/or pursue their complaints processes. If you have any queries relating to an Ofsted inspection then please contact Trish D’Souza, Legal Director in our Education team.

This article was co-written by Charles Collar, Trish D’Souza and Eve Piffaretti.

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