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Ofsted and Govt must rebuild trust and make major changes to school inspections, Education Committee says

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A review of Ofsted’s single-word judgements is among a series of recommendations that the Education Committee has issued to the inspectorate and the Government in a new report. 

The report reflects that whilst there is widespread agreement on the importance of an accountability system and the role of an independent inspectorate, there are concerns around stress and anxiety experienced by school staff due to the high-stakes nature of Ofsted’s inspections. The report highlights the policy of compulsory academy orders, criticisms of how inspections are carried out and reported, the workload they generate, and the complaints system. 

The cross-party Committee’s long-running inquiry on the role of Ofsted in schools finished just weeks after the conclusion of the inquest into the death of primary school headteacher Ruth Perry, and Sir Martyn Oliver becoming the new His Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) of Ofsted earlier this month and leading work on the inspectorate’s response.  

The committee heard that relations between Ofsted and the school sector have become extremely strained and that trust in the inspectorate is worryingly low. The appointment of the new HMCI provides a crucial opportunity to reset and restore trust.

A summary of the report’s main findings and recommendations follows. 

Single-word judgements

The Committee heard a great degree of concern about single-word judgements, including that they can be seen as reductive or simplistic. It recommends that the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted should, as a priority, develop an alternative to the single-word judgements that better captures the complex nature of a school’s performance, and ensure that these changes interact effectively with Department policies. In doing so they should examine alternative systems used inside and outside of the UK. 

Whilst there is recognition that the current regulatory system requires clear thresholds for intervention, as a first step the Committee recommends that Ofsted and DfE’s websites should always show the full list of judgements, not just the overall judgement, and encourage schools to do the same on their websites and published materials.

Academisation following ‘requires improvement’

In conjunction with its recommendation on single-word judgements, MPs say DfE should assess its policy of maintained (council-run) schools which receive two ‘requires improvement’ judgements being required to become academies in the majority of cases. Witnesses said this raises the stakes for headteachers who then fear losing their job. 

As a first step, DfE should ensure its regional directors, who decide academisation orders, genuinely take into account the views of local stakeholders when taking a decision. DfE should also publish guidance setting out in more detail the criteria for academy orders.  

Support for school leaders

The Committee also calls on DfE and Ofsted to review the support mechanisms available to school leaders during and following an inspection, and ensure these are as strong as possible. Ofsted must publish a clear policy, and train inspectors, on their approach to dealing with distress among school leaders during an inspection, and in what cases inspections can and should be paused or deferred.

‘Inadequate’ judgements based on safeguarding

If problems are found in a school’s safeguarding practices, current policy makes it “likely” that an overall ‘inadequate’ judgement will follow. This can even apply in cases where those problems can be fixed within the two-month window before an inspection report is published.  

Ofsted should review this policy and ensure schools only receive ‘inadequate’ judgements where they are fundamentally failing to keep children safe. In cases where safeguarding problems can easily be resolved, DfE should not issue an academy order until after the school has been reinspected. Whilst some welcome steps have been set out in Ofsted’s initial responses to the coroner’s report, the Committee heard widespread support for looking at alternative approaches to safeguarding.

The Committee concludes that DfE should consult on a new approach where routine elements of safeguarding are removed from general inspections and could instead become the subject of more frequent safeguarding audits, either by an independent body or local authorities. Ofsted’s focus should be on how well schools respond to serious safeguarding issues and how effectively children are protected in practice. 

Workload pressures

Evidence from school staff regarding workload said the need to be prepared for Ofsted inspections can feel “crushing” and “relentless”. Witnesses said the current inspection framework also places ongoing stress on schools due to the breadth of issues it includes and its emphasis on subject ‘deep dives’, which is particularly difficult for small primary schools where teachers teach across subjects. 

Ofsted should review the implementation of the new framework, in particular looking at the impact it has had on primary schools, special schools and small schools. It must also undertake a programme of research to fully understand the causes of inspection-related workload pressure and assess what changes could genuinely help reduce this. The Committee also makes recommendations on reviewing notice periods, particularly for smaller schools. 

Ofsted ‘marking its own homework’

MPs heard strong criticism of Ofsted’s complaints procedures, some suggesting Ofsted was “marking its own homework”. There was frustration that attempts to appeal against judgements were limited by Ofsted’s policy of not sharing the evidence base it collects during inspection. The Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted was criticised for only being able to look at how the inspectorate has handled a complaint, rather than managing the complaint itself. 

The report recommends that Ofsted should conduct an in-depth review of the complaints process; explore setting up an independent body with powers to investigate judgements through scrutiny of the evidence base; and allow schools access to the evidence used to reach a judgement, with redactions made where required.  

The Committee recommends that in its annual report and accounts, Ofsted should publish more data on complaints and set out improvements made from learning from complaints.

Inspectors’ behaviour and expertise 

MPs heard some sharp criticism of the way school inspections are carried out. Lord Knight told the Committee the process could resemble “a sort of sausage machine”; inspections were often rushed and sometimes carried out by inspectors who lacked experience of the type of school they were visiting. Former inspectors referred to the shortness of inspections leading to a “sampling” approach and a lack of opportunity to engage with teachers. However, Ofsted’s post-inspection surveys found that 96% of respondents felt that inspectors behaved in a professional manner. 

The report recommends that Ofsted should ensure, as a minimum, that a lead inspector has expertise in the type of school they are inspecting, e.g. a primary school or special school. The majority of inspectors visiting a school should also have relevant experience of said school type. After hearing concerns about high turnover of experienced inspectors, Ofsted should commission an independent assessment of the factors affecting retention and take appropriate steps to address the issue. The Committee also recommends that Ofsted publish more of its training materials for inspectors and improve transparency of data on inspections. 

Call for more in-depth inspections and MAT inspection powers

MPs heard broad agreement that inspections are not long enough to give an accurate picture of a school’s performance. The Committee says that, where possible, inspections should be more in-depth and take longer. Acknowledging constraints on Ofsted’s resources, inspections could happen less frequently as an interim measure, taking place every five to six years for ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools, and three to four years for schools judged ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. This should be supported by better use of risk assessment to identify schools in most need of inspection. 

The Committee concludes that DfE must authorise Ofsted to develop a framework for the inspection of MATs as a matter of urgency and set out a plan for building the appropriate expertise and capacity in this area.

Disadvantage not sufficiently taken into account

Ofsted must ensure that inspectors fully take account of factors such as a school’s size, the number of its pupils with SEND, recruitment and retention challenges, and, as a key measure, progress for pupils in receipt of Pupil Premium. This should be clearly set out in inspection reports. 

Regular scrutiny of Ofsted

In the year ahead, the Committee will seek regular updates from Ofsted on how it is responding to the seven areas of concern set out in the coroner’s regulation 28 report regarding the death of Ruth Perry. We expect HMCI to report to this Committee on a six-monthly basis on progress in addressing these significant concerns, and this report’s recommendations.

Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP said:

“Our inquiry looked at the immediate challenges that Sir Martyn Oliver, the new HMCI, will face and the changes that he should seek to implement, after a year of intense scrutiny for the inspectorate.

“Clearly there is a need for a rigorous inspection regime. But the bulk of the evidence we received expressed widespread and deep concern about how the system works. We repeatedly heard that Ofsted has lost the trust of a significant chunk of the teaching profession, and leaders. Current and former inspectors suggested the organisation has become overly defensive in recent years.

“Changes to inspection practice announced by Ofsted last year were welcome, but more action is required – particularly regarding the areas of concern highlighted by the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death. Ofsted must ensure it continues to listen and reform through 2024.

“On the now totemic issue of single-word judgements, Ofsted and ministers should heed the widespread calls for change. We urge the new HMCI and government to consider a more nuanced system that can provide value to both schools and parents, and as a first step we encourage the inspectorate, Department and schools to make more use of the multiple judgements already included in reports.

“We also heard of the sheer pressure that Ofsted inspections can exert on headteachers, some of whom fear losing their jobs due to ramifications of receiving a negative judgement. The Department needs to review policy decisions which add to this ‘high stakes’ perception and ensure there is a clearer support offer for schools in need of improvement.

“Though a relatively rare occurrence, the practice of stamping otherwise well-run schools with an ‘inadequate’ judgement due to safeguarding issues – even when said issues could have been quickly rectified – can have devastating, long-lasting consequences for an entire school community. There have already been some welcome steps to address this but we believe further changes may be needed.

“We are calling on the inspectorate to increase transparency, and on the Government to ensure that Ofsted is given the regulatory support to hold multi-academy trusts to account – a recommendation the Committee has made a number of times already. We also want to see greater transparency and accountability for the regional directors who play such a crucial role in the process of school improvement following inspection.

“This Committee welcomes the approach so far presented by the new HMCI as he embarks on a period of reform for Ofsted, in particular his commitment to listen. This will remain a key focus of our Committee, and we look forward to more regularly scrutinising the progress that the inspectorate makes with restoring the sector’s faith over the next year.”

Sector Response

Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“Labour has long argued for the reform and strengthening of Ofsted so that its inspections give better information for parents and work with teachers to drive improvement in our schools.

“Rebuilding the fractured relationship between schools, families and government will be a key priority for an incoming Labour government as part of our mission to break down barriers to opportunity. 

“Only Labour will drive the high and rising standards parents want to see in our schools and deliver better life chances for our children.”

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“The Committee’s report suggests some important changes but does not grasp the true scale of the problem. Any model of change must begin by understanding the deep crisis that schools are enduring in respect of workload, staffing, attendance and mental health. We don’t see such an understanding reflected in these recommendations. While we recognise the greater transparency they will bring to Ofsted’s work, they fall well short of the reform that we need. They will not significantly relieve the pressure on schools.

“What this report clearly shows is that the relationship between Ofsted and the profession has broken down, and trust is next to non-existent.

“Schools are complex, and single-word judgements are not a sustainable means of assessing them. Replacing them with a more considered statement is important, but, as the work of the Beyond Ofsted commission has shown, dialogue between schools and ‘improvement partners’ is much more likely to yield genuine change. We need Ofsted to be replaced altogether by a system of inspection which is supportive, effective and fair. The inspectorate in its current form is none of these things.”

Tom Middlehurst, Inspection Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The Education Select Committee has identified what the education profession already understands only too well, that inspections can have devastating consequences for school and college leaders.

“We are pleased that the Committee has added their voice to the calls from ASCL and many others for an alternative to single-phrase judgements, which must now be consigned to history once a new system can be agreed upon and effectively implemented. It’s becoming increasingly clear that a more nuanced system can better inform schools and parents, while removing unnecessary pressure on staff. As part of this, it’s important that inspectors fully take into account a school’s circumstances and the unique challenges they face. It is encouraging that the Committee has recognised the need for contextual factors, such as the level of disadvantage in the community, to be taken into account during inspection and reflected in reports. Ensuring that lead inspectors have expertise in the phase of the setting being inspected should also help aid understanding of a school’s individual context.

“The work already carried out by the new HMCI has given grounds for cautious optimism, but this report underlines the scale of the challenge in front of him. There is a great deal that needs to change in order for Ofsted to win back the trust of the profession.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: 

“There is now overwhelming consensus that single-word judgements have had their day and it is positive to see the committee has reached the same conclusion, as well as supporting many of our other recommendations for long-term reform.

“Inspections are placing intolerable strain on school leaders and staff, compounded by the pressure of high stakes single-word grades which too often do not provide a fair reflection of schools or provide useful information for parents.

“While the new chief inspector has demonstrated his willingness to listen and openness to change, it’s vital this is now followed by tangible action and far-reaching reform if Ofsted is to regain the trust of schools.

“In the meantime, we are urging the inspectorate to adopt a model of ungraded inspections. This should be a precursor to a permanent end to single-word judgements, replaced by a more helpful and informative analysis of a school’s strengths and areas for development.”

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary for NASUWT, said:

“The current system of grading schools is not only damaging to the health, wellbeing and morale of teachers and headteachers; it also does nothing to raise educational standards.

“Inspection should contribute to instilling public confidence and assurance, rather than being used as a stick to beat dedicated teachers and headteachers.

“In our latest Big Question Survey, 62% of teachers told us they feel constantly evaluated and judged, and 43% list inspections as a top concern that detracts them from teaching and learning.

“An effective system of inspection should contribute to supporting improvement, not creating a climate of anxiety and fear. We have seen where that can lead and we must never allow inspections to cause harm to teachers or headteachers.

“NASUWT expects real reform to the school inspection system and for the Government to work with the new Chief Inspector of Schools to take up the Education Committee’s recommendations and deliver urgently the changes needed that will benefit the profession, parents and the public.”

Background regarding Ruth Perry inquest and Ofsted’s response to Regulation 28 report

The Committee acknowledges the responses Ofsted and the Department for Education provided (on 19 January) to the Coroner, Dr Heidi Connor’s Regulation 28 Prevention of Future Deaths report. This acknowledgement is not referenced in the report itself as the text was agreed on 16 January.  

Whilst this inquiry was launched after Ruth Perry’s death, this line of work did not examine the circumstances of the case as it was being investigated by the coroner’s court. The Committee did not accept or publish evidence concerning the circumstances of Ruth Perry’s death or refer to the case in our oral evidence sessions. This is due to the sub judice resolution which prevents Parliament from appearing to influence the work of the courts. However, the Committee closely followed the conclusions of the inquest and the coroner’s recommendations are reflected in the report. 

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