From education to employment

Amanda Spielman at the Bryanston Education Summit

Amanda Spielman

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector discusses the future of school inspections, how we use data and ongoing work on a new education inspection framework:

Thank you for inviting me here today.

My speech has been billed as “Developments in Education and Inspection”. A rather broad title, which quite possibly reflects the fact that I hadn’t settled on the topic by the time your programme went to press, and I wanted to keep my options open. Sometimes, genericism does have its advantages.

In fact the choice of topic turns out to be rather apt, given recent developments. Some of you will have seen the NAO [National Audit Office] report on the value for money of our school inspections, published last month. That follows a number of welcome interventions clarifying the role of different actors in the accountability and school improvement landscape. And of course we are currently developing our new Education Inspection Framework which we will be using from September 2019 and which we will be consulting on from January.

All of which means that now is the right time for us to consider not just how we carry out our inspections, but also to ask the more fundamental questions of what school inspection is and who it is for.


It’s easy to forget that the Ofsted of today is a very different organisation to the inspectorate that existed just 15 years ago.

Teachers who have qualified in recent years would hardly recognise the Ofsted model of old. Inspections involved a large team of inspectors who would visit schools for a week. Inspection teams would have within them a wide range of subject expertise, allowing us to comment on individual subjects typically in reports of 50 pages or more.

All this changed in 2005, with a reduction in inspection tariffs – both the number of inspectors deployed and the number of days they spent in schools. The focus of inspection shifted from inspectors’ direct observations of educational quality and practice to a discussion of the leadership team’s own evaluation of the state of the school. This evaluation was then triangulated with external data, and with a sample of lesson observations and staff discussions. To consider quite how dramatic that change has been, it is worth remembering that most primary school inspections are now just a one-day visit by a single inspector.

That change means that we can only provide a relatively thin level of assurance. It places a premium on us taking real care about what we include on inspection when we are in schools. For instance, we can no longer make an assessment of the quality of provision in any individual subject. Instead, short inspections are driven by key lines of enquiry. This focus on key lines of inquiry necessarily means that on different inspections, inspectors will look at different things and ask different questions, depending on the apparent strengths and weaknesses of the school they are at. This has I believe driven some of the complaints I hear about inconsistent practice by inspectors. It also means that we cannot provide a comprehensive report on the quality of all aspects of a school.

I don’t kid myself that there are hordes of teachers crying out for a return to week-long inspections, but there are downsides for schools of a narrower approach. For a start, schools inevitably have to do a certain amount of recording and collating of information, so as to have it on hand to present to inspectors, as part of the basis for the inspection conversation. The rationale for this model is hard to disagree with – it represents trust in school leaders to tell their own story, rather than building it entirely through direct observation.

But as others have pointed out, the inevitable consequence is some level of school workload. Originally this manifested itself in the monster of the standard self-evaluation form, now happily consigned to history. But even with our absolute clarity that we impose no specific requirements for how or what schools need to present, the act of collation inevitably represents workload. But this is no different to any other kind of audit, all organisations are audited in one way or other, and this does always involve some level of workload.

Another change in the nature of inspection came out clearly from the feedback from a series of focus groups I commissioned recently with teachers and school leaders across the country.

What came out of these sessions was the fact that not only were school leaders largely positive about the current form of the inspection experience (don’t act so surprised), they actively liked the two-way communication with inspectors – the professional dialogue. The reports themselves then act as an improvement blueprint for their school.

But classroom teachers were more negative. As you might expect, teachers pointed to the workload and pressure of inspections, particularly their experiences of school leaders applying excessive pressure to be ‘inspection ready’.

But what struck me most were the comments about how the change in our inspection model limited teachers’ exposure to the process. They felt inspection was something done to them, rather than with them. As inspection has become a leadership framed conversation there is now much less dialogue between classroom teachers and inspectors. The only teacher-inspector interaction takes place through a sample of lesson observations, which are not themselves about assessing the quality of the individual teachers – as I said, one of the trade-offs of moving to slimmed down inspection teams is a reduction in subject specialism. Teachers told us that they feel the loss of feedback, dialogue and professional development.

I do not believe that there is the appetite or resource to go back to the inspection model of the past, but as we develop the new inspection framework, I want to look at what scope we have to rebalance the time available in the inspection. I want to make sure as much inspection resource as possible is on site engaging with leaders and teachers, having those professional conversations, not just polishing written reports.

Inspection reports

The NAO also rightly highlighted the importance of our reports to parents. Parents are arguably our most important audience. Not to mention that as taxpayers they are the people to whom we are ultimately accountable. Research from Sussex University highlights just how important our inspections are to parents. It shows that when a school improves by one grade, house prices rise by 0.5% and the reverse is also true. Interestingly, the same effect doesn’t apply to the movement in exam results. Now, we can debate whether house price increases are a good or a bad thing, but what it does show is that parents take our reports seriously and we owe it to them to provide the information they need.

That means remembering that what parents want from inspection isn’t always the same as what the sector wants. Indeed, sometimes the different demands of the two groups can be in tension. As I wrote in a recent TES piece, the ideal inspection for parents would include a greater focus on behaviour, almost certainly have no notice, and offer much more TripAdvisor-style opportunities for them to comment.

But the biggest bugbear for parents that came out of our focus groups was out of date inspection reports, which generally means exempt outstanding schools that have not been inspected for some years. Many of you will have seen that we have set out our view that the time has come to revisit the outstanding exemption, and we are engaged in a constructive dialogue with the Department [for Education] on this point.

Holding schools and leaders to account

Finally, the government needs to use our reports to hold schools and leaders to account. A common myth is that it is Ofsted that holds schools to account. We don’t. Our job is to provide the information for responsible bodies, who may be governing bodies, MATs [multi-academy trusts] or local authorities. We also provide and for others to whom accountability flows indirectly, such as RSCs [regional school commissioners] for academies so that they can take action when needed to support and challenge schools and leaders. It is a happy fact that in recent years we have been able to deliver a positive message about rising standards, a credit to the hard work of heads, teachers and other professionals across the country.

I should say at this point I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to clarifying the role of the RSCs and in particular his firm insistence that inspection should only be carried out by Ofsted as the experts in inspection. We look forward to playing our part in helping to put new proposals into practice – including supporting those schools who are not failing but are maybe in need of extra support.

So a lot is asked of inspection; it has a number of audiences to satisfy. Balancing the needs of these audiences is at the front of our minds as we build the new framework.

Before I talk about some of the principles guiding the new framework, a quick reminder. We can’t get away from the fact, that while we are independent, we cannot build a framework that is out of line with government education policy, or which doesn’t give government the information it needs to take action.

The 2019 framework is very much in development and we will be saying more about our proposals in the coming months. Today, I am going to spend some time discussing 3 principles that have informed the development work to date.

Inspection: more than giving schools a grade

First, I want to talk about the ways in which inspection is about much more than giving schools a grade. Given that 90% of our schools are rated good or outstanding, if giving schools a grade were our sole job, you might ask what is the point in Ofsted? Just putting a grade on a school wouldn’t serve any of our audiences well. Instead, the grade a school receives should always be the culmination of other, arguably more important activities.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most important parts of inspection is the professional dialogue between the school and our inspectors. Until I started the job I didn’t realise quite how valuable school leaders found that conversation. Many leaders have told me that the opportunity to discuss their school’s strengths and weakness with inspectors really is like high quality CPD. This is part of the reason why I want to maximise the time inspectors spend on site.

Inspection should provide a clear assessment of the main strengths and weaknesses of an institution, with a particular focus on capacity. What the bodies responsible for schools need to know is whether weaker institutions have that capacity to improve, what good schools need to do to get even better, and what can others learn from our very best schools.

I want inspection reports to say more about what is distinctive about a school, above and beyond what appears in performance tables. This has come out strongly from our parent focus groups. Enabling proper parental choice means telling them more about what life will be like for their child in a school.

Using data appropriately

A second key principle is that inspection should always use data appropriately. In particular, inspection and performance tables should complement rather than intensify one another.

I have recently been reading “The Tyranny of Metrics” by Jerry Muller. And while I don’t agree with every line of argument, he delivers a powerful critique of a dependence on data at all costs – and especially in public services such as schools and medicine. He warns throughout about the dangers of neglecting human judgement. What I found most interesting was his discussion of Campbell’s Law as it applies to education. For those of you who don’t already know it, Campbell’s Law is the idea that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”.

As John Patten, the education secretary who oversaw Ofsted’s establishment wrote to me on our 25th anniversary, Ofsted and performance tables were deliberately introduced at the same time, to complement and balance each other. Each have good consequences, but also some unintended effects.

So inspection properly conceived should help mitigate the understandable pressures of Campbell’s Law. To ensure that how schools achieve their results is considered as well as the outcomes themselves. I’d like inspection to ensure there is no reward for gaming.

And making sure that data is used well will, I believe, help to drive down teacher workload. Muller’s book describes his own experience, as a university leader, of the workload pressures created by data collection. Schools are no different. Not least as schools have been increasingly expected to break pupil data down by ever smaller groups to analyse performance. Let me be clear again, we do not expect to see 6 week tracking of pupil progress and vast elaborate spreadsheets. What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t! These conversations are much more constructive than inventing byzantine number systems which, let’s be honest, can often be meaningless.

We’re already playing our part. As a first step we’ve simplified the data dashboard our inspectors use, to make sure they’re only focusing on the key data that really matters.

Nor do I believe there is merit in trying to look at every individual sub-group of pupils at the school level. It is very important that we monitor the progress of under-performing pupil groups. But often this is best done at a national level, or possibly even a MAT or local authority level, where meaningful trends may be identifiable, rather than at school level where apparent differences are often likely to be statistical noise.

Wider societal issues

And onto my third principle. I am certain that in building the new framework we should be wary of inspection becoming the vehicle for every type of worthy societal change. There are a great many pressing public policy concerns affecting young people. Many undoubtedly require government intervention and multifaceted solutions. But they cannot all fall to schools, and they are often unsuitable for measuring through inspection.

I almost choked on my metaphorical cornflakes when I read the suggestion that inspectors should start taking account of children’s weight in judging schools. Visions of inspectors wandering around with portable weighing scales are not particularly appealing.

There is no doubt that childhood obesity is a serious public health challenge that we need to address. But obesity is a complex societal issue that requires more than a blunt response. And that’s why over the last few terms, we have carried out research to understand whether schools are having an impact on levels of childhood obesity, and if there is any good practice out there that other schools can learn from. The report that we will be publishing shortly shows that societal influences on children can outweigh what they learn at school about staying fit and healthy.

Overall, it says there is limited evidence that school programmes or activities are translating into different pupil behaviours, choices or attitudes. That is not to say at all that schools shouldn’t be encouraging healthy lifestyles and offering high quality PE as part of a rich curriculum: we will always expect schools to be doing that. But when it comes to the obesity challenge more widely, families, industry, government and other parts of the public sector all have a role in making food and drink healthier and supporting children to make better choices.

I use obesity to illustrate the point, but there are countless other examples of where schools are expected to address every one of society’s ills and inspection is supposed to be the tool to ensure they do it. Some of you will have seen Gabriel Milland’s amusing piece in the Times about the list of things he was asked to include in the curriculum during his time at the DfE, from Norse mythology to gardening. The problem is, every time we add a new focus to the inspection framework it detracts from what is there already. Ensuring that young people receive a good quality education, are kept safe and are developing as active citizens is hard enough in a couple of days, before extra requirements are added.

That is not to say that I don’t believe inspection has any role to play in looking at these issues. But many of them are much more suited to our research reports. These survey reports look at practice in a selection of schools and we have addressed a range of issues. For example, we have recently commissioned a report looking at schools’ approaches to tackling knife crime. We know these reports often have much greater impact in sharing best practice and making recommendations for the future than any individual, routine inspection.

To summarise, I have talked about 3 of the key things we are considering in developing the new framework. First, that inspection should be more than just a grade sticker. Secondly, that inspection should complement not intensify the focus that measured outcomes. And thirdly, inspection should not become a catch-all for every societal ill.

All of these principles are underpinned by our commitment that Ofsted should be a force for improvement in all it does. I look forward to carrying on working with you and the rest of the school and college sector on developing the new framework to meet that goal.

Amanda Spielman

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