Open Letter

We are calling for Ofsted to be reformed. 

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Dear Ofsted,

We are a group of educationalists writing to you to call for Ofsted reform. Over the past few years, we have become increasingly concerned by Ofsted’s expanding remit and the amount of discretion used by inspectors in primary and secondary schools. We have noted the lack of trust felt by teaching staff and school management in how Ofsted assesses what ‘good’ looks like, especially considering the tremendous impact a negative judgement has upon a school. Collectively, we are asking you to undertake a strategic review into policies, practices, and processes. We believe that there is an opportunity for Ofsted to regain trust and credibility, as well as more effectively promote high educational standards, through with basic but effective reforms.

Our main concerns are four-fold:

  1. Ofsted has moved beyond statutory inspection requirements, imposing its own view to the detriment of high performing schools.

By law, Ofsted must assess the ‘achievement of pupils’. However, Ofsted has, by successive steps, moved away from this core focus. New criteria in the Education Inspection Framework (“EIF”) can lead to poor judgements based on inspectors’ judgements of teaching methods or a school’s ethos, even where pupil outcomes are good. The EIF includes the highly subjective concept of ‘pupil development’ which we are concerned could easily be applied differently by different inspectors, and is particularly problematic where the inspector’s view of the purpose of education differs from the schools under inspection. This leaves schools in a vulnerable position and without clarity on how they will be graded.

Other vague concepts are also open to misinterpretation.  

  • “Cultural capital” has caused controversy among educationalists for being vague and too subjective to judge. Interpretations vary depending upon the inspector’s personal educational philosophy.
  • “British values”, first quoted in the 2011 Prevent Strategy and later by the Department for Education as comprising four main topics, has been interpreted by inspectors in a variety of ways. Reports have referred to “modern British values” or “life in modern Britain” – both phrases that are open to a wide degree of subjective interpretation in the content taught to pupils and the manner in which it is delivered. Schools which enthusiastically meet the requirement to promote support for democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for those of other faiths, can nevertheless experience criticism from inspectors who have a particular view about what constitutes “modern British values”.

It is notable, however, that inspectors are failing to assess content that schools are required by law to teach.

In the 15 June 2021 Education Select Committee (“EdSC”) accountability hearing, we were surprised to hear Ms Spielman dismissing and trivialising concerns that inspectors were not assessing the Baker clause and careers advice in schools, and scoring 2 in 5 providers as “outstanding” when they failed to provide it.

EdSC Chair Robert Halfon MP accurately summarised how Ofsted approaches the Baker clause by summarising, “it is not a priority for you”. While Ofsted’s independence is to be valued, it should not be independent from the requirements parliament has laid down for schools. We urge you to align your priorities more closely with law, governmental guidance, and the margin of latitude afforded to schools by Parliament in teaching core academic and additional topics.

Greater inspector discretion allows inspectors to downgrade schools because they depart from Ofsted’s ‘priorities’, despite objective data indicating that the schools are performing well and pupils are achieving good grades. This both inhibits innovation and teaching freedoms in schools. It enables Ofsted to impose teaching methods and content that go beyond statutory requirements and which do not reflect a consensus position amongst educationalists. Discretion under the EIF furthermore widens the opportunities for inspectors to be selective in which requirements they emphasise during inspections.

  1. School inspections cause unnecessary levels of stress to teachers and pupils.

You will be aware that teaching staff report some of the highest levels of stress, depression and anxiety across the entire British workforce[1] and that Ofsted inspections rank high on the list of contributing factors[2]. Confidence levels among staff remain low largely due to: the significant workload an inspection requires; randomly selected ‘deep-dives’; vigorous interviewing of teachers; pupil interviews to evidence ‘personal development’ and ‘attitudes’; and the high-stakes consequences to any school following a poor judgement. Where inspections require evidence of process rather than evidence from outcomes, precious teacher time and energy is distracted by work that does not benefit children. This is perceived as burdensome and is damaging to morale.

You will also be aware that parent satisfaction and exam results can be incredibly high in many schools which receive low Ofsted grades. While rigorous accountability is needed for schools, the levels of teacher stress which the current model creates should be reviewed.

  1. Ofsted has not responded satisfactorily to accusations of bias against schools with a religious ethos.

Ofsted has faced allegations of fostering negative pre-conceptions about schools prior to visits and we are concerned that Ms Spielman has not satisfactorily responded to this. There have been long-standing allegations from faith schools against inspectors, claiming there is a “climate of hostility” against their schools. This has also been highlighted by the NAO Ofsted report (2018) as a common perception across a range of schools. Pre-inspection bias was furthermore confirmed by Stuart Smith-J in a legal challenge from 2016, and it was one of the main focusses in the Policy Exchange paper “The Watchman Revisited” (2020).

We are concerned by Ms Spielman’s perspective that the modern State is entitled to interfere with the wishes of parents and that Ofsted is entitled to take a “muscular liberalism” approach to inspecting faith schools. We do not consider it appropriate for Ofsted to limit the legitimate margin of discretion given to schools in how they teach subjects. The Relationships and Sex Education (“RSE”) statutory guidance, for example, makes specific allowance for faith schools to teach the topics in accordance with their distinctive religious ethos. Considering that inspectors will be including RSE within inspections from Autumn 2021, they should respect the discretion, given by Parliament, to teach sexual topics in a manner appropriate to the community they serve Ofsted ought to pursue a more tolerant and pluralist approach to inspecting religious schools, not least because bias could easily encroach upon schools with a cultural ethos or an approach which is not ‘mainstream’. This could include schools using alternative pedagogies or schools which approach British values and discipline in a different way than do inspectors.

  1. The lack of accountability applied to inspection judgements is striking.

 

  1. Complaints process

We are concerned about the lack of substantive improvements made by Ofsted to the school inspections complaints process, despite it being repeatedly criticised for being insular and unaccountable. Notwithstanding the public consultation on complaints in 2020 where a majority of respondents called for a more transparent and participatory process, including a layer of independence, Ofsted refused to make any substantial changes.

  1. Inspection reports

Whereas reports under the Common Inspection Framework were on average 9 pages long, EIF reports are approximately only 3.5 pages. With such short summaries, inspectors can issue judgements without transparency about the basis for that judgement. When schools are judged to be ‘inadequate’ after a short 2-day visit, the small ‘vignettes’ are especially unhelpful and raise more questions. This makes it difficult for schools to complain. The Ofsted Freedom of Information team do not disclose the evidence basis behind judgements when asked directly. A robust evidence basis and outward communication process is essential to foster trust and collaboration between schools and inspectors.

  1. On Parliamentary scrutiny

Despite having a wide remit and large sphere of influence over educational culture, it is surprising that Ofsted faces limited parliamentary scrutiny through infrequent accountability hearings. We have noted that Ms Spielman has, on occasion, replied to questions and comments in the EdSC with answers that are neither substantiated by evidence nor followed up by members of the Committee. Having used phrases like “to my knowledge we haven’t”, she has often evaded the type of scrutiny we would expect when asked challenging questions. We think that a more robust process for reporting to parliament should be explored.

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Considering the above, we would like to make some proposals for regaining the trust and confidence of those whom Ofsted inspects and the wider educational community. We think that a strategic review into policies, processes and practices should in the focus on the following areas:

  1. Inspectors should review the minimum standards required to adhere to law and regulations.

Ofsted should realign inspection topics and priorities to statutory requirements. The EIF should be reviewed to identify all references to methods and subjective pupil development, and refocus more on pupil improvement. This is a fairer and more objective way for inspectors to judge the quality of education without encroaching on schools’ legitimate discretion. This would also set the inspectorate beyond the changing winds of educational culture. The educational diversity offered by different schools, and the different ways that pupils socially develop, needs to be celebrated rather than constrained.

  1. Greater accountability is required.
  1. Inspection reports

Inspection reports should provide more detail on an inspector’s findings and recommendations for schools. Longer, more evidenced reports would enable schools to respond to issues and develop better working practices more effectively in the future. Ofsted should be willing to provide full evidence bases behind judgements as a matter of course to schools. This would increase accountability and transparency.

  1. Complaints process

We agree with the NAHT and ASCL proposals for a new independent body to appeal to following “irrational or unfair” Ofsted judgements because the independent adjudication panel, ICASO, cannot overturn judgements or order re-inspections. It is comprised of lawyers whose focus is on the process Ofsted has followed in handling the complaint, not on whether the judgements are well founded in evidence. We suggest that all report complaints are reviewed by an independent committee once the internal Ofsted process has been exhausted. The complaints process should ensure transparency and accountability, and promote trust in schools, thereby increasing the respect for, and positive influence of the inspectorate on, the education system.

 

We look forward to reply

 

Your sincerely

 

Positive reform for a trusted Ofsted campaign group (positiveofstedreform.com)

 

[1] At a rate of 2,100 cases per 100,000 professionals compared with 1,320 cases for all occupational groups (‘Work related stress, depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain’, Health and Safety Executive, 2018; www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/)

[2] Ofsted, Teacher well-being at work in schools and further education providers 2019, para. 146 onwards

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