The Cycle Of Fear From School Inspections

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How can OfSTED shift fear towards genuine school improvement?

In November 2017, Ofsted’s chief, Amanda Spielman, talked about one of the biggest problems in current education systems: the culture of fear and game-playing around school inspections, where educators for a long time have been guided by external accountability standards and have lost a sense of professionalism.

Long-Term Viability?

This week, the National Audit Office’s research questioned OfSTED’s value for money – and “if there is enough independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness to meet the needs of parents, taxpayers and the Department itself”. I watched Nick Gibb MP squirm as he was asked about OfSTED’s independence from the DfE’s and the desire to reduce teacher workload – and for OfSTED to (monitor) play its part.

This report highlights the long-term purpose of OfSTED at a time when Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector, reforms the school inspection framework for September 2019.

The Cycle of Fear

An entire industry has supported schools in getting Ofsted-ready and many teachers and head teachers would scrutinize any school improvement activity, peer review or school self-evaluation on how it would help the school get a good Ofsted-grade. The fear of being classified as a failing school, being named and shamed, losing one’s job or student intake (particularly from high socio-economic backgrounds) has taken away much of the agency from teachers and head teachers to shape their own professional practice; a trend that is sometimes reinforced when large Multi-Academy Trusts introduce strong internal quality control around Ofsted grades and standards (e.g. performance management or peer review).

Ofsted’s ‘myth busting’ campaign, where the agency actively tries to debunk existing views of (head)teachers about how, and how often, to mark children’s (home)work, how to evaluate and plan lessons, or how to lead a school does not seem to change current views of trying to align schools and teaching to the Ofsted framework. After such a long time of high-stakes performance-based accountability, Ofsted’s standards and ways of thinking about school quality have become part of people’s mindsets and of ‘how we do things around here’.

How can we change this system-wide paralysis and culture of fear, and empower teachers and head teachers to think about other, perhaps better ways of teaching? How can we ensure that they feel safe and confident to do so?

Reciprocity and Trust in Diversity

One of the first concerns to address is whether Ofsted would manage an evaluation of ‘out of the box’ practices and be able to assess these as ‘outstanding’. Research evidence (see for example Ehren, 2016; Coffield, 2017) suggests not, as many studies highlight how Ofsted inspections have, over the years, narrowed teaching and learning and curriculum provision when schools try to align themselves to the Ofsted framework.

The cuts in funding, reduction in inspection staff and move to short inspections do not really allow a good understanding of the quality of a variety of practices. How much data is there to understand various types of outcomes and how these relate to past and present teaching and leadership in a school? And do schools really trust Ofsted’s claims about being there to support improvement, when the narrative has long been (and still is) about ‘cracking down on failing schools’?

A related question here is how to rebuild trust in Ofsted as a power to support and improve, while still expecting Ofsted to hold schools accountable on a national standardized framework? A key strategy suggested by Leeuw (2002) is to build more reciprocal relations, both between schools and inspectors, as on the system-level in how the public views Ofsted and how Ofsted interacts with major stakeholders in the system (e.g. NAHT, ASCL, RSCs, leaders of large MATs, NGA). Leeuw explains how reciprocity implies dialogue, debate, openness and investor-investee relationships instead of a primarily top-down relationship.

Reciprocity facilitates open and direct information exchange, enabling a discussion about the relevancy of standards and thereby also allowing for more valid, relevant and context-specific assessments of school quality. It also allows for the development of trust, where educators and inspectors alike become engaged in the process of evaluation in a way that supports a culture of learning and improvement.

According to Leeuw, Inspectorates of Education can build reciprocity when they invest in a ‘you-too-me-too’, and ‘give-and-take’ dimension of relationships. Examples he provides are:

  • Ensuring the Inspectorate is evaluated externally and independently on how it achieves its aims, and the fairness, reliability and validity of its inspections and wider work
  • Involving the public, schools, teachers, students and others in the process of finding and developing inspection norms and criteria; informing the public and participating in public debates on education, sharing their inspection knowledge with others. Joint development of inspection standards goes beyond a formal consultation process, but would see these stakeholders have actual decision-making power in setting inspection standards.

The Power of Numbers

The high-stakes culture and focus on getting a good Ofsted-grade is also much informed by how we are accustomed to understanding school quality through a set of easy to understand grades, allowing for a quick comparison of schools and easy (often high-stakes) decision-making. We all suffer from ‘bounded rationality’ in having difficulty to process detailed, qualitative sources of information. Numbers have a much greater appeal and are often also perceived as more legitimate and accurate sources of information, much more than qualitative information.

Erasing contextual information and condensing and transforming information about uncertain and elusive qualities of a school’s organization into a common, standardized metric for example allows people to quickly grasp, and compare differences. The abstract nature of numbers and the fact that they present a decontextualized and simplified picture of schools facilitates the use of these indicators as school staff, parents, students and other stakeholders value them for their perceived objectiveness, abstractness, transparency and ease of use. The reduction of messy information into a small set of comparable numbers makes all of our lives so much easier: we don’t have to process a large amount of information to choose a school and we can fire head teachers when their school receives an inadequate grade.

The most obvious solution to reducing the anxiety around Ofsted grades is to abolish these grades altogether and only provide schools with qualitative information. Past inspections in the province of Styria in Austria saw such qualitative reporting without marks; a practice that was considered fair and doing justice to the large variety in, and of schools.

As long as the dominant view is that grades and numbers are a more reliable and accurate way to assess and classify school, this would require a bold move.

With the full consent to share this article, you can contact the author, Dr. Melanie Ehren at


  1. TES: A Culture Of Fear Has Developed Around OfSTED
  2. OfSTED’s myth-busting
  3. Ehren, M.C.M. (2016). Methods and modalities for effective school inspections. Dordrecht: Springer. Coffield, F. (2017). Will the Leopard Change its Spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted. UCL Press
  4. The Telegraph
  5. Leeuw, F. L. (2002). Reciprocity and educational evaluations by European inspectorates: assumptions and reality checks. Quality in Higher Education, 8(2), 137-149.

(Published: 26 April 2018)


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