The Future of Ofsted Inspections

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Does vague terminology from Ofsted cause considerable frustration for [parents,] teachers and school leaders?

EDSK (Education and Skills), a new think tank has published a new report on the validity of Ofsted grading schools reliably: Since it was created over 25 years ago, Ofsted has not published any research to support the notion that their judgements on schools accurately reflect the quality of education that a school provides.

This is my quick-read summary of the report for the busy classroom teacher.

Are Ofsted judgements reliable (consistent) and valid (accurate)?

Since it was created over 25 years ago, Ofsted has not published any research to support the notion that their judgements on schools accurately reflect the quality of education that a school provides. As far back as 1996, Ofsted’s research had shown that pairs of inspectors awarded different grades after observing the same lesson in 33% of cases. A parliamentary committee in 1999 heard evidence from academics who declared that the consistency in inspectors’ judgements was simply “not there” and that the judgements were “not very reliable”.

Is Ofsted’s research sloppy?

It was almost two decades before Ofsted revisited the issue of reliability in a 2017 study.

Independent research on the ability of observers, including highly experienced school leaders, to accurately judge what is happening in a classroom is equally concerning. Numerous studies have shown that you need multiple observers watching the same teacher on multiple occasions before their opinions start to converge (even then, observers tend to disagree about 20-30% of the time).

This compares to Ofsted’s stated approach of an inspector “spending a few minutes in each [lesson]”.

Ofsted has not published any studies showing that inspectors will be able to make consistent judgements in these areas across thousands of schools, even though the new framework begins operation in September this year.

Warning signs …

Ofsted has also stated that lesson observations will still carry considerable importance in future inspections, despite the wealth of evidence suggesting that they are not valid and reliable tools. What’s more, Ofsted has signalled that ‘book scrutiny’ will play a greater role in inspections under the new framework. Inspectors will spend more time comparing samples of books to “evaluate pupils’ progression through the curriculum”.

This is incredibly dangerous for teachers and schools.

Does Ofsted look at the right things?

Vague terminology from Ofsted is a cause of considerable frustration for teachers and school leaders.

For a school to be judged ‘Outstanding’ for teaching, learning and assessment under the current inspection regime, teachers must “provide pupils with incisive feedback”. At no point in the school inspection handbook does Ofsted explain what ‘incisive feedback’ means in practice.

The new inspection handbook for September 2019 seems to fare little better. For example, when judging the ‘Quality of education’, teachers will now have to “provide clear, direct feedback” without any explanation of what will be considered unclear or indirect feedback.

Poor practice …

This has led to all sorts of silly things going on in our schools:

  1. Triple marking
  2. Observable progress in 20 minutes
  3. Records of verbal feedback
  4. Verbal feedback stamps
  5. The purple pen of progress
  6. Glue-in self-assessment tick sheets

The impact of Ofsted on teachers and leaders

For several years, Ofsted has published what they call ‘myth busters’ that seek to highlight specific practices that are not required by Ofsted but are still found in some schools. For example, one myth buster states that “Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback”.

Nevertheless, inspectors continue to make comments about precisely these areas, as demonstrated by recently published Ofsted reports.  Ofsted’s own surveys of teachers have shown that 76% thought school inspections would be “highly stressful for everyone” and over half of teachers felt that an inspection would “mean a huge amount of unnecessary extra work”.

Most concerning, 83% of teachers agreed that “Ofsted inspections introduce unacceptable levels of burden into the system”.

Ofsted does increase workload …

For an inspectorate that is widely recognised as being one of the root causes of many workload pressures to be judging school leaders on the workload they generate for their staff is counterintuitive, to say the least.

It was the number one reason I left working in a challenging school.

Do Ofsted inspections result in schools improving?

Requires Improvement Education and SkillsWell, here is the key question we require to be answered.

Although many schools improve each year, recent data from Ofsted showed that 33% of primary schools and 58% of secondary schools rated as ‘Requires Improvement’ did not subsequently improve and a higher proportion of schools rated ‘Requires Improvement’ (11%) declined to ‘Inadequate’ compared to previous years.

The NAO found that “Ofsted does not know whether its school inspections …raise the standards of education and improve the quality of children’s and young people’s lives”, although Ofsted’s new 2017- 2022 strategy has attempted to address this by establishing several key performance indicators and targets.

The views of headteachers and teachers on the impact of Ofsted inspections on school performance are decidedly mixed. In the NAO survey, only 44% of headteachers said that inspections had led to improvements in the school and Ofsted’s survey of teachers in 2018 found that just 31% shared this opinion.

Ofsted does not know if it actually improves schools …

Academic research has concluded that a causal link between inspections and school improvement “cannot be clearly supported by the literature.” Looking across the full range of evidence, there does not appear to be a compelling case for concluding that Ofsted inspections necessarily lead to better schools.

Having experienced 10 Ofsted inspections in ‘Special Measures and ‘Outstanding’ schools over the last 25 years, I could have told you that for free. Ofsted evaluations of schools do not lead to school improvement. Worse? I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing as a classroom teacher and a school leader. The improvement rests with the school(s) itself.

Let’s not overcomplicated things that do not need to be measured. Let our teachers and schools get on with holding themselves to account and evaluating one another.


  1. Ofsted should not provide an overall grade for schools due to a lack of reliability and validity.
  2. Ofsted should not conduct any observations of lessons or scrutinise pupils’ work until their processes and procedures have been rigorously tested in terms of both reliability and validity.
  3. Ofsted inspections should be entirely focused on observable aspects of school life, not captured by performance data.
  4. A new 1-page School Information Card (SIC) should be published on an annual basis for every school.
  5. Ofsted inspections should be carried out every 2-3 years.
  6. Ofsted reports should be shorter than at present – ideally no more than two pages.
  7. These proposals should be introduced by Ofsted as their new inspection framework in September 2020.

I firmly agree with EDSK’s conclusion: There is still a crucial place in our education system for an independent inspectorate that visits schools to provide parents of current and future pupils with valuable insights. On that basis, we need to find a more constructive role for Ofsted.

You can download the report here.

3 thoughts on “The Future of Ofsted Inspections

  1. Perhaps Ross the Tweet should read “No POSITIVE direct impact on school performance. I think, and know from personal experience, that it can certainly have a very significant negative impact. An impact that is both long term and life changing for many teachers.

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