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Ofsted inspections used ‘too bluntly’ and cuts hit quality

Ofsted inspections of schools are used in “too blunt a way” by ministers and “careful reform” is needed to reduce the risk of teachers shunning leadership, a report from an ex-government adviser has warned.

The paper by Sam Freedman for the Institute for Government found large cuts in Ofsted’s funding had “put the quality of inspections at risk, even though ministers are more reliant than ever on these judgments to make decisions about firing headteachers”.

Sam Freedman

Freedman called for an immediate halt to intervention based on two ‘requires improvement’ judgments, and said ministers should provide “much more detailed criteria for intervention to give some reassurance to school leaders”.

But politicians should avoid “radical change purely for the sake of ameliorating the frustrations of some school leaders”, and reform should only proceed if government is “confident it will not risk improvements in standards”.

The report comes just weeks after a coroner ruled that headteacher Ruth Perry died by suicide contributed-to by an Ofsted inspection at Caversham Primary School last autumn.

Ofsted and the Department for Education have been given until early February to respond to a “prevention of future deaths” report.

Ofsted has seen budget cut

Amanda Spielman, the current chief inspector, will leave the role this week after seven years in charge. Sir Martyn Oliver, previously the chief executive of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, will take her place.

The IfG report said inspections were “valued by parents and many school leaders but are used in too blunt a way by the Department for Education to fire headteachers”.

Ofsted’s net budget fell in cash-terms from £185 million in 2010-11 to £130 million in 2018-19 before gradually rising again to £150 million in 2022-23.

Additional funding, in-part so the watchdog can visit all schools by 2025, has been provided in recent years.

But this will only take it back in cash-terms to 2010 levels, and Ofsted warned in its last annual accounts its funding would be 25 per cent lower in real-terms by 2024-25.

The IfG report found these large cuts “put the quality of inspections at risk, even though ministers are more reliant than ever on these judgments to make decisions about firing headteachers”.

But Freedman argued against a pause of inspections, advocated by unions following Perry’s inquest.

“Sir Martyn is starting at a time when Ofsted is embattled. But inspection has played an important part in strengthening education in England over 30 years.

“Careful reform of inspection and school regulation is needed, and there are some steps that could be taken quickly, but without risking what makes it valuable.”

Here are his main schools recommendations…

For Ofsted

  • Move as quickly as possible to provide a comprehensive response to the concerns highlighted in the Ruth Perry inquest, on training for inspectors and support for school leaders, with DfE supporting with additional resource where necessary
  • Commission independent studies on the reliability of inspection, with DfE providing the necessary funding to do so. This is important to building trust in the sector and improving the quality of inspections and training.

For the DfE

  • Immediately stop intervention based on two ‘requires improvement’ judgments as this has contributed to inspection stress for school leaders, creating a new cliff edge for any school leadership team who are sitting on an RI judgment and created hostility to the prospect of future inspection
  • Provide much more detailed criteria for intervention to give some reassurance to school leaders. For instance, if a school is found inadequate due to a safeguarding failure alone, then if the failure can be fixed quickly by the existing leadership team, that should not lead to intervention
  • Make adequate resources available for high-quality inspection
  • Consider proposals for reform in the round as part of a wider review of the regulatory system for schools, alongside other questions such as where responsibility for school improvement sits
  • Ask Ofsted to provide local contextual information and provide the necessary resources and powers to do so, particularly around issues like SEND and exclusions, and they should include how this information will be used in their more comprehensive intervention criteria

For Ofsted and the DfE

  • Review whether ungraded inspections are as reliable and valid as full graded ones and whether they are providing adequate scrutiny. They should not continue purely because they are cheaper to run

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