An essay by Michael Bassey written 2010 /2014


Ofsted claims that its inspections raise standards in schools.  This is doubtful.  Standards rise because young people choose to study hard, are taught well by their teachers, are encouraged by their parents, and influenced by a positive climate towards school-work by their peer group of class-mates.   

After 22 years of doubtful practice, it is time for Ofsted to be abolished.  Schools do not need external inspection as though they were factories.  Inspection should be replaced by a nation-wide policy of school-based action based on ‘steps to raise our standards’. 

It is teachers, working with pupils, parents and local community, not inspectors that can steadily improve education.


In 1839 school inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) began for elementary schools and their judgements determined the level of government grant received. They were feared by teachers in the 19th century until their role changed to a more benign one of reporting essentially to government on the national state of education. Up to 1992 school inspections were carried out on a limited basis by these HMIs and more generally by local education authority (LEA) inspectors. The practice of the latter was of variable quality: at its best was the ‘challenge and support’ work where criticisms of a school were linked to advice and support. Central government had no control over the LEA inspectors.

In 1992, in order to ensure that the provisions of the Education Reform Act of 1988 and subsequent Government initiatives were fully implemented, the Office for Standards in Education was established. All schools were to be inspected every few years. Since then it has steadily taken on more and more inspectorial roles and engaged in quasi-research activities.

It is not easy to describe how the Office for Standards in Education operates, because it constantly changes the ways that its inspections are conducted. What is certain is that all state schools in England are inspected regularly – the time interval being no longer than six years and in most cases less. Also the extent of notice has varied from several months to a few days and the intensity of the visitation has varied from a week in which in primary schools each teacher was observed at least once for a full lesson, to one-day visits which focus on the headteacher and the school’s SAT results.

Ofsted inspectors work strictly to a detailed Framework for Inspection and are trained centrally to so this.

Chris Woodhead, who was chief inspector from 1994 to 2000, told the press that there were 15,000 failing teachers in our schools. This was a gross mis-statement. Ofsted inspectors had given 2 per cent of observed lessons in primary schools the lowest grade and he had extrapolated this to teachers, mischievously ignoring the point that one poor lesson doesn’t mean that other lessons by that teacher are poor and for some teachers the presence of an inspector could be terrifying and ruin a lesson.

In Victorian classrooms, fear enforced learning, but this idea long ago was recognised as inhumane and ineffective: it passed out of currency – until Woodhead, by his own admission, re-introduced it as a mechanism for improving the work of teachers. He’s gone but the legacy remains. Ofsted inspectors are feared by most teachers. What a way to try to improve education!

The purpose of HMI inspection throughout most of the twentieth century was to provide carefully formed judgements on the work of schools and to advise government on the national picture. In the process HMI produced occasional reports which were helpful to schools and gave invaluable evidence to the major enquiries into education conducted by the Central Advisory Council on Education such as those known as the Crowther, Newsom, and Plowden Reports. HMIs were known for their high intelligence, balanced judgements and exquisite manners. By contrast Ofsted inspectors have seemed rule-bound, and often alien and brash.



The think tank Policy Exchange in 2014 published a substantial report on Ofsted: “Watching the Watchmen: the future of school inspections in England”.  Its starting point is that a “regulator” is needed “to safeguard public money, and protect the interests of the ultimate users of the system”.  I’ll return to this later.

The authors identify a number of weaknesses of current Ofsted inspections.

1.      Ofsted inspectors may be inspecting a school (special, primary or secondary) without having relevant and recent teaching experience in that kind of school or a high knowledge of assessment and pedagogical practice in that area.  This is a matter for concern if an inspector is not familiar with the territory.

2.      Ofsted inspectors sometimes seem to make judgements based on pupils’ test and examination data before visiting schools and virtually predetermine the outcomes of the actual inspection visit.  So the actual inspection visits to these schools are redundant!

3.      “Lesson observations – which take the majority of an inspection in terms of time and money – are neither valid nor reliable in their present form.”   Wow!   All that preparation and anxiety on the part of teachers is unnecessary!

4.      The quality of the present inspectorate is challenged in terms of the ability of some inspectors to understand, interpret and draw conclusions from statistical data.  Oh dear – so their initial judgements based on data provided by a school may be wrong!

5.      There is a mindset in some inspectors of a particular way in which schools should run and an unwillingness or inability to engage with different structures.   “You should do it my way – yours is not so good.”  Some of Ofsted’s publications seem to endorse specific teaching approaches.  In schools, as in kitchens, there is more than one way to skin a rabbit.

6.      The report notes the concerns that many schools raise about the impact of Ofsted in terms of high levels of stress and excessive preliminary paperwork. Teacher stress about Ofsted inspections is widespread.

7.      The report is also concerned at a lack of incentives for many schools to conduct major strategic change or innovation within a system, purely because of a fear of how Ofsted may judge it.  So, Ofsted may actually inhibit school development rather than promote it.

8.      The vast majority of inspectors, called Additional Inspectors (AIs), do not work directly for Ofsted but are outsourced from one of three regional contractors – currently CfBT, Serco, and Tribal.  There are about 1,500 AIs who carry out school inspections, most of whom work part-time.   (In addition Ofsted directly employs some 140 HMIs [Her Majesty’s Inspectors] inspecting schools). 

The report recommends that Ofsted either abolish or drastically reduce the number of Additional Inspectors, and if the latter, require AIs to work full time.  Agreed.  It looks here as though the authors are near to my view that demolition of the whole enterprise is required.

Surprisingly, the Policy Exchange, instead of challenging the continuing existence of Ofsted, proposes a number of reforms aimed to overcome the problems identified.  I take a different view:  Ofsted should be abolished.

At the time of writing (March 2014) Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has just announced plans for a massive revision of Ofsted practice, reducing the incidence of inspection on the 60% of schools judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and concentrating on the schools that are judged to need improvement.  He told the ASCL annual conference that he is “a proud believer in the power and influence of inspection to improve young people's lives”.  Many in the teaching profession would challenge that view, as do I.



Ofsted has been inspecting schools for 22 years during which the goal posts have been moved a number of times – and yet there are still major problems, as identified by the Policy Exchange.

Over the years of its existence it has often been a ruthless enforcer of government policies with a narrow vision of education that has ignored local circumstances; for many teachers its inspectors are fear-inducing and unsupportive; for headteachers an adverse report may cost their job; and overall it seems to promote a bullying culture in school staff rooms which would not be tolerated in playgrounds.

The five major teacher and headteacher unions all express similar opinions – as these statements show:

NUT conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the abolition of Ofsted and resignation of the chief inspector. (Annual conference, 1 April 2013)

ATL believes that Ofsted section 5 inspections should be abolished, replaced by a profession-led local system of accountability and improvement that can challenge and support simultaneously. (Evidence to Select Committee on Education, 31 January 2013)  At ATL’s April 2014 annual conference, Dr Bousted, general secretary, described Ofsted as a “weapon of terror” that “depresses standards of education in schools”.  She said “Ofsted can no longer claim that its inspection reports are worth the paper they are written on … We know that, frankly, it’s a lottery which depends on which Ofsted inspection team turns up – one that has a clue, or one that is clueless.”

NASUWT.  “The simple facts are that Ofsted has peddled a high stakes and punitive system of school inspection that has created a climate of fear among teachers and school leaders. …  Today's publication of the Ofsted Annual Report should provoke a public demand that the development of an alternative, more positive, supportive and effective system of school inspection is now long overdue.”  (General Secretary Chris Keates, 11 December 2013)

ASCL. General Secretary said the current system of inspections had a "negative impact" and had "served its purpose". …  A survey by ASCL of 900 head teachers found that 65% said they did not have confidence in Ofsted overall to make accurate and reliable judgements.  (General Secretary Brian Lightman, 21 March 2014)

NAHT.  E-petition:  We petition the government to revise urgently the current arrangements for inspection of educational establishments.  The current system is punitive rather than supportive; it fails to deliver improvement; the quality control mechanisms are insufficiently robust; and it fails to ensure accuracy of data on which the inspections are founded.  (General Secretary Russell Hobby, closing date 19 September 2013: there were too few signatures to promote a Parliamentary debate.)




When Ofsted was established in 1992, Professor Sutherland, its first chief inspector, wrote in his Annual Report that the intention of, and even the justification for, OFSTED’s existence is to make a contribution, through these inspections, to raising standards and improving the quality of educational experience and provision.”

Before then there were no systematic, regular inspections of schools. HMI inspections were focusing on the system, not individual institutions.

For a long period up to the late 1980s there had been little obvious change in school standards but, when the GCSE replaced 0-level and CSE in 1988, secondary schools began a slow process of improvement. Likewise the Education Reform Act of the same year with its stringent (if over-powering) national curriculum and national curriculum assessment gave teachers in both primary and secondary schools the tools needed to raise standards of achievement of their pupils. Since then, increasingly, central governments (Conservative, Coalition and Labour) have tried to micromanage the teaching and administration of schools. Ofsted, by damning schools that didn’t conform, became in effect an enforcement agency.

It has ever been a difficult issue to know to what extent Ofsted has fulfilled its purpose of improving the quality and standards of education. While the easy-to-measure parameter of the percentage of 15-year-olds achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE has shown a steady rise during Ofsted’s life-time, it needs to be pointed out that that rise was happening from the very start of the GCSE - five years before Ofsted had any impact. Indeed for the first ten years of Ofsted’s existence the rise was less pronounced than it had been beforehand and the current acceleration may be due to schools becoming ‘streetwise’ about ways of changing the subject range offered.

Yes, standards have risen, but it is doubtful whether Ofsted can claim the credit. Standards rise because young people choose to study hard, are taught well by their teachers, are encouraged by their parents, and influenced by a positive climate towards school work by their peer group of class-mates.  Ofsted may have given a jolt to teachers’ expectations of what their pupils could achieve, but, after twenty-two years, is it still necessary?  And at an annual cost of £70 million?  Undoubtedly that money could be better spent in schools on staff or equipment that would contribute to improving practice.



Attempts to raise educational standards need to move away from inspection and arise through self-evaluation of schools, conducted by the staff working collegially, moderated by partner schools and the deliberations of governing bodies. The fundamental question "Are standards as good as can be?" should be answered by the school itself – not by external bodies like Ofsted. This is how effective progress happens. This is what spurs people on. 

Accountability is the antithesis of trust and anyone familiar with the commitment, energy and professional competence of school teachers will recognize that they can be trusted to work in the best interests of their pupils without external surveillance.  In a collegial setting, colleagues recognize each others’ strengths and weaknesses and work together to learn from the former and help remedy the latter.  Together they are the people to plan the curriculum and pedagogy of the school – as a whole in primary schools and department by department in secondary schools. 



Schools do not need external inspection as though they were factories. Education is not an industry. Teachers are not technicians. Classrooms are not production lines. Students arriving are not inputs, nor outputs when they leave. Schools are places where students and teachers, supported by parents and governors, work and live together in order to nurture and develop the interests and abilities in many dimensions of the students by engaging in the human activity of the pursuit of learning.  And that learning – of values, skills, knowledge – should underpin their lives.

Schools are not factories and do not need tick-box inspection:  to raise their profile they need ongoing dialogue of staff with experienced fellow professionals.  That can come from local authority inspectors who understand local problems, from colleagues in neighbouring schools on the basis of school self-evaluation, and from teacher-trainers at the local university.  Schools improve from the inside – through collegial discussion of staff drawing on views of parents, community support, local governors and fellow professionals – not from the outside in the form of quick in-and-out visits by Ofsted inspectors.




When the Policy Exchange looks for Ofsted to be a regulator, geared to “protect the interests of the ultimate users of the system”, it gives it an impossible task.  Not until today’s pupils are mature adults – in say twenty or thirty years time – can their interests as the ultimate users of the education system be validated!  Their teachers are working towards this in every lesson but an inspector, on a short visit, can do little to help.

The Policy Exchange also sees the task of inspectors “to safeguard public money”.  Again a problematic task.  This is the proper role of school governors and the accountant who audits the school expenditure. (Hopefully soon again within the orbit of the local authority).




In place of inspection there should be a mechanism for ensuring that every school regularly addresses the question “What should we do to raise the educational standards of our school?” 

In a primary school this is a question for the whole staff, possibly divided between staff engaged in key stage one and key stage two.  In secondary schools it will probably be best addressed within subject departments and pastoral units.  It will entail teachers identifying what their expected standards are and relating these to their current practice. Perhaps every two years the governing body of every school should require a report on “steps to raise our standards” from the teaching staff.  The local authority should remind governing bodies of this requirement and expect a biannual report of governing bodies to the authority to elaborate on what has been done.  It is a simple mechanism that recognizes that effective change comes from the inside of a school, through the teachers - not from the outside through visiting inspectors.  It will empower teachers.




A small number of schools around the country are struggling to achieve the standards of most schools.  In many cases it is linked to a large proportion of their pupils coming from financially and culturally impoverished homes where struggling parents give little support to their children’s education.  These schools do not need an Ofsted inspector castigating the teachers for failings that they are usually only too aware of themselves.  What is needed is a local authority inspector (or adviser as many of them were called), knowing the local problems, working with the school staff over time to try to find ways of raising the standards of achievement, and able to elicit the help of neighbouring schools. It requires an extended relationship, based on both challenge and support, and quite different from the here-today-gone-tomorrow visits of inquisitors who offer little support.



The money spent on national inspections can find much better uses supporting the work of schools directly.  The best focus for raising standards is the deliberations of school staff, not the casual observations of inspectors.

It is time to put an end to Ofsted.  We cannot expect the present Conservative government to do this but the Labour party should see the wisdom of it – coupled with the “Steps to raise our standards” proposal – and put it into their next election manifesto for early action.  It would be in accord with current Labour aims to decentralize power and strengthen local decision-making.  An end to Ofsted inspections would be welcomed by most teachers who would also see the sense of school-based action on “Steps to raise our standards”.  But they would add the proviso that the current bureaucratic pressures that result in an average workload of a sixty-hour week for primary school teachers must be reduced before they take on any new tasks.

Without the threat of Ofsted, headteachers would be free to treat the constant flow of government initiatives as either useful guidelines to act on in their own judgement, or fodder for the recycling bin. At present any deviation from government diktats is a potential threat to a head’s job.

The Office for Standards in Education could have been valuable if it had treated teachers respectfully as fellow professionals to be inspected cordially, challenged where necessary, and guided and supported when appropriate. But instead it chose to engender fear in those inspected, and, where it found fault, convey its criticisms to public, parents and children in a way which could only undermine confidence in the school and its head. 

Instead of challenging the Government’s model of teachers as technicians the Ofsted inspectors have acted as factory inspectors ensuring that the workforce obey the minutiae of the rule book. It acts as an enforcement agency. It is a leviathan with a culture so alien to the needs of schools that it needs to be swept right away. The culture of engendering fear, disrespectfulness, and undermining professional confidence is so ingrained in the Office for Standards in Education system that tinkering with it is pointless. It should be abolished with a massive saving in public expenditure.


 This was posted on 3 April 2014 and augmented on 10 November 2015. Earlier postings on this website about Ofsted have been archived.