This attack on Ofsted was originally written in October 2010. The agency keeps changing in leadership, inspection criteria, and length of notice to schools of impending inspection, but in principle the arguments presented here remain valid (November 2015).
The current Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, like Chris Woodhead years earlier, chooses the stick rather than the carrot to try to raise standards in schools. He is notorious for saying in December 2011, before starting the Ofsted post, "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you will know you are doing something right." .
In February 2014 Gove sacked the chair of Ofsted Baroness Sally Morgan and replaced her politically with a Conservative supporter. It led to a violent row with the Lib Dems in Parliament.
In March 2014 the think tank Policy Exchange published a substantial report on Ofsted, entitled "Watching the Watchmen: the future of school inspections in England". It identified a number of serious weaknesses in current Ofsted inspections but, unlike me (Michael Bassey) did not recommend its abolition! Drawing on the Policy Exchange's evidence I have written an 8 page pamphlet entitled 'TIME TO SAY "GOODBYE" TO OFSTED'. Click here for this pamphlet
It is clear from the evidence that there is tremendous and grave concern about SATs, Ofsted and, to a lesser extent, the national curriculum - across the teaching profession and the research community. Each has served its purpose in the past, but now, for the sake of effective education of the children in our schools, should be taken off the statute book.
These pages set out potent arguments against inspection of schools by the Office for Standards in 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 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.
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 answer lies in the self-monitoring of collegial schools. Teachers no longer work in isolation of each other. The days of the closed classroom are long gone. Teachers co-operate, share problems and learn from one another. Primary school heads wander in and out of classrooms, know the strengths and weaknesses of their teachers, and can try to help where necessary. Likewise school governors visit classrooms and, though they may lack professional insight, can ask common sense questions and offer man-in-the-street comments on what they observe. Parents have a key role through knowledge of their children's experience, communicated when deemed necessary to teachers, head or governors. And as a back-up, heads and governors can obtain the willing help of other schools.
The collegiality of teachers and the common sense of parents and governors makes school accountability firmly local and not national and thus it should be local authority inspectors working to the rubric of ‘challenge and support’ who ensure that self-monitoring is effective
Professor John Macbeath, of Cambridge University, has pioneered ways of self-evaluation – with five books on the subject. His message is that self-evaluation is an essential part of a teacher’s day-to-day work and schools should be always asking themselves what they should be doing next in the best interests of their pupils.
The Office for Standards in Education has tried to develop the idea of self-evaluation, with a manual for schools to use full of tick boxes and Ofsted inspections to check whether schools have ticked the right boxes. But self-evaluation is not like that. As Macbeath says, "Self-evaluation is a process of discovery rather than a tedious adherence to a well-trodden trail."
In my opinion the quality of all-round education will only rise significantly when schools are free of Government control and Ofsted enforcement.
The Press Reports on this website include many criticisms of Ofsted which are listed below as ‘one-liners’. Click on the year to locate the longer entries. Scroll through to find the Ofsted heading.
‘Inspectors may have misinterpreted the inspection framework’
Select Committee: Ofsted contributing to problems facing toughest schools
Ofsted has bad report from its own staff: ‘bullying, fear, stress’
‘Gift from Christmas fairy? I’d ask for a change in the culture of inspection’
Hundreds of headteachers are being driven out by Ofsted – but gagged
‘Ofsted inspections should be helping heads to improve, not hanging out to dry’
General election - Lib Dems would axe Ofsted
Inspectors taking ‘wooden headed’ approach to using contextual value added
‘Educational mugging’. ‘Power without responsibility’. ‘Past its sell-by date’
‘Why give ammunition to pupils so they can taunt their teachers?’
‘Flawed, overly punitive and dysfunctional.’ ‘Huge crisis of teacher morale’
‘Verdict on inspectors: inadequate’
‘Alice in Wonderland – what was considered satisfactory is now unsatisfactory’
Select Committee: ‘concern as to the fitness for purpose’ of Ofsted
Ten-year-olds asked how often they get drunk
Complaints about inspection reports from 194 primary schools
New system of inspections puts unacceptable pressure on school leaders
‘What schools need is not more inspection but greater support’
Over-burdened teachers and heightened stress within the profession
OECD draft report that Ofsted can cause a vicious downward spiral
‘One of the most intrusive and punitive systems of accountability in the world’
Letters to children: ‘make some precocious children even more precocious’
School intake the main determinant of school outcomes
‘Stalinesque data: process not only flawed , but harmful’
Dawn raids begin: no-notice inspections
Dawn raids out but raw results in at Ofsted
End Ofsted inspections – local inspectors best: ATL
Unannounced inspections add to ‘catalogue of misery inflicted on schools
Ofsted to use staff questionnaires – heads concerned could be unfair
Heads hit out at ‘brutal’ new Ofsted regime
Ofsted under attack: mauled as critics bite back on ‘wasteful’ bureaucracy
’Who tells a dragon that its breath is too hot?’
Ofsted fights back. Daily Mail A Lesson in Incompetence
Ofsted’s fresh approach leaves heads ‘furious’ and union ‘aghast’
‘Appealing against Ofsted is a waste of time’
Heads’ unions demand that all inspections are HMI-led
MPs in cross-party attack on Ofsted’s ‘arbitary judgement’
Ofsted – end of an empire ?
Ofsted chief under fire for ‘insulting’ teachers on SEN
This page was first posted on 12 October 2010, a foreword added on 3 February 2014, and links to "Time to say 'Goodbye' to Ofsted" in April 2014. In my 'purge' of the website this remains as a continuing burning issue! I've made a few minor changes in the text. MB 10 November 2015