What is Ofsted? This blog post explores some of the key facts about Ofsted and provides some insights into the recent changes of the 2019 inspection framework.
Ofsted: Past, Present and the Future
Paul Tyack and Paul Main
What is Ofsted?
We have been lucky enough to work with many schools around the world over the last year. Each country has a unique quality assurance system, and I’m often asked what Ofsted actually is. For many parents in England, this is also quite a new concept. For most of us not working in schools, the only time we hear about Ofsted is either through negative news stories of ‘bad’ inspections, or when our local school gets ‘the visit’.
We decided to write an article about this interesting government organisation in view of clarifying a few grey areas. We must remember that central to this important establishment is the welfare of some of our most vulnerable people. Without an organisation looking after us, any institution offering childcare or education could pretty much do what they wanted. Having an Inspectorate raises the standard across-the-board.
If you are a teacher, the term ‘inspection’ can turn your blood cold with fear. After digging a little deeper, we found out that they do far more than publishing judgements. Ofsted see themselves as an improvement agency. They are now producing, amongst other things, instructional videos, useful documents, and personal guidance. It can’t all be bad? We decided to dig through some of the misunderstandings and get to some facts.
Let’s start with some basics and then dive into the nitty-gritty of an Ofsted inspection. In this article we will cover:
- What does Ofsted stand for?
- What does Ofsted do?
- Ofsted roles and responsibilities
- What is the role of Ofsted?
- Where is the Ofsted office
- When did Ofsted start?
- What is Ofsted looking for?
- Quality Of Education Summarised
What does Ofsted stand for?
Ofsted stands for Office for Standards in Education. In this context, education is not just schools; it encompasses the full spectrum of learning environments. If you are a registered early years childcare provider, you will have to be inspected regularly. This includes childminders, often working from home looking after very young children in private residencies.
Ofsted are never far away from news headlines, and many of these stories are attracting negative publicity. The Guardian newspaper has challenged the very existence of Ofsted in a recent piece asking the question of whether schools would be better off without an authority looking down on them. The Times Educational Supplement reports that female colleagues get 20% less pain than their male colleagues at Ofsted. Bonuses have even been talked about, which begs the question of what activities would warrant such a pay reward.
When a school receives a very negative (and public) report, local newspapers are usually the first to jump on the bandwagon.
What does Ofsted do?
Central to Ofsted’s activities is their infamous inspections. A typical inspector will phone the institution that they are visiting the day before. This call is not to scare the provider. Instead, many Ofsted officers see this as an opportunity to begin a relationship. Inspectors don’t want schools to perform for them during the inspection. But they do want to make sure they are prepared and have all the relevant paperwork at hand, a fine balancing act. We have heard stories of schools over-preparing for a visit.
An inspector needs to get an accurate description of the provider, and this means that staff should go about their everyday business as usual. Inspectors, on the whole, are very good at spotting disingenuous activities and they receive a very accurate picture once they have spoken to staff, students, and parents.
We have to bear in mind that inspections happen over a relatively short time, and sometimes inaccurate judgments can be made. Over the years, Ofsted has tried to improve this process by taking a rounded picture of the provider. This includes observations, interviews, and data.
Criticisms of the UK education system and it’s apparent over-reliance on rote, or surface level, learning and focus on data has been forthcoming from International Researchers. They include the likes of Andreas Schleicher from the OECD, key thinkers such as Sir Ken Robinson and Al Aynsley-Green, and authors such as Jerry Muller. In his 2018 book, ‘The tyranny of metrics’, Jerry Muller explores ‘gaming the system’, where damaging practices such as off-rolling are central.
As a result, Ofsted has chosen to take the spotlight off ‘data’ and move it onto ‘curriculum’.
The quality of initial teacher training also sits under Ofsted’s inspection responsibilities. They will inspect any organisation offering teacher education including schools, alliances and colleges.
Ofsted roles and responsibilities
Ofsted are very keen at being seen as an evidence-led organisation. For too long in England, the educational workforce has been drip-fed ideas that have not necessarily been empirically researched. Ofsted see themselves as an evidence-informed entity that promotes and monitors best practice. There is a significant move to remove much of the burden associated with an inspection. The organisation wants to decrease unnecessary workload for anyone that encounters an inspection. We recently found some interesting videos published by Ofsted which we included in our blog post, the one below explains how memories are formed:
A key role that Ofsted plays is the publishing of the reports that they carry out. These are public documents and have the capacity to make or break a school system. If a school continually fails then the head teacher is at risk of being dismissed. Many of these dismissals are seen as unlawful and school governors have the power to sack senior leaders at very short notice. Every school has to have their latest report available on their website: http://www.tudorcourtprimary.com/Ofsted-Report
What is the role of Ofsted?
The role of Ofsted is to promote excellent care and education in England. Reporting directly to the government, Ofsted pride themselves on being impartial and independent. The organisation also have the power to regulate any children and young people's service. Having a large workforce across eight different regions, the services Ofsted provide are extensive. They have an estimated 2500 inspectors and around 1800 employees. Many of these inspectors are head teachers of outstanding schools.
Behind the facts and figures are some interesting headlines. Here are a few from last year.
- Multi-Academy Trusts: There are now a whopping 1000 multi-Academy trusts operating in England. This has led to a new breed of CEOs or executive principles who reportedly earn impressive salaries. Ofsted will now be taking a closer look at how MATs are organised and operated.
- Special schools: 45% of children with special educational needs are taught in these types of schools.Inadequate schools: Legally, schools that are deemed to be failing by Ofsted should immediately be taken over by a reputable Academy. Despite these new laws, 65 inadequate schools are still open for business.
- Primary Schools: Only 25% of primary schools have chosen to ‘Academise’. This compares to 70% of secondary schools making the conversion. Ultimately, it is the Department for Education that makes the decision of whether a school should become an academy (forced academisation), Ofsted’s judgement plays a crucial role in this ruling.
Where is the Ofsted office?
If you are considering a career at Ofsted and do not want to relocate you are in luck. A school inspector is typically required to travel frequently so that they can serve their allocated geographical region. Many of these inspectors balance full-time headships, which is demanding in itself. The job roles range from regulatory inspectors to her Majesty’s Inspectors. Positions are often advertised on civil service job sites and the Ofsted site directly.
The Main address is:
70 Petty France
Correspondence should be sent to their business unit:
If you are ever concerned about the welfare of a child or young person, you can contact Ofsted anonymously and use their whistleblowing policy to report anything suspicious. All schools in the UK will have procedures for dealing with concerns. Report formats are standardised and are fairly easy to understand. You can read the St Lukes School report to understand how the information is presented.
So how big is this organisation and how is it run? Let’s have a look at some key facts.
Key Ofsted Facts
- Budget: £168m
- Chair: Amanda Spielman
- Frequency of Inspections: Every 3 years (on average)
- What grades can Ofsted give: Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement, Inadequate
- The average wage of an Ofsted inspector: £40k - £70k
When did Ofsted start?
Ofsted is a relatively new government organisation being formed in 1992. All state-funded schools from this point onwards began being inspected. The agency was firmly established as an organisation that improves the quality of education across England. Over the years, the organisation has seen many leadership changes but its primary function has remained the same. Many of the leadership team have gone on to gain peerages from the Queen such as Sir Michael Wilshaw.
Notable leaders have included:
- Christine Gilbert
- David Bell
- Mike Tomlinson
- Chris Woodhead
- Stewart Sutherland
- Terry Melia
- Eric Bolton
- Sheila Browne
- Harry French
What is Ofsted looking for?
This year we have seen significant changes with the Ofsted inspection framework. These changes come into play for the 2019 academic year. It is worth school leaders taking a moment to fully understand the potential implications. We cannot take all of the guesswork out of the changes but we can shed light on certain areas. Following international research, Ofsted has announced that their new framework will come into effect in September.
The consultation on the current framework came to some powerful conclusions and on the whole, most providers at the receiving end of an inspection have been left nodding their heads in agreement. Here is a non-exhaustive list of their findings:
- The accountability system has skewed the ways schools operate. School leaders have unintentionally given a higher weighting to Maths and English at the expense of other subjects. This detrimental approach has improved results in core subjects, but experts fear the real substance of education and child development has suffered.
- Spreadsheets of performance data have become overemphasised and in some contexts, damaging to the mental health of both students and staff. The headlines are filled with stories of senior leaders feeling compelled to leave their posts because of this unintentional problem. For many Head Teachers, real outcomes cannot always be put into an Excel database.
- The average tenure for a teacher is three years. The biggest reason for staff shortage is workload, and, in many cases, unnecessary workload. Teaching staff work hard and work with purpose. The biggest frustration is being asked to do things purely for reasons relating to accountability when they could be doing something more impactful.
- Results are important, no one is denying this. What Ofsted noticed was a pattern of ‘teaching for the test’. School teachers felt compelled to frontload shallow short-term knowledge at the expense of deeper expertise that would be useful beyond school. Time pressures were documented a lot and many teachers who were up against exam deadlines felt that they had no choice other than to just deliver facts. Students who were often at the negative receiving end of these practices were disadvantaged learners.
In review of these public criticisms, Ofsted made a significant change to the inspection framework by creating a new category ‘Quality of Education’. So what does this new focus on curriculum entail? What will Ofsted want to see? Ofsted have been investigating the features of a high-quality curriculum and come up with the following summary:
A high-quality curriculum;
- Is based on proactive thinking (examples of these sorts of practices are available on the Structural Learning website.
- Results from considering the sequence of content necessary for learners to make progress
- Provides learners with the knowledge required for subsequent learning (e.g. vocabulary)
The ‘Quality of Education’ category is made up of the three ‘I’s: Intent, Implementation, Impact. These and interrelated and therefore will be treated as one entity (think of it as a Venn diagram). Let’s spend some time familiarising ourselves with this new area.
You could say that these three I’s could be distilled into 3 basic questions;
- What do we want to learn? (Intent)
- What is the best way to learn? (Implementation)
- How will we know what we have learned? (Impact)
This is best not viewed as a linear curriculum model that ends with the assessment component but rather as illustrating a process that is more finely tuned, whereby all three components are woven together.
Many experts who have unpicked the changes have interpreted ‘intent’ as a knowledge-rich curriculum. A knowledge-rich curriculum is a well-organised ‘sequence’ of all the information a school wants a child to understand. A national leader of education we know personally stated ‘if you are not knowledge-rich are you knowledge-poor?’. This contentious area has been debated a lot on social media over the last year or so. Indeed the more you look into it, the clearer it becomes that the latest Ofsted developments are heavily influenced by the ideas of E.D. Hirsch. The British education system would not be the first to adopt his ideas. Many of the common core standards have their origins in his philosophies. Even though one theoretical approach to curriculum seems to dominate, Ofsted still ensures there is room for schools to manoeuvre. In England, schools can have very different approaches to curriculum design and Ofsted will not penalise institutions that take a different angle on curriculum design. Discussions with senior leaders will revolve around endpoints, specific and appropriate content, and the sequencing of the content.
This section is fundamentally about how teachers and other teaching staff do their job and how leaders support them. In true knowledge-based curriculum style, central considerations will be subject knowledge, presentation of material, assessment, feedback, responsive teaching, and recall of material. Nonetheless, pedagogical approaches to learning are not prescribed, and Ofsted are careful to state ‘Different approaches to teaching can be effective’. Discussions with curriculum leaders and teachers, interviews with learners, work scrutiny, and reviews of long-term planning will all be used by inspectors to evaluate a school.
On paper, the focus isn’t solely on data. Actually the emphasis certainly isn’t merely on academic achievement and there is a recognition that there are more ways of defining success. So, inspectors will not be interested in using schools’ internal assessment data as evidence. Only nationally generated performance data will be taken into account. They will also have discussions with pupils about what they remember about the content. You can also expect observations, work scrutiny and in primary schools, time spent listening to pupils read aloud.
Ofsted have recently introduced short inspections, this is for the schools that are already doing well. Think of these inspections as a spot-checks as opposed to in-depth scrutinisation. Here is your quick guide to short inspections:
1. Timing of Inspections.
You are only going to get half a day’s notice to get everything organised. Be prepared.
2. Demeanour of inspectors
You can expect them to be challenging but also honest and fair. They will start with the presumption that you are still running a good school.
3. What are inspectors looking for?
Ultimately, they want to validate the senior leadership team’s judgement. This will involve observations, conversations, and an overview of assessments.
4. What happens after the inspection?
You can expect high-quality feedback that will help your school remain good (as well as steps to becoming outstanding).
5. What happens if an inspector sees something negative?
This will be taken into context. For example, if the science department has recently had a series of negative results and there is a clear rationale for this (a member of staff might have left), then this might not necessarily change an Ofsted grading. If the team are aware of the rationale and have a clear way of improving then this might not adversely affect the outcome.
Quality Of Education Summarised
Schools will need to review their curriculum offerings in terms of the 3 Is. Ofsted will be looking for knowledge-rich curriculums that promote mastery of skills. They’ll also be keen on evidence of tasks that simulate situations pupils are likely to encounter in later life. Of course, inspectors who happen to be fans of Hirsch will be looking for topics being revisited and for principles of cognitive science to be implemented (spaced practice, interleaving etc).
Thinking about this ‘Quality of Education’ section, the implementation phase is of vital importance as it is where the written intentions become active. Anyone who has spent any time in a classroom will tell you that the art of teaching is how you bring that ‘intent’ to life.
Teachers need to enthuse learners and harness curiosity as a driver for learning. The content needs to be relevant, engaging, challenging and significant, not dry and abstract. Key concepts need to be framed, explored and contextualised.
Learners need to understand the importance of the content they are learning and develop the agency to take action. In short, a school could have the most coherent, well-sequenced, balanced curriculum in the world on paper, but there is no guarantee that pupils will learn anything meaningful and lasting as a result.
Is there a risk that this focus on carefully sequenced content knowledge could be interpreted as being in support of a very narrow and scripted education? Could a homogenised approach be adopted with the goal of remembering ‘the best that has been thought and said’?
We need to be careful we maintain a critical mindset and don’t assume that cognitive science and recall of surface-level knowledge, boiled down to a formula, is seen as ‘the right way’ and is allowed to dominate. Recent fixation with Cognitive Load Theory gives us a good example of how educational discourse can zoom in on one thing whilst ignoring other discoveries and uncertainties.
Will an over-emphasis on a knowledge-rich curriculum and delivery of cultural capital turn out to detract from broader educational considerations?
- If the goal is identified as knowledge acquisition, does this lend itself to ‘ideal’ pedagogical approaches such as Direct Instruction?
- Can learning just be distilled down to a change in long term memory?
Prof. Rose Luckin may well say that our continued focus on knowledge acquisition and recall as benchmarks of academic success may be unhelpful, as forms of Artificial Intelligence as knowledge databases become more sophisticated and widespread.
Many of us, I’m sure, welcome the move away from data. Time will tell how far the new framework will allow teachers to focus on the primary challenge of teaching which comes when the curriculum on paper collides with the often messy reality of a classroom. The teaching profession needs autonomy to motivate, empower and make a tangible difference to the lives of their learners.