Why Ofsted should routinely inspect outstanding schools too

Former HMI and adviser to Ofsted, Professor Colin Richards, considers Ofsted’s response to the consultation on school inspection and believes they should have found a way to inspect outstanding schools more regularly…

Ofsted has recently published its response to the consultation it undertook in relation to proposed changes to school inspection. Given the way the consultation questions were framed the responses were predictable as was Ofsted’s own response to the responses. It is a pity that Ofsted has given no ground on its original proposals but its current stance does at least represent a welcome cultural shift compared with previous policy and practice, though not as great as some of us would wish.

The first paragraph of the executive summary to the report contains two telling sentences. The first states that “The reforms we will introduce in September 2015 are intended to enable us to inspect the right things in the right way” (my italics). This assumes that there is one right way and that Ofsted embodies it – a hubristic and highly contentious proposition which will not endear the organisation to its many critics. The second represents a welcome, surprising, honest but unsettling admission: “We will ensure that our inspections are of increasingly rigorous quality and value to the profession and the public, are more proportionate and have greater impact”. Taken literally (and how else are we to take it?) this implies that up to now inspections have not been sufficiently rigorous, proportionate or impactful – and this after almost a quarter of a century of Ofsted inspections! With that track record can we be confident that with its inspectors soon to be directly contracted with Ofsted it can “ensure…the necessary quality, control and flexibility” in its workforce to deliver its proposed reforms? The jury is surely out on this issue.

Ofsted has agreed to introduce a new “Common Inspection Framework” – which is only “common” in the same weak sense as the national curriculum is “national” – the framework will not apply to the whole gamut of private provision. However, the use of that framework is a useful step if it means that inspectors can make graded and hopefully comparable judgments on the same areas for all but privileged independent schools. However devising such a framework will not be easy given the characteristics of different phases and of different types of school as well as schools’ inevitable idiosyncrasies.

Ofsted will be introducing frequent but shorter inspections – with schools judged good to be inspected approximately every three years. This seems sensible, proportionate and economical. But such visits should not be confined to dialogue with senior leaders and interrogation of data but should also involve visits to classes “to get a feel” of the school. It is very unfortunate that Ofsted has decided not to inspect outstanding schools since they stand to benefit from dialogue with skilled inspectors who can disseminate information and insights into interesting practice, not in order to prescribe authoritatively about improvement but to inform even outstanding schools about other possibilities. Inspectors too need to routinely visit outstanding schools so that they have the full range of experience on the basis of which they can calibrate their judgments of all the schools they inspect. Ofsted’s response is short-sighted and cannot be excused by the cop-out sentence:“Any change of approach would require legislative change”. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Ofsted’s decision to report on the curriculum is long overdue. The curriculum was not one of the focuses of inspection agreed with the previous Secretary of State despite being the medium through which understanding, skills and qualities are fostered. That blatant omission is now to be rectified but questions remain. Why not inspect the quality of the curriculum in its own right rather than, as proposed, under the effectiveness of leadership and management judgment? What does Ofsted mean by contentious terms such as “British values”, “breadth”,”balance” and “relevance”?

It will be interesting to read how the proposed inspection handbooks which will accompany the new common framework deal with such issues and with the delineation of revised inspection criteria, some of which are suspect and even nonsensical as they currently stand.

Ofsted’s response to its consultation provides no surprises. Perhaps the most surprising fact is that Ofsted has been prepared to begin to rethink inspection in a changing educational climate. Ofsted does, however, need to acknowledge the contestable nature of the inspection process. Despite the confident claim in the executive summary there is no one ‘right” way of inspecting schools, though experience since Ofsted’s inception in 1992 suggests there have been a number of wrong ones.


An edited version of this article also appears in the Conversation: Ofsted must routinely inspect outstanding schools too


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  1. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove colinsparkbridg It should be a level playing field, that’s why Ofsted (if it must exist) should inspect all schools equally

  2. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove colinsparkbridg It should be a level playing field, that’s why Ofsted (if it must exist) should inspect all schools equally

  3. Janet2

    Funny how successive changes to the way Ofsted inspects schools are said to be an improvement on what went before.  

    That said, as anylutwyche says below, if there has to be inspection in should apply to all schools.  It’s not acceptable that private schools judged Grade 3 by ISI are described as ‘Sound’ when Grade 3 state schools Require Improvement (and now, it appears, ripe for enforced academy conversion).

  4. Janet2

    @5N_Afzal andylutwyche SchoolsImprove colinsparkbridg Not necessarily.  The three inspectorates which inspect private schools do so because the DfE regulates them.  The DfE could say they would no longer regulate independent inspectorates and were taking inspection in house.

  5. motiv8222

    SchoolsImprove I left a senior position in an outstandingly led school, that was anything but and the results perhaps show this…

  6. motiv8222

    SchoolsImprove I left a senior position in an outstandingly led school, that was anything but and the results perhaps show this…

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