Today, Friday 7 September, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a report on Ofsted’s inspection of schools.
The report makes a number of recommendations for the department, principally around Ofsted’s funding, assurance for parents and the possible removal of the ‘Outstanding’ exemption.
A Department for Education spokesperson said:
Standards are undeniably rising in our schools. 154,000 more six-year-olds are now on track to be fluent readers than in 2012, we have seen the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers reduce across all stages of education and there are 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools – with 86% of schools now judged to this standard, compared to 68% in 2010.
The Education Secretary has made clear that Ofsted is the only body able to provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance. We trust Ofsted with these inspections and this is backed by parents, with Ofsted inspections the second most important consideration when choosing a school behind location.
The focus of Ofsted should always be on underperformance so that no child has to be in a bad school that no-one is doing anything about. There is a comprehensive range of performance data available and where Ofsted has concerns about performance at any school, it has always been and will continue to be able to inspect at any point.
We are clear that schools judged by Ofsted to be providing ‘outstanding’ education are not exempt from accountability. We have the most sophisticated performance data we have ever had – published for all schools every year – providing real transparency on schools’ performance for parents.
Where concerns are raised about the provision or outcomes at an outstanding school, Ofsted has the power to re-inspect.
It is unacceptable so many schools are exempt from re-inspection and Government should review its approach, say the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) plays a vital role in making sure that children in schools across England receive the quality of education that they deserve.
Ofsted’s budget has been cut significantly in recent years, and the amount it spent on inspecting the schools sector fell by 52% in real terms between 1999-2000 and 2017-18. However, this has led Ofsted and the Department for Education to focus narrowly on the cost of inspection, rather the value of getting independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness.
There have been clear shortcomings in Ofsted’s performance – it has completed fewer inspections than planned, it has failed to meet its targets for how often schools should be inspected, and schools are being left for longer between inspections.
Ofsted now inspects good schools through just a short one-day inspection and, under legislation, outstanding schools are exempt from routine re-inspection altogether. Ofsted is therefore not providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need.
As well as reporting on individual schools, HM Chief Inspector’s role includes advising ministers about the quality of schools. Championing standards is an important part of any independent inspector’s remit, and we were disappointed that HM Chief Inspector seemed reluctant to offer her views about wider issues affecting the school system.
COMMENT FROM PAC CHAIR MEG HILLIER MP:
“Cuts to Ofsted’s budget have undermined families’ ability to make informed decisions about schools.
“It is not encouraging that Ofsted also misinformed Parliament about the inspections it had carried out – a mistake that further calls into question its effectiveness. We expect to see evidence that action Ofsted says it has taken to address this failing is working.
“If the level of inspection continues to be eroded there is a risk that Ofsted will come to be perceived by parents, Parliament and taxpayers as not relevant or worse, simply a fig leaf for Government failures on school standards.
“Should this happen, its credibility will evaporate.”
Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said:
"I welcome the Public Accounts Committee’s recognition of the vital role that Ofsted plays in our education system.
"As with all of the public sector, we have had to do more with less. However, I remain confident that our inspections provide parents, schools and the government with the assurance they need about school standards and that we do so in a way that compares very favourably in terms of quality and value for money with school inspection regimes internationally.
"However, as I said at the hearing, we have reached the limit in terms of being able to provide that level of assurance within our current funding envelope. That is why, with our ongoing framework review, we are looking at how to ensure that schools and parents get everything they need from our reports, and why many of the committee’s recommendations are already long in train.
"I understand that the committee is disappointed that I would not be drawn into giving my views on some wider issues in the sector. My role is to provide Parliament and the Secretary of State with an evidence-based appraisal of educational standards. It would be irresponsible of me to make comment on those areas where we do not have clear evidence of the impact on standards or young people’s wellbeing.
"Where we do have that evidence, be it about the dangers of illegal unregistered schools, the risks of radicalisation, the narrowing of the curriculum or the importance of early literacy, I have not hesitated to speak out and will continue to do so."
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE PAC
For its part, the Department needs to be clearer about what the purpose of inspection is and where responsibility for improving underperforming schools lies.
Ofsted incorrectly reported to Parliament that it had met the statutory target for re-inspecting schools every five years. Ofsted has a statutory target to re-inspect non-exempt schools within five academic years of the end of the academic year in which the last inspection took place (primary and secondary schools are exempt from routine re-inspection if Ofsted previously graded them as outstanding). Ofsted stated in its annual report and accounts for 2016-17 that it had met this target in 2015/16 and was on track for 2016/17.
However, Ofsted had in fact failed to meet the statutory timescale for 43 schools (0.2%) between 2012/13 and 2016/17. Providing Parliament with incorrect information is a serious matter. HM Chief Inspector apologised for the control weakness that led to the misreporting, and committed to correcting the position in Ofsted’s annual report and accounts for 2017-18.
Ofsted explained that, in the 43 cases, its staff had made decisions that led to the target being breached, but had not communicated this to senior management. In 32 cases, the school had expanded or merged with another, and Ofsted had erroneously classified the schools as new; in the 11 other cases, there were exceptional circumstances such as schools which were due to close.
Ofsted said that it had put new procedures in place to make sure that any decision to defer an inspection beyond the statutory target is reported to HM Chief Inspector or Ofsted’s Chief Operating Officer. If a school provided inaccurate information, Ofsted would be critical. It needs to show that it can meet the same standards as it demands of schools.
Recommendation: Ofsted should report annually to Parliament, in it its annual report and accounts, on how many schools have not been inspected within the statutory target and the reasons why.
It is unacceptable that so many schools are exempt from re-inspection and so have not been inspected for six or more years. Under legislation, schools that Ofsted has graded as outstanding are exempt from routine re-inspection, unless Ofsted identifies a particular risk. At August 2017, 1,620 schools had not been inspected for six years or more, including 296 schools that had not been inspected for 10 years or more.
As a result, some pupils go through the whole of primary and/or secondary school without any independent assessment of their school’s effectiveness. It is reasonable to assume that not all these schools remain at the same level of performance after so many years. In addition, grades awarded under Ofsted’s previous inspection frameworks are not fully comparable to more recent grades because the previous frameworks paid less attention to pupil progress.
This limits the extent to which parents can use Ofsted grades to compare schools on a like-for-like basis. Many headteachers in schools previously graded as outstanding are likely to want to be re-inspected as they would value external verification of their school’s performance. HM Chief Inspector acknowledges that most people would think it reasonable to expect a school to be inspected during a child’s time in that school.
Recommendation: The Department should re-examine the rationale for exempting schools graded outstanding from routine re-inspection, and report back to us on its assessment in December 2018.
Ofsted’s short inspections do not allow inspectors enough time to make a meaningful assessment of a school’s performance or to help schools to improve. Ofsted inspects schools previously graded as good through a short, one-day inspection, on average every four years, rather than through a full two-day inspection.
This has become the norm as two-thirds of schools are graded as good. Short inspections inevitably provide less assurance about schools’ effectiveness and allow inspectors less time to discuss with schools how they might improve.
Ofsted explained that short inspections involve discussing the school leadership’s evaluation of the school’s performance and triangulating that with data and some observation of, and discussion about, the school; it acknowledged that this is far short of a full review of all aspects of a school.
Shorter inspections provide some assurance to government and the responsible authorities, such as governing bodies, that schools meet a certain standard, but they are less about providing advice to teachers and information for parents.
Recommendation: Ofsted and the Department should review whether the short inspection model provides sufficient, meaningful assurance about schools’ effectiveness, and evaluate the costs and benefits of alternative approaches, including carrying out more full inspections. They should report back to us on the findings in December 2018.
Ofsted does not give parents enough opportunity to contribute their views as part of school inspections. Ofsted’s inspection reports are an important source of information for parents choosing schools for their children. Parents are therefore a crucial audience and they would like Ofsted’s reports to reflect their views more.
Ofsted seeks parents’ views via an online survey and through talking to parents at the school gates during inspections. Parents can access the online survey at any time but can enter free-text comments only once Ofsted has announced an inspection, which means they have a very short time (often only one day) in which to give their views.
There is also only a very limited opportunity for inspectors to talk to parents as they drop off or collect their children. Ofsted appears to have good intentions to improve how it engages with parents and has held focus groups to explore parents’ views about this. However, we are not convinced that Ofsted yet has concrete plans to turn these intentions into actions.
Recommendation: In the report to us in December 2018, Ofsted should set out its plans, with specific actions and target dates, for collecting more and better evidence from parents about schools.
Ofsted has struggled to employ enough school inspectors, meaning that it has failed to complete its inspection programme. Ofsted has carried out fewer inspections than planned, although performance has improved since 2015-16 when it completed only 65% of planned inspections. In 2017-18, Ofsted completed 6,079 inspections – 94% of the planned number. While Ofsted assures us that it has enough contracted inspectors, it still does not have enough directly employed HM inspectors – at March 2018, it employed 30 (15%) fewer HM inspectors than it had budgeted for, and there was also a shortfall in each of the two previous years.
Although turnover of HM inspectors has fallen, it remains high (19% in 2017-18). Ofsted says that recruiting and retaining inspectors is one of its top priorities and that it has a programme of work to improve the position, for example by reducing inspectors’ workload and improving their training. We heard that training as an Ofsted inspector was excellent continuing professional development for teachers.
As only headteachers and deputies whose schools have been graded as good or outstanding can become contracted Ofsted inspectors, this training is not available to teachers in schools that need most improvement.
Ofsted should write to us in April 2019 with an update on the gap between the numbers of HM inspectors employed and budgeted for, and the turnover rate.
Ofsted should also consider opening up its training to headteachers and deputies working in schools graded as requires improvement and inadequate so that these schools can benefit in the same way as schools that are performing well.
Ofsted does not make the most of its unique position to use intelligence from inspections to lead change and be a force for school improvement. HM Chief Inspector has a statutory role to advise the Secretary of State for Education on the quality of schools. Her independence and status as the head of a non-ministerial government department puts her in an ideal position to speak freely, without fear or favour.
Inspectors are on the ground in schools every day, witnessing the challenges that schools are facing and the underlying causes of poor performance. Ofsted should be sharing these insights with the Department and more widely. We asked HM Chief Inspector for her views on the wider issues affecting the school system, including the impact of funding pressures, for example on the breadth of the curriculum, and concerns about pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.
We were disappointed that she did not provide clearer and more direct answers. Ofsted has also reduced its school improvement activity in recent years, publishing only two research and analysis reports in 2017, compared with 13 in 2013.
Ofsted tells us that it is now expanding its research programme again. For example, it has undertaken research into the curriculum taught in schools, including the subjects which are being dropped, and it has published a report about what schools are doing to combat child obesity.
Recommendation: HM Chief Inspector should write to us by October 2018 with her reflections on the main risks to schools’ effectiveness and the systemic causes of poor performance, including the impact of funding pressures.
The system for school accountability and improvement is muddled, leading to confusion for schools and parents, and inefficiency where roles overlap. Although Ofsted aims to be a force for improvement, it is not itself responsible for school improvement; that responsibility rests with a school’s governing body, the multi-academy trust or the local authority, and ultimately with the Department.
When schools are failing, the Department, through the regional schools commissioners, is responsible for helping them to improve. By way of example, we asked about the 78 schools previously graded as inadequate where Ofsted did not meet its target to re-inspect within either 18 or 24 months between 2012/13 and 2016/17. However, Ofsted and the Department could not explain clearly what is in place to improve the quality of education in these schools and who is responsible for making that urgently needed improvement.
Given this lack of clarity, we are unclear about the basis for the Department’s decisions about funding for school improvement – the eight regional schools commissioners spent £32 million in 2017-18, compared with the £44 million that Ofsted spent on inspecting schools. The Department acknowledges that the system for school accountability and improvement is complex. In May 2018, the Secretary of State set out principles to inform a review of school accountability and the Department plans to consult on detailed proposals in autumn 2018.
Recommendation: As part of its review of accountability, the Department should make clear where responsibility for school improvement lies. The Department, working with Ofsted, should also assess whether the balance of spending is right between different parts of the system for school accountability and improvement, including between Ofsted and the regional schools commissioners.
Evidence relating to this Report can be found here.
Committee membership: Meg Hillier – Chair (Labour (Co-op), Hackney South and Shoreditch), Bim Afolami (Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden), Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife), Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Conservative, The Cotswolds), Chris Evans (Labour (Co-op), Islwyn), Caroline Flint (Labour, Don Valley), Luke Graham (Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire), Robert Jenrick (Conservative, Newark), Gillian Keegan (Conservative, Chichester), Shabana Mahmood (Labour, Birmingham Ladywood), Layla Moran (Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon), Stephen Morgan (Labour, Portsmouth South), Anne Marie Morris (Conservative, Newton Abbot), Bridget Phillipson (Labour, Houghton and Sunderland South), Lee Rowley (Conservative, North East Derbyshire), Gareth Snell (Labour (Co-op), Stoke-on-Trent Central)