Ofsted: cruel judgement or making schools accountable?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Since its creation in 1992, Ofsted has rarely been out of education headlines. Ofsted’s role is to inspect schools and regulate educational standards across England. However, Ofsted inspections are notorious amongst teachers for the intense preparation involved and considerable pressure on the school community. Once released into the public domain, an Ofsted report can potentially make or break a school’s reputation.

In April 2023, the vice-president of the National Association of Headteachers, Simon Kidwell, claimed that Ofsted was ‘not fit for purpose’. He is not alone in suggesting that inspections cause excessive stress to the school community, which can be detrimental both to staff welfare (especially amid a recruitment crisis) and to teaching and learning.

After claims that primary-school headteacher Ruth Perry tragically took her own life after she was told that her school would be given the lowest possible Ofsted rating, the inspectorate now faces more intense criticism, partly for the conduct of inspection weeks and partly for the perceived fairness of subsequent reports. In this context, Perry’s sister, Julia Waters, has called for schools to boycott Ofsted, refuse to cooperate with inspectors and remove all references to it from their websites until an independent review has been carried out.

Additionally, there are concerns that Ofsted’s four-label grading system – outstanding, good, requires improvement, inadequate – reduces the richness of educational outcomes to a reductive, box-ticking exercise. More recently, some school leaders have even instigated legal proceedings against Ofsted to challenge inspection feedback. But how else could schools be judged? Ofsted’s outgoing chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, defends the use of grades on the grounds that they are welcomed by parents who find them accessible.

Certainly, polls show that most parents (86 per cent) agree that it’s important for them to be informed about school inspections. But should parents also have a full breakdown of what exactly is being judged?

And what about complex issues such as pupil exclusions? Heads can receive a low grade for sending home too many badly behaved children. But they will also be judged adversely if the overall standard of discipline is low, which could well be the case if badly behaved children are kept in school. Of course, parents take safeguarding seriously. Yet 78 per cent of parents think that safeguarding should be inspected separately from educational standards.

And with so many aspects of the school curriculum now embroiled in contentious and political culture war disputes, around everything from decolonisation to gender identity, what exactly constitutes ‘outstanding’ in relation to sex and relationship education, or diversity and inclusion policies?

Is Ofsted needed and, if so, what should its remit and practices include? Is grading schools Ofsted-style beneficial or detrimental to teaching and learning?

Jason Ashley
headteacher, Redbridge Community School

Louise Burton
history teacher

Dr Sean Lang
senior lecturer in History, Anglia Ruskin University; author, First World War for Dummies and What History Do We Need?; fellow, Historical Association

Martin Robinson
director, Trivium 21c Ltd. education consultancy; author, Trivium 21c, Curriculum Revolutions, Curriculum: Athena versus the machine and Trivium in Practice

Ian Mitchell
English literature and psychology teacher; writer, Teachwire; member, AoI Education Forum