As the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) approaches its 30th birthday, many are increasingly concerned that Ofsted is becoming overly political and moralistic and insufficiently educational in its approach. The anniversary of Ofsted’s creation seems a good moment to take stock.
Ofsted employs more than a thousand people and has an annual budget of close to £130 million. For this, it takes responsibility for regularly inspecting all publicly funded schools and colleges in England. In addition to setting the agenda of her inspection teams, Ofsted’s head, Amanda Spielman, writes a widely read annual report on the state of state education. Spielman herself has strong educational, political and moral opinions, and intervenes regularly in public debates. Last year, for example, she rejected calls to decolonise the school curriculum.
Ofsted was established in 1992 in the final phase of the Thatcherite reform of English state education. The creation of a national inspectorate that reported in public followed the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989, as well as a new national examination system that included the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Results from these national exams were from this point onwards reported in national league tables, in which the performance of all state schools was ranked.
At the time, many teachers opposed this power grab from central government, and these criticisms have continued to be voiced. For many, Ofsted represents an unwarranted extension of central state control over education, as well as a mechanism by which the autonomy and the professionalism of teachers has been undermined. It is certainly true that teachers in England experience extraordinary levels of central state control and that Ofsted is one of the mechanisms by which this control is exercised. However, sociologist Stephen Ball perhaps overstates the case when he describes the accountability pressures experienced by English state-school teachers as giving rise to the ‘terror of performativity’.
It was under the government of John Major that Ofsted was first introduced. As we might expect, his account of its purpose differs from that of its critics. Writing in his autobiography, he observes that when he came into office, producers – rather than consumers – controlled public services and that health and education in particular was ‘run carelessly, wastefully, arrogantly … more for the convenience of the providers than the users, whether they were parents, pupils or patients’.
More recently, however, Ofsted has faced criticism from conservatives. They argue that Ofsted has been captured by progressivist educators, who are using the inspection system to impose woke values on education. Ofsted, the conservatives allege, has become a cuckoo institution, a mechanism by which a progressivist elite lodged within the state are imposing their values on young people. This charge could not be more serious, as Ofsted ought to remain impartial on matters that divide the nation morally and politically. It is, after all, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate.
Is Ofsted now exceeding its official remit? Do we even need a national inspectorate when we have a national examination system? Can state-employed teachers be trusted to do the job for which they are paid and trained? Is it time that we inspected the inspectors?
writer and teacher
teacher; former journalist and Labour Party parliamentary candidate; new mum and community organiser
secondary school teacher and NEU Executive member
director, Orthodox Conservatives think tank; education research fellow, The Bow Group
teacher and member of the AoI Education Forum