What’s the point of Ofsted?

In an exclusive for the Sunday Times, Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman revealed that she anticipates the number of Outstanding schools to be roughly halved.

Many of these Outstanding schools have not been inspected for a long time because former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove introduced an exemption. In effect, this created a one-way road to Outstanding for schools since it was still possible for schools to become Outstanding, but once there it was rare to go back.

To understand the point of Ofsted, I want to explore five ways – or mechanisms – that might lead to improvements.

1. Identifying best practice

Some people argue that Ofsted has a role in identifying the highest performing schools so that other schools can learn from them.

This mechanism relies on some demanding assumptions, including that we can (1) accurately identify the best schools; (2) disentangle the specific practices that make these schools successful; and (3) that this best practice is actually applicable to the context of other schools that might seek to imitate them.

2. Supporting parental choice

The logic here is that parents use Ofsted reports to move their children away from lower rated schools towards higher rated schools. Short-term, this gets more children into better schools. Longer-term, the less effective schools may close, while the higher-rated schools may expand.

This mechanism relies on high-quality, comparable information. Can you spot the problem? The mixed picture of reports under the old and new framework makes this a really difficult task – one that I suspect even the most engaged parents would find hard. If we think this mechanism is important, then perhaps we should invest in more frequent inspections so that parents have better information.

Personally, I’m sceptical about the potential of this mechanism. I worry about the accuracy and comparability of the reports. Also, the potential of this mechanism is limited by the fact that it can only really work when pupils transition between phases since so few pupils move schools midway through a phase and even if they are moving this probably comes with significant downsides such as breaking up friendship groups. Further, the potential of this mechanism is much more limited in rural areas where there is less realistic choice between schools. Finally, I worry about the fairness of this mechanism – what about the pupils left behind?

I cannot help but wonder if this mechanism might have been acting in reverse

Given the downgrading of many Outstanding schools I also cannot help but wonder if this mechanism might have been acting in reverse – how many pupils sent to ‘Outstanding’ schools in the past decade might have gone to a different school had it been re-inspected?

3. Identifying schools that need more support

Targeting additional resources and support where it is most needed makes a lot of sense. If we have accurate information about which schools would most benefit from support, then it is simple enough to then prioritise these schools.

Of course, for this mechanism to work, we need to correctly identify schools most in need and we need to have additional support that is genuinely useful to them.

4. Identifying areas for improvement

Ofsted’s reports identify key areas for improvement. This is potentially useful advice that schools can then focus on to improve further.

I’m sceptical about the potential of this mechanism alone because in my experience Ofsted rarely tells schools things that they do not already know.

5. Understanding the state of the nation

Ofsted have extraordinary insights into the state of the nation’s schools. Rather than supporting individual schools, this information could be used to tailor education policies by providing a vital feedback loop.

To get the most from this mechanism, it would be great to see Ofsted opening up their data for researchers to explore in a suitably anonymised manner.

Caveats and conclusions

I have not mentioned the role of Ofsted in safeguarding. Most people agree that we need a regulator doing this. But there is less consensus once focus goes from ‘food hygiene’ to ‘Michelin Guide’, to extend Amanda Spielman’s analogy.

Are there cheaper ways of activating these mechanisms?

I think it’s useful focusing on mechanisms and not just activities. It also worth considering cost-effectiveness – are there cheaper ways of activating these mechanisms? For instance, I’ve been really impressed by how Teacher Tapp have given rich insights into the state of the nation’s schools on a tiny budget. For context, Ofsted’s annual budget is more than the £125 million given to the EEF to spend over 15 years.

Which mechanisms do you think are most promising? Are there other mechanisms? Are there better ways of achieving these mechanisms? Are there more cost-effective ways?