School-inspection reports by Ofsted are seen as central to school choice in England. But years pass between inspections and information gets out of date. The most recent figures published by Ofsted show that, for the second year running, less than half the schools rated “outstanding” have held on to that grade. Of those that have undergone a full inspection since 2021, just 18 per cent have remained “outstanding”.
In the meantime, the relationship between the inspectorate and the school sector has been strained to breaking point by the high stakes of the four-grade system (“outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” and “inadequate”).
We need a fair and robust way to monitor how well schools are doing. A school-inspection regime should recognise and encourage good performance, help parents choose where to send their children and target support towards struggling schools or enable intervention in cases of outright failure.
As several commentators have pointed out in recent days, simply getting rid of Ofsted would leave a gaping hole in the accountability system in England. And the government is right to emphasise the importance of standards. But we need to reform the way Ofsted operates to ensure it meets these objectives – because in its current form, it does not.
First, the existing grading system does not reflect significant differences in academic performance. The gap between schools rated “outstanding” and “good” is equivalent to just a third of a GCSE grade in terms of student outcomes and shrinks even further when we take the family backgrounds of students into account.
Arguably, this would not be an issue if inspections reflected the broader school environment, but researchers have found little correlation between students’ perceptions of their school and its Ofsted rating. Some data even suggest students’ wellbeing suffers more in “outstanding” schools.
Second, Ofsted judgements feel less relevant to most parents than concerns for their children’s safety and wellbeing or practical considerations such as how close a school is to home.
Third, the inspection system is overly focused on whether schools meet a narrow set of requirements, instead of seeking out innovative practice or engaging in constructive dialogue. For schools, the consequences of a slip-up are so severe that any rating below “good” is not a lesson on what to improve, but a failure to be avoided at all costs.
This naturally incentivises a focus on how the school will come across during the very brief inspection window, drawing attention and resources away from longer-term challenges such as teachers’ performance. And in a system built on fear of failure, the experimentation needed to drive improvements becomes a casualty.
Just as many students struggle with an assessment system that only reflects their exam-day performance, schools are similarly constrained by the inspection regime, which focuses on a short visit every few years. The consequences of failure are massive, the rewards for success few.
Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Phillipson was right when she recently described Ofsted judgements as “high stakes for heads, low information for parents”. And Labour’s plan to rework Ofsted’s reports to provide a more rounded picture of school performance – “a rich report card” – is right. But how could we achieve this and more?
Towards Report Cards, Peer Support and Real-Time Data
Instead of the existing categories (under which 88 per cent of schools are now rated “good” or “outstanding”), the inspection system should give schools a pass/fail judgement combined with a detailed one-page summary of their strengths and weaknesses.
To avoid inspector bias, there would need to be an exceedingly clear definition of what leads to a failing grade: specific and obvious safeguarding failures, or a consistent inability to improve academic performance over a number of years.
Outside these parameters, inspectors should concisely highlight any areas in which a school excels and, where appropriate, set out where its weaknesses lie. They should then connect schools with similar but high-performing peers experienced in tackling the relevant problem areas who can provide expert support.
The London Challenge, a school-improvement programme introduced in 2003 by the Labour government, showed that peer support plays an important role in driving better outcomes in schools. A national body like Ofsted, combining a bird’s-eye view of the system with on-the-ground expertise, would be uniquely placed to develop insights into which schools can serve as good role models and sources of best practice. Look to the NHS’s Getting It Right First Time programme for how a national body, supported by data and expert insight, can provide targeted peer support for improved performance.
Greater use of real-time data would reduce the inspection system’s reliance on “after-the-fact” results and instead enable early intervention when needed. To support this, the government should create a national data infrastructure for education, including digital learner IDs of the sort used in countries like Estonia and Denmark, managed by an independent data body.
This way, schools could access a rich source of up-to-the-minute indicators to help them monitor and demonstrate how they are supporting students, benchmark performance and engage in an ongoing dialogue with inspectors outside the short visit window. Feeding this data into a “report card” would, in turn, help parents select the schools that best fit their children’s needs.
Such a system would be more consistent, more predictable and more objective. It would furnish parents with a richer understanding of how schools are functioning; set clear expectations when an inspector does come to visit; and create the conditions for better, more informed peer-to-peer support across schools themselves
Along with reshaping the curriculum and the student-assessment regime, reforming Ofsted’s approach to inspections can help to make sure teachers and schools perform to their best – and all students get the world-class education they deserve.