Coffield: '7 problems with inspections Ofsted must fix'

Frank Coffield says Ofsted's new inspection framework has lots to welcome - but it requires improvement in 7 key areas

Frank Coffield

Ofsted inspection framework: target practice with bow and arrow

Ofsted’s proposed new inspection framework has generated plenty of debate; and there’s a lot in there to welcome as it puts the curriculum at its heart. It aims to assess the quality of education students receive, rather than just the test and exam results they achieve.

It acknowledges that undue stress on outcomes drives bad practices, and reduces the amount and significance of data in inspection.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman also deserves credit for the consultative approach she has adopted, which has opened up avenues for dialogue now and in the future, and the commitment to base the new framework on evidence.

But, every so often, it is important to state the obvious:  it is teachers who make new initiatives work, not inspectors.  Inspection can help to improve schools and colleges when it provides reliable evidence, a rigorous professional discussion, identifies strengths and how they can be built on, shows where support is needed and ensures that informed, sustained action is taken.  It may hinder improvement when it creates complacency or demoralisation. 

The following seven proposals aim to strengthen Ofsted’s role as a major force for improvement.

Drop the four grades

The progressive language now routinely employed by Ofsted will be undermined if the four grades are retained.  The perception by the teaching profession may be that Ofsted now talks about adopting a more educational approach to inspection, but that its practice continues to be judgmental rather than developmental.  The danger from Ofsted’s perspective is that all its positive changes will be ignored because it refuses to discuss, never mind abandon, its most objectionable and most damaging practice.

When an institution is branded “inadequate” it encourages parents to move their children.  It tells staff to quit the profession or at least that institution.  It makes the task of recruiting able staff all the harder and tells education authorities to close it down or convert it into an academy.  The terms “requires support” or even “requires substantial support” are more likely to motivate governors, parents, learners and staff to work together to address weaknesses identified in the inspection.  The source of the support needs to be specifically articulated and how the improvement agencies are to be held accountable needs to be made explicit.

Specify the evidence for judgements

All reports should provide detailed information on sampling (size and how the sample was selected).  Ofsted should use data to help schools improve their performance, not as a basis for “high stakes” judgements. To take one case that is typical of Ofsted reporting:  a school that received an overall assessment of “inadequate” was told “the most-able pupils are not making enough progress…”  We need to know:  How many pupils’ test results were scrutinised in detail?  How many pupils’ work was examined?  10? 50? 100?  Does this mean 100% of the most-able pupils in the school?  Or 60 per cent or 20 per cent?  Without such detailed information on sampling, the very serious judgement of “inadequate” is not worthy of trust.

Definition of learning

Ofsted’s definition reads: “Learning is defined as an alteration in long-term memory.  If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”  This definition is not fit for purpose; it is one-dimensional, individualistic and, though it may be appropriate for psychological laboratory experiments, it is not appropriate for education. We need, and I  offer, this educational definition: “Learning refers to significant enhancements in knowledge, capabilities, values, attitudes or understanding (including but going beyond the acquisition of factual knowledge) by individuals, groups, organisations or society.”

A fair complaints procedure

Ofsted claims that it receives relatively few complaints, given the huge number of inspections that take place each year.  Part of the explanation could be that the complaints procedure is heavily weighted in Ofsted’s favour.  For example, the independent adjudicator from ICASO cannot overturn an inspection judgement, nor can it award financial compensation, nor are its recommendations binding on Ofsted.  At stage 2 of the complaints process, a complainant should be able to choose a head/principal from a shortlist drawn up by the profession, and at the final stage, the independent adjudicator should be given the power to overturn Ofsted’s judgements and make binding recommendations on both parties.

Inspect areas and not individual institutions

The unprofessional practices which some schools have resorted to in order to ‘game the system’ and thereby obtain a more favourable grade – such as ‘off-rolling’ pupils, manipulating data, or entering students for courses that are more in the financial interests of the institution than in the educational advancement of the students – are affecting adversely the life chances of students who in many cases are already disadvantaged. 

At the moment, it is possible to have an area served by selective institutions, all of whom are highly rated, but who do not collectively meet the needs of all the learners in the locality. One way of dealing with this issue would be for Ofsted to inspect, at the same time, the quality of education for all students in a given area to prevent some schools gaining unfair advantages over their local rivals by, for example, excluding large numbers of pupils with learning difficulties.  It would also help if Ofsted were to be given by government the power to inspect MATs.  As a society, we also need to know the relative costs and value for money of the two systems – academies, ‘free’ schools, MATS and regional schools commissioners on one side, and maintained schools and local authorities on the other.

Provide evidence of system failure

Ofsted should report on all the major problems facing the education system, highlighting the implications for public policy. For instance: difficulties in teacher recruitment, turnover and retention, under-funding, over-centralisation, structural incoherence, fragmentation of the system and endemic turbulence caused by government policies.

We appreciate that this is a political hot potato, but Ofsted has a statutory duty under the Education and Inspection Act 2006 to “keep the secretary of state informed about the quality of activities within the chief inspector’s remit”.  Nowhere does the act specify that it is Ofsted’s job to ensure that schools are implementing government policies.

Inspecting the curriculum

Ofsted should offer, during the consultation period, a detailed commentary on what it thinks constitutes a “good” and an “outstanding” design, implementation and evaluation of the curriculum. The inspectorate should also show how it will take into account the size and demanding nature of the new GCSEs and invite schools to take part in pilot schemes where three or four subject area are inspected. This would allow departments such as music, art or PE to be assessed, rather than just the current concentration on English, mathematics and the sciences.


The issues at stake in the new framework are of the utmost importance if we are to create together an educational and accountability system which is humane, just and developmental, in which all the partners can flourish – students, teachers, inspectors and society.  It is in the interests of all the parties that Ofsted’s new framework is based on sound educational principles.

Frank Coffield is emeritus professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education


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