Inspection cuts risk Ofsted's credibility, MPs warn

MPs say that inspectorate could be seen as 'a figleaf for government failures on school standards'

Meg Hillier, Ofsted, PAC

Ofsted’s credibility “will evaporate” if the level of school inspections continues to be cut back, a public spending watchdog has warned.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said today that Ofsted has been more focused on the cost of school inspections than on getting assurance about schools' effectiveness.

A new PAC report found significant cuts in Ofsted's budget has led it and the Department for Education to pay less attention to the value of inspections.

The amount the organisation spent on inspecting the schools sector fell by 52 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2017-18.

The PAC report follows an investigation by the National Audit Office which found that the level of assurance Ofsted could give about school effectiveness had been reduced because of budget cuts.

Schools now get one or two day inspections, and as of August last year more than 1,600 had not been inspected for six or more years. This figure included 296 schools that had not been inspected for 10 years or more because schools rated as outstanding are currently exempt from routine re-inspection.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: "Cuts to Ofsted's budget have undermined families' ability to make informed decisions about schools.

"If the level of inspection continues to be eroded there is a risk that Ofsted will come to be perceived by parents, Parliament and taxpayers as not relevant or worse, simply a fig leaf for government failures on school standards.

"Should this happen, its credibility will evaporate."

The report also criticises Ofsted for incorrectly reporting to Parliament that it had met the statutory target for re-inspecting schools every five years.

In its annual report and accounts for 2016-17 it stated it had met this target in 2015-16 and was on track for 2016-17.

However, Ofsted had failed to meet the statutory timescale for 43 schools (0.2 per cent) between 2012-13 and 2016-17.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman apologised for the “control weakness” that led to the misreporting, and committed to correcting the position in Ofsted’s annual report and accounts for 2017-18.

According to the PAC report, in the 43 cases, Ofsted staff had made decisions that led to the target being breached, but had not communicated this to senior management.

In 32 cases, the school had expanded or merged with another, and Ofsted had mistakenly classified the schools as new. 

The 11 other cases involved exceptional circumstances, such as schools which were due to close.

Ms Hillier added: “It is not encouraging that Ofsted also misinformed parliament about the inspections it had carried out – a mistake that further calls into question its effectiveness.

"We expect to see evidence that action Ofsted says it has taken to address this failing is working.”

The report recognises that Ofsted plays a vital role in making sure that children in schools across England receive the quality of education that they deserve.

However it warns that there have been clear shortcomings in Ofsted’s performance.

The report says it has completed fewer inspections than planned, it has failed to meet its targets for how often schools should be inspected, and schools are being left for longer between inspections.

The report also called for the DfE to re-examine its rationale for exempting outstanding schools from inspection and report back to the committee by December this year.

And it warned that Ofsted’s short inspections do not allow inspectors enough time to make a meaningful assessment of a school’s performance or to help schools to improve.

Ms Spielman said: “I welcome the Public Accounts Committee’s recognition of the vital role that Ofsted plays in our education system.

“As with all of the public sector, we have had to do more with less. However, I remain confident that our inspections provide parents, schools and the government with the assurance they need about school standards and that we do so in a way that compares very favourably in terms of quality and value for money with school inspection regimes internationally.

“However, as I said at the hearing, we have reached the limit in terms of being able to provide that level of assurance within our current funding envelope.

"That is why, with our ongoing framework review, we are looking at how to ensure that schools and parents get everything they need from our reports, and why many of the committee’s recommendations are already long in train.”

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