Office for standards in self preservation

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Ofsted should worry less about covering its back and more about the people it is supposed to be serving

What was the purpose of this week's annual report by Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools? Taxpayers might see its main function as coming up with authoritative findings on the quality of schools and other inspected services, and perhaps also offering guidance as to how they could improve.

But these are not the only aims, it seems. No, another purpose is to bolster the image of Ofsted. How do I know this? It says so, in a document sent to the inspectorate's board and viewable on Ofsted's website. This paper and several others sent to the board over the past three years underscore, for me, the view that the inspectorate is far too concerned with managing its reputation and not focused enough on what should be, surely, its core public service mission: helping parents understand what is going on and - directly or indirectly - helping teachers to bring about improvements.

The remarks on the purpose of Ms Gilbert's annual report are included in the latest of a series of papers sent from Ofsted's communications team to its non-executive board. The paper for the board meeting of September 29 says: "The annual report will showcase Ofsted's position as the authoritative voice in all areas we regulate. In particular, we will use it to: raise awareness and understanding of Ofsted's work; boost Ofsted's reputation by demonstrating the impact of inspection on improvement; and celebrate what is working well and spotlight areas for improvement."

A paper presented to the board in November 2007 shows Ofsted setting itself the target that "accurate and positive" - as opposed to negative - media coverage should increase every year. By its own judgment, it is doing well, despite the ongoing fallout from the Baby P affair which led to this week's Guardian front-page headline: "Flawed Ofsted fails barrage of inspections."

Another internal paper from July 2009 says that an Ofsted report this year profiling 12 excellent secondary schools "was particularly successful in promoting our key message that 'Ofsted is encouraging services to improve'." Ofsted's corporate communications work, it added, would "protect and promote the Ofsted brand".

The July paper then spells out in almost military terms how Ofsted's communications team went into overdrive as teacher union conferences approached last spring.

The document lists the strategy as follows: "Aim: To counter anticipated negative coverage from these conferences (which included motions to abolish Ofsted). Audience: schools, especially teachers, and parents. Activity: we monitored all union websites prior to and during the conferences to ensure that we were aware of motions concerning Ofsted. We also released and promoted the findings of an independent survey of teachers, which found overwhelming support for the inspection process and working with Ofsted. Outcome: this strategy paid dividends, with the findings also being used by Department for Children, Schools and Families in response to union criticisms. There was minimal reference to Ofsted in the media."

I've looked as this teacher survey, and unsurprisingly the findings are less than "overwhelmingly" supportive. Ofsted published its press release on April 9 under the headline: "Teachers welcome inspection and observation in school." It included the statement that 85 per cent of teachers "agreed that inspection led to improvements in teaching and learning".

This is a clear misrepresentation of the survey's findings. In fact, 85 per cent of teachers, when asked to "rate the extent to which school inspections have brought about changes (my italics) in teaching and learning activities in my school", ticked "to a great extent" (20 per cent) or "to some extent" (65 per cent). The fact that Ofsted affects schools is almost incontrovertible. Whether it improves them is deeply contentious. This question did not ask them the latter.

Teachers were asked, separately, "the extent to which school inspections have made a positive difference" to their teaching. Some 5 per cent said "to a great extent" and 53 per cent said "to some extent". Some 39 per cent said "not at all". Respondents were not asked if there were any negative effects. Again, this is hardly "overwhelming" support.

Why does this matter? Well, I have looked through the board papers for the years from 2007, and the picture that comes through is one of an organisation where the concept of the public interest, as opposed to Ofsted's interest, is at times difficult to discern. The board meeting minutes suggest these gatherings are dominated by corporate, or managerial, concerns, rather than detailed discussions about how inspections can best be helped to improve education or other services.

I have also heard speeches by inspectors recently in which they appear scared to say anything remotely "off message", as if speaking out could threaten Ofsted's corporate line.

As an aside, I note that each Ofsted school report now includes a judgment on "The schools (sic) capacity for sustained improvement". If you are potentially casting judgment on teachers' careers on the basis of their ability to promote literacy, it might be a good idea to get basic punctuation right.

There are examples of good work coming out of the inspectorate, not least some recent reports on the teaching of maths and English that have had a good hearing from teachers and which may be in the best traditions of Ofsted's origins as Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

I know, also, that many teachers have been impressed with individual inspectors who have visited their schools. But is it really too much to ask that the priority for all at Ofsted should be to ensure that the inspectorate serves the public, teachers and those working in other services well, rather than Ofsted? Or to be straightforward with empirical evidence, even when that evidence concerns Ofsted itself?

I think we deserve better. But I guess I'm just being too "negative".

Warwick Mansell, Author, Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing.

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