Quality Assurance Processes: Ofsted Lecture

Introduction

Ofsted stands for the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services, and Skills; it is the statutory body which inspects schools and young people's services in England (Ofsted, 2016a). This chapter is concerned with how Ofsted conducts inspections as a quality assurance process in English schools, and the ramifications of this for educators.

The first section of the chapter outlines Ofsted's remit, its background, and its guiding principles. The second section explains the schools' inspection process operated by Ofsted. The third element of this chapter discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of an inspection-based quality assurance model as operated by Ofsted. The fourth and final part goes on to consider how educational settings might best prepare for an inspection under Ofsted criteria. A series of reflective prompts accompanies each section to help support your contextualisation of this chapter's content.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Describe Ofsted, its functions, and its remit
  • Analyse how an Ofsted inspection works, and the nature of the grading criteria resulting from inspections carried out under the Common Inspection Framework
  • Consider strengths and weaknesses of, and alternatives to, an inspection-based quality assurance model for education
  • Identify ways in which an organisation might prepare meaningfully for Ofsted inspection

What is Ofsted?

Ofsted was established in September 1992 as an outcome of the 1992 Education (Schools) Act. School inspection had been coming under increasing parliamentary scrutiny and criticism since the mid-1970s, and reform of existing arrangements was widely considered to be long overdue. The 1992 Act and the formation of Ofsted may be seen as a continuation of education reform policies which had been considered in the UK for some time, and which included the inauguration of the National Curriculum in the late 1980s.

Before Ofsted was established, schools were inspected nationally by Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMIs) and on a county or borough basis by local education authorities (LEAs). This was long-established; HMIs have been inspecting schools since 1839 (Elliott, 2012). Part of Ofsted's original remit was to increase transparency in education through clear and accessible inspection and reporting of findings. Over time, its scope has expanded to take in child services, though it is best known for its role in co-ordinating the inspection of schools.

Ofsted's remit applies only to England. As education is a devolved matter, there are parallel but separate arrangements in the rest of the UK. Education Scotland co-ordinates school inspections in Scotland, whereas this function is supervised by Estyn in Wales, and by the Education Training Inspectorate in Northern Ireland. Each of these organisations, though independent, report to and are funded by the education department of the relevant country.

Ofsted is responsible for inspecting a range of educational settings, and also some additional child services (Ofsted 2014). These include:

  • Maintained schools and academies
  • Some independent schools
  • Early years and childcare
  • Children's centres
  • Children's homes
  • Family centres
  • Adoption and fostering services and agencies
  • Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass)
  • Children's services in local authorities
  • Local authority school improvement services
  • Initial teacher education
  • FE colleges, and 14-19 provision
  • Adult and community learning
  • Probation services
  • Work-based training organisations
  • Education and training in prisons and secure establishments

Ofsted is organised regionally, with 8 regional offices led by a regional director who reports to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. The regional directors lead teams of HMIs with the aim of promoting improvement of education and child services through inspection.

Ofsted maintains a set of core values which underpin the running of the organisation, and which inform inspection processes and approaches to education. These values are (Ofsted, 2014):

  1. Putting children and learners first: with an especial focus on the disadvantaged and vulnerable, there is a priority to put children and young people first in Ofsted's operations.
  2. Achieving excellence: a focus is maintained on standards raising and on outcomes being improved.
  3. Behaving with integrity: Ofsted is evidence-led in is assessments, and works to be a responsive and well-regulated organisation.
  4. Valuing people and their differences: The organisation works to celebrate diversity, respect difference, and to pursue an equal opportunities agenda, as well as to respond appropriately to arising issues.

Ofsted inspections are informed by the contention that independent and impartial external inspection offers diagnostics on what should improve in a setting, and communicates that information in a meaningful way to educators, parents, school governors, and other stakeholders. Inspection is seen to provide assurance to the public and to government that settings are being operated to at least minimum standards, that tax monies are being used efficiently and effectively in the provision of education and related services, and that safeguarding measures are in place. Furthermore, inspection is supportive of improvement in education provision by the setting and assessing of standards, on reporting of school performance, and by the raising of expectations. Ofsted inspections are intended to provide challenge as well as an impetus to take corrective action where such improvement is considered necessary (Ofsted, 2015).

Ofsted inspections, and the reports derived from such inspections, are useful in several ways. The headline grade given following an inspection can be useful as a general quality measure, and may be useful to the school for publicising their effectiveness, and of customer information value to prospective and current parents and learners. Ofsted reporting also provides for a country-wide overview of the levels of teaching and learning, and of the competence of educational and other settings' management. This may be being increasingly relevant in an educational landscape characterised by a diversity of organisational and funding arrangements for schools; academisation necessitates oversight to provide a reasonable check and balance against school independence from local authority control leading to waywardness, for example (Science Community Representing Education [Score], 2010).

Reflection

Look again at Ofsted's remit. Are there any surprises there? Does it make sense to have one organisation to have oversight of so many aspects of children's and young people's provision? If not, why not? If so, why is that?

Consider the values statement offered by Ofsted. Would you add any others, or take one or more from the list given by the organisation? What are your reasons for this?

What are the advantages and potential issues for having separate sets of inspection arrangements in different parts of the UK?

How does Ofsted measure the quality of schools?

The rubric by which Ofsted inspects schools and other settings within its remit is contained within the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) (Ofsted, 2015). The rules vary depending on the kind of setting being inspected, and on the nature of the inspection being undertaken at that time, though there are commonalities across all settings.

School inspection can take at any point in the school year after the first 5 working days of the Autumn term. The frequency of inspection will depend on the findings of the previous inspection (Ofsted, 2016b).

Ofsted uses a 4-point grade scale in its inspections to make the main judgments:

  • Grade 1: outstanding
  • Grade 2: good
  • Grade 3: requires improvement
  • Grade 4: inadequate

Inspectors also give grades using the same 4-point scale on four areas of the setting's operations (Ofsted, 2015):

  • Effectiveness of leadership and management: ambition in vision, robustness in self-assessment, commitment to staff development and practice, curriculum management, promotion of British values, equality and diversity management, quality of safeguarding.
  • Quality of teaching, learning, and assessment: subject knowledge, expectations of learners, appropriateness of planning and assessment, feedback quality, engagement with parents and other stakeholders, commitment to equality and diversity, support of English and mathematics skills.
  • Personal development, behaviour, and welfare: fostering a culture of pride and ambition, promoting confidence in learners, careers advice, employability and contextual skills, attendance, and behaviour management, safeguarding and health issues monitoring, citizenship.
  • Outcomes for children and learners: Distance travelled, relevance of studies, progression.

Schools judged 'outstanding'

An outstanding school is exempt from routine inspection, though inspections may be conducted if there are causes for concern; such schools may also be sampled as part of Ofsted survey work. Maintained nursery schools, special schools, and pupil referral units are not granted this exemption due to the importance of the settings' work.

Schools judged 'good'

A good school will receive a one-day inspection every three years, if the quality of education is consistently assessed as being good. If performance changes, then this schedule may alter to a full inspection.

Short inspections do not confer grades on the four areas of overall effectiveness, but merely confirm the continuing validity or otherwise of the previous headline grade. If a re-inspection is considered necessary because of a change in headline grade, then the four areas of effectiveness will be re-graded during that re-inspection.

Schools judged 'requires improvement'

A school assessed as requiring improvement (formerly 'satisfactory'), may be monitored by Ofsted and face a full re-inspection after two years.

Schools judged 'inadequate'

Inadequate in this context means that Ofsted considers the school to either require special measures, or to have serious weaknesses. If the school has maintained status and is placed in a category of concern, then an academy order will be issued, converting the school to a sponsored academy. If the school is an academy, then it will receive monitoring inspections by Ofsted.

However, if the school's academy status is changed to a new sponsor (a process known as 're-brokering'), then monitoring inspections will not be conducted. If no new sponsor is found, then monitoring visits from Ofsted will be put into place, with a full re-inspection within 18 months of the previous full inspection.

An academy placed into special measures which is not re-brokered will have its first monitoring visit between 3 and 6 months following the inspection; a full inspection will follow within 2 years (Ofsted, 2016b).

Notice of inspection

Schools are notifiedaround noon of the working day prior to inspection. If deemed appropriate, Ofsted may insect without notice. In a no-notice situation, the lead inspector will contact the school approximately 15 minutes before arriving.

Parents of learners should be notified of an inspection, using Ofsted-template notification. The Parent View section of the Ofsted website gives parents and carers a chance to comment on the school and to provide their views and opinions on its operation, which will be taken into consideration by the inspection team (Ofsted, 2016c)

During inspections

The inspection team will consist of a blend of Ofsted-employed HMIs, and self-employed inspectors contracted to Ofsted. A full inspection lasts 2 days; a short inspection lasts 1. Most of this time will be spent in lesson observations and in evidence-gathering. Inspectors will talk with pupils and with staff, and will consider external views such as local authority reports where relevancy.

The lead inspector will liaise with the head teacher and other staff, and work to ensure that they are updated about the inspection, that they are appraised of how and why specific judgements are arrived at, and that the opportunity to present evidence and clarify any matters arising is available. The head may be invited to take part in joint lesson observations, and to attend inspection team meetings at the end of both days of the inspection. Inspectors will let teachers and other staff have oral feedback on lessons and other work inspected.

When giving the inspection feedback, the lead inspector will clarify the grades awarded, will note that they are provisional until confirmed in the written report, and will clarify the appeals and complaints process as well as the ramifications of any of the assessments. Inspection feedback is given to the setting's senior management team; governors should be represented.

After inspection

A draft report will be available within 2 working weeks, with a working day allocated for the school to fact-check and make comment, unless concerns are raised, in which case the school will have 5 working days to respond. The final report is posted on the Ofsted website within 19 working days of the inspection ending; if an 'inadequate' grade is given, this may extend to 28 days. Copies of the full report are distributed to the school, the local authority, and the governing body; the school must provide parents access to a copy of the report also (Ofsted, 2016b).

Reflection

There is a lot of information contained in this section. Is there anything which is surprising to you? If so, why is that?

Does having differentiated inspections based on prior performance have issues? Should there be a one-size-fits-all approach taken instead? Justify your position.

What are the responsibilities of academy sponsors towards quality assurance in schools? How do you feel about forcing underperforming maintained schools to academy status? How and why might this be thought to improve the quality of education available?

From Ofsted's website, download an inspection report for a setting with which you are familiar. What does the report tell you about the setting, and in what ways does the report match or contradict your own perception of that setting?

What are the strengths and limitations of the Ofsted inspection model?

Ofsted is not uncontroversial. The inspection model is open to critique, and the importance of inspection placed upon educators can be stressful and demoralising, as well as arguably fostering school environments which are tailored as much to the satisfaction of Ofsted inspection criteria as they are to meaningful learning and fostering of young people's education and growth. A generalised concern about Ofsted can result in safe and dependable, though unambitious and sterile teaching, and school environments designed as much to tick boxes as to inspire learners.

Inspections are inevitably subjective to some extent; though there are safeguards within the model to mitigate against wayward grades, there is nevertheless an element of inconsistency and, at times, inaccuracy in grading, reporting, and in the application of Ofsted guidelines to settings.

The Ofsted system (and its counterparts elsewhere in the UK) allows for a single body to present information and data about educational quality at the national level; a diversified system of accountability may not be able to do this in any meaningful way. A removal of Ofsted would mean that school performance measures would default to an over-analysis and reliance on test scores, which can have a series of interlinked negatives associated with such a regime. These include teaching to test, rote-based learning in the young, and narrowing of curricula and of teaching methods as exam-friendly criteria and topic areas become the focus of instruction (Ehren and MacBeath, 2016).

Europe-wide research indicates that school inspections have a positive impact on learner outcomes (Lifelong Learning Programme, 2016). Inspection programmes can also highlight good practice, and help disseminate innovation when it is found. Ofsted reporting can also provide correctives in that where broader patterns may discernible (such as in geographic disparities in educational achievement and experience, or in the performance of an academy over multiple sites) this can be detected and then acted upon as appropriate. Others, however, feel that Ofsted is insufficiently flexible to take into full account the contexts of education; the school is the focus, and not necessarily the ways in which the school must manage its intake, and the social and cultural issues associated with that pupil body. This can mean that schools in areas of low economic performance - where there are issues with poverty, with high proportions of learners for whom English is not a first language, and/or where there are other social deprivation indices at play - can be held perhaps unfairly accountable for the consequences of contexts which they are not responsible for (Score, 2010).

The point has already been made in their chapter that in an increasingly deregulated educational market in the compulsory sector, there needs to be an independent and answerable oversight mechanism in play that provides rigour and scrutiny backed up with statutory powers; the free market alone cannot be allowed to dictate either the market or to allow children's futures to be jeopardised by inadequate teaching or failing wider school systems. However, Ofsted criteria themselves indicate to some that inspection is not to be welcomed; avoiding further inspections is part of the reward system on offer to outstanding settings. Self-evaluation of schools may provide an answer, not least as it puts those teaching professionals within a setting at the centre of assessing the quality of their offering, but also of supporting and implementing meaningful improvements.

Ofsted, though, is open to change, and the organisation - and its inspection criteria - have been through several iterations since the early 1990s. The current system of a lighter touch being applied in inspections to settings where provision is acknowledged as being outstanding is an example of this; resources and support should perhaps be directed to where there is greatest need, and inspection drives this focusing of attention.

Since its inception, Ofsted has increased the accountability of school and individual educators, has improved the transparency of the education system, and its grading has been found to be useful to parents. The debate about the effectiveness of Ofsted in raising standards across the sector will continue though; inspection by outsiders is seldom popular within any community; up to two-thirds of head teachers and school staff are unconvinced about the positives of inspection outweighing negatives associated with the Ofsted regime (Elliott, 2012). Issues observed include a post-inspection dip in school performance as a reaction to the stresses on school systems imposed by inspection and its aftermath. It is perhaps useful, then, to consider in the final section of this chapter some strategies for coping with the tensions often associated with being inspected.

Reflection

Are inspections fair? If not, then how might you assess the quality of provision in schools?

Would a performance-based model provide a fairer perception of how well a school is serving its pupils?

Should schools self-assess, and that be the only quality assurance model applied? What are the potential issues connected with this?

How can institutions balance meeting Ofsted's quality criteria and minimising the stress and fear which often comes with an impending inspection?

An upcoming Ofsted inspection can be a time of worry and certainty for teachers and other staff in any educational setting. To some extent this is natural, and perhaps even positive, as it evidences pride in working, and care that people are seen to be providing a good level of provision for their learners. Also, the inspections - and the reports and actions subsequent to them - are important, and it is only proper that they are not treated lightly.

The current inspection framework is somewhat more supportive than previous iterations. When gaps between inspections were longer, there could be greater uncertainty about not only when an inspection might be called, but also how the inspection would work in practice. Some of those fears may have dissipated now that Ofsted is an established part of the academic cycle, rather than representing a recent and unwelcome innovation, but there is still the issue of staff tension to broach, while working to ensure that inspection criteria are being addressed.

From an institutional standpoint, the previous inspection will allow production of when the next inspection is likely to occur, and the nature of that inspection. Armed with this foreknowledge, appropriate preparations may then be put into action. It is probable that no matter what the outcome of the previous inspection, that action plans will have been drawn up in response to the inspection report; the robustness of those follow-up actions and of their resolving needs to be evidenced (Findlater, 2015). Staff training and development will go a long way to not only disseminating up-to-date material on inspection protocols, but also supporting internal discussion on related and relevant issues. If colleagues are appropriately trained, then they know what to expect, and can plan and teach accordingly.

It makes sense for internal lesson observations to be modelled on Ofsted criteria, so that they provide a fair facsimile of the experience of having an inspector in a session, and of the feedback resultant from that. Similarly, internal reviews and departmental self-assessments need to be balanced, fair, and relevant so that they support preparation for Ofsted as well as generating meaningful information in their own right. However, additional internal assessment burdens in the period prior to an anticipated observation is likely to be counterproductive; focus should be on ensuring school systems are working well, rather than increase stress through over-reactions and by making lesson observations unfairly stressful.

In ideal circumstances, an Ofsted inspection would be a matter of course, and would have no impact on an organisation, which would simply carry on its outstanding work while assessors verified that all was well. Observation, though, tends to change behaviour. So, planning and preparation needs to be evidenced, and needs to be supportive to staff, particularly those who fins inspection uncomfortable, and for those new to the profession. An inspection plan, based on the previous inspection report, and on the actions resultant from that, is the first key element to have in place; this will work alongside other medium and long-term planning for the school. Settings should use their expectation of when an inspection is likely to manage the achievement of the planning in good time for the next inspection round. Colleagues should be prepared for inspection as befits their role and position in the organisation; whether it is having a confident grasp of relevant data for management, or on areas for teaching improvement for classroom educators, there will be focuses to be worked on.

As inspection is part of the educational landscape, school leaders can do much by setting the tone of the inspection preparation; this means calmness and confidence, and the evidencing to others of fair though rigorous expectations, and of meaningful support to ensure that all are helped to be able to work to a consistent high quality (Garvey, 2014).

Reflection

What are your experiences of Ofsted inspections? Have you, for example, been a pupil or an employee of a school being inspected? What was that like?

What would you do to prepare for inspection? What wouldn't you do? Why?

How do others conceptualise Ofsted? What is your understanding of the public perception of the organisation?

Conclusion

This chapter has considered the role and function of Ofsted in inspecting schools, and has also discussed issues connected with the pros and cons of an inspection-based quality assurance regime, and of institutional approaches to preparing for inspection. Ofsted is now well-established, and its remit, as this chapter has indicated, has grown since the organisation was established in the early 1990s.

Ofsted's mission statement is "raising standards, changing lives" (Ofsted, 2016a). The statement draws a clear link between the enhancement of standards in education, and in the improvement in the life experience and future chances of young people.

When considering quality assurance measures, it is worth thinking about that mission statement and the ways in which an external oversight body can offer robustness, externality, and impartiality in supporting the improvement of schools. The logic behind this is that if schools can be meaningfully developed, then young people will be advantaged as a direct consequence. Though Ofsted will remain at times controversial, and sometimes both unpopular and unwelcome in its attentions, there is a place for quality systems in education, not least if they support learners, albeit indirectly.

Reflection

Now we have completed this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe Ofsted, its functions, and its remit
  • Analyse how an Ofsted inspection works, and the nature of the grading criteria resulting from inspections carried out under the Common Inspection Framework
  • Consider strengths and weaknesses of, and alternatives to, an inspection-based quality assurance model for education
  • Identify ways in which an organisation might prepare meaningfully for Ofsted inspection

Reference list

Ehren, M. and MacBeath, J. (2016) Should we scrap Ofsted? The pros, cons and alternatives. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/mar/06/scrap-ofsted-pros-cons-alternatives (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Elliott, A. (2012) Twenty years inspecting English schools - Ofsted 1992-2012. Available at: http://risetrust.org.uk/pdfs/Review_Ofsted.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Findlater, S. (2015) How to survive an Ofsted inspection. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Garvey, P. (2014) 12 tips for facing Ofsted - quality schools. Available at: http://www.quality-schools.com/prepare-ofsted/ (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Lifelong Learning Programme (2016) School inspections. Available at: http://schoolinspections.eu/impact/ (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2014) Raising standards, improving lives: The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) Strategic Plan 2014 to 2016. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/379920/Ofsted_20Strategic_20Plan_202014-16.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2015) The common inspection framework: Education, skills and early years. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/461767/The_common_inspection_framework_education_skills_and_early_years.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2016a) About - Ofsted. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ofsted/about (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2016b) Being inspected as a maintained school or academy. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/being-inspected-as-a-maintained-school-or-academy (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2016c) Welcome to parent view. Available at: https://parentview.ofsted.gov.uk/ (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Science Community Representing Education [Score] (2010) The role and performance of Ofsted. Available at: http://www.score-education.org/media/7968/oct2010_roleofofsted.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).


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