Social mobility vs equity: What can Ofsted learn from other UK school inspectorates?

Written by: Dr Dana Dabbous | Published:
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Ofsted’s approach to inspection has resulted in unintended consequences and a high-stakes, oppositional culture of accountability. Dr Dana Dabbous considers what lessons Ofsted might learn from inspection approaches in the other home nations


Inspections are there to improve the quality of education. Inspectorates also wield great power. Directed well, this has positive potential. However, without a solid evidence-base, their work has the potential to be extremely damaging.

Edge’s recent report, Inspection Across the UK, compares school inspection frameworks across the four nations of the UK (Munoz & Ehren, 2021).

In England, the most recent inspection regime rolled out in 2019 but was disrupted shortly afterwards by the pandemic. Wales is also working on their new framework to implement in 2024.

These developments make it an opportune time to consider what the different inspectorates can learn from each other.

One key consideration is that inspectorates must be research-literate if they are to contribute responsibly to their education systems.

Another danger area that is all too real relates to the unintended consequences of inspection (such as grade inflation or the narrowing of the curriculum to stay “inspection-ready”). Ensuring a positive, collaborative approach between schools and inspectorates is vital for nipping these problems in the bud.

While these are common themes across inspection systems, what leapt out from our report was how different the inspectorate systems are across our four nations.

The most striking insight was that while England promotes social mobility, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland specifically emphasise equity. This has had a major impact on the culture of each system.

Ultimately, it seems that the devolved inspectorates are better at acting in concert with schools and stakeholders to promote improvements.

By comparison, Ofsted’s high-stakes inspections are more oppositional, less cohesive, and result in less direct input into areas like the curriculum. While I am sure this is not Ofsted’s intention, this approach exacerbates a culture of compliance.

The devolved nations, meanwhile, are far more focused on promoting things like self-evaluation and pupil wellbeing. For example, Education Scotland’s inspection framework permits a degree of choice, allowing schools to decide which areas to focus on – a bit like a career development framework, but for schools.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Education Training Inspectorate promotes greater openness around its processes, actively working to enhance professional dialogue and self-reflection.

Many commentators in England also believe that Ofsted’s grading system fails to take into account the nuances of school-specific contexts. Labelling a school as “requires improvement” or “inadequate” risks tarring them with labels that stick, even once improvements are made. England is not the only nation to use a grading system, of course, but being more open to dialogue is vital to making it fit-for-purpose.

A case in point is Estyn, Ofsted’s Welsh counterpart, which is currently transitioning towards a new inspection framework of its own. Due to launch fully in 2024, Estyn is considering removing school grading from its new framework altogether.

This is based on the notion that eradicating combative language will make the process less contentious, permitting leaders to consider recommendations more objectively. Whether this will work in practice remains to be seen, but it is one to watch with interest.

In their aim to move towards a more constructive system, Estyn is also contributing to reshaping the Welsh national curriculum. Led by school practitioners, this approach is supported Estyn, regional stakeholders and Welsh government.

The Welsh inspectorate has also created a practitioner reference group, comprised of headteachers that represent the different Welsh regions. Members review changes to the system and provide frank feedback about what works and where things need a rethink.

Another area where Estyn has an interesting approach is in capacity-building. Every Welsh inspection team has a trained and assessed peer inspector. And in schools, senior leaders shadow inspection teams by attending meetings and acting as liaisons.

Ultimately, this double-pronged approach helps inspectorates to understand the needs of schools, while helping schools get under the skin of the inspection and its methodologies. They are subsequently more open to disappointing results. On the flipside, when results are positive, peer inspectors can take this best practice back to their own regions.

I have highlighted the areas where Ofsted could benefit from the more collaborative approaches used by the devolved nations, but there is plenty that each inspectorate can learn from each of the others.

Fortunately, no inspection framework stays still for long. Post-pandemic, we have a unique opportunity for greater cross-pollination and the creation of more equitable systems all round.

To tackle the novel challenges that schools face in a vastly changed world, this is not merely nice to have – it is necessary. Let us hope we can work more proactively together in future.

  • Dr Dana Dabbous is an education researcher at the Edge Foundation, which works to promote a broad and balanced curriculum and engaging real-world learning. Visit www.edge.co.uk


Further information & resources

Munoz & Ehren: Inspection across the UK: How the four nations intend to contribute to school improvement, Edge Foundation, March 2021: https://bit.ly/32h1oF6


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