‘Without fear or favour’ – MPs urge Ofsted chief to speak out more

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Speak freely: The Committee of Public Accounts wants to see Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman raising issues of wider concern more often (Image: Adobe Stock)

MPs on the Committee of Public Accounts have said that Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman is too ‘reluctant’ to comment on wider issues and have called for her to speak-out ‘more freely’. Pete Henshaw reports

  • MPs want chief inspector Amanda Spielman to do more to raise wider issues of concern with the Department for Education (DfE) – using her independence to “speak freely, without fear or favour”.

It is just one of several recommendations made by Parliament’s Committee of Public Accounts after its inquiry into Ofsted’s inspection of schools.

The MPs’ report also finds that Ofsted is struggling to complete its inspection programme because it does not have enough school inspectors.

It reveals that budget cuts have resulted in a 52 per cent real-terms fall (between 1999/2000 and 2017/18) in the amount Ofsted is spending on school inspection. It currently spends £44 million of its £151 million budget on schools.

The MPs say that schools are being left for longer between inspections and that Ofsted is “not providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need”.

The report shows that in 2015/16 Ofsted completed only 65 per cent of its planned inspections. This figure has improved since, and for 2017/18 stands at 94 per cent.

The report states: “While Ofsted assures us that it has enough contracted inspectors, it still does not have enough directly employed HM inspectors. At March 2018, it employed 30 (15 per cent) fewer HM inspectors than it had budgeted for, and there was also a shortfall in each of the two previous years.”

The MPs also say that it is “unacceptable” that so many schools are exempt from re-inspection “and have not been inspected for six or more years”.

Under legislation, schools rated outstanding are exempt from routine re-inspection unless a particular risk is identified. As of August 2017, 1,620 schools had not been inspected for six years or more, including 296 schools that had not been inspected for 10 years or more.

The report states: “Some pupils go through the whole of primary and/or secondary school without any independent assessment of their school’s effectiveness.

It is reasonable to assume that not all these schools remain at the same level of performance after so many years.”

The MPs are calling on the Department for Education (DfE) to re-examine the rationale for exempting outstanding schools from routine re-inspection.

They also believe that Ofsted’s short one-day inspections “do not allow inspectors enough time to make a meaningful assessment of a school’s performance or to help schools to improve”.

Good schools are inspected through a short, one-day inspection, on average every four years. This approach is now the norm as it applies to two-thirds of schools.

However, the report adds: “Short inspections inevitably provide less assurance about schools’ effectiveness and allow inspectors less time to discuss with schools how they might improve.”

The MPs want Ofsted and the DfE to review whether the short inspection model provides “sufficient, meaningful assurance about schools’ effectiveness”.

The report also wants to see the Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, doing more to “lead change and be a force for school improvement” – using her position to “speak freely, without fear or favour”.

During their inquiry, MPs asked Ms Spielman about a range of wider issues but were “disappointed” with her responses.

The report states: “Championing standards is an important part of any independent inspector’s remit, and we were disappointed that HM chief inspector seemed reluctant to offer her views about wider issues affecting the school system.

“Inspectors are on the ground in schools every day, witnessing the challenges that schools are facing and the underlying causes of poor performance. Ofsted should be sharing these insights with the DfE and more widely.

“We asked HM chief inspector for her views on the wider issues affecting the school system, including the impact of funding pressures, for example on the breadth of the curriculum, and concerns about pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. We were disappointed that she did not provide clearer and more direct answers.”

The MPs have asked Ms Spielman to write to the committee by October “with her reflections on the main risks to schools’ effectiveness and the systemic causes of poor performance, including the impact of funding pressures”.

Committee chair Meg Hillier MP 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.”

Responding to the report Ms Spielman said: “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 on-going 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.

“I understand that the committee is disappointed that I would not be drawn into giving my views on some wider issues in the sector. My role is to provide Parliament and the secretary of state with an evidence-based appraisal of educational standards. It would be irresponsible of me to make comment on those areas where we do not have clear evidence of the impact on standards or young people’s wellbeing.

“Where we do have that evidence, be it about the dangers of illegal unregistered schools, the risks of radicalisation, the narrowing of the curriculum or the importance of early literacy, I have not hesitated to speak out and will continue to do so.”

Commenting on the report, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is important that the public understands that there is no lack of scrutiny of schools and that, if anything, they are creaking under the strain of excessive scrutiny from multiple directions.

“Our main concern is the severe consequences which flow from adverse Ofsted judgements or performance tables. Careers are wrecked in an instant and schools are stigmatised, making it harder for them to improve. It is the harshness of the system which most needs to be reviewed.”

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