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The Research Evidence For and Against OFSTED

Frank Coffield

I have carefully reviewed the evidence for the benefits of inspection as well as for any undesirable consequences.  The former include the national monitoring of the quality of education, thematic reviews such as the standard of maths teaching, and the challenges posed to poor practices such as learning styles.  The clear balance of the evidence made me conclude, however, that Ofsted currently does more harm than good.  Its methods, although changed every few years during the 25 years of Ofsted’s existence, are still invalid, unreliable and unjust.  That third adjective is hard so let me use a strong piece of evidence to justify it.

A detailed, empirical study by the Education Policy Institute concluded that Ofsted “ may not be fully equitable to schools with challenging intakes” and that “notable proportions of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are not down-graded “, even when their performance deteriorates substantially.1 Conversely, the “most deprived schools are systematically more likely to be down-graded than the least disadvantaged”2.  So much for the claim by the new Chief Inspector that Ofsted is “providing fair, valid and reliable judgements”3.  The very schools that need most help are further harmed by inaccurate and biased Ofsted reports that make the recruitment and retention of teachers even more difficult.  It also means that those heads chosen to become system leaders come from the most advantaged schools so their advice to the poorest schools is likely to be wide of the mark.

In my new book – Will the Leopard Change its Spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted4 – I acknowledge that inspection plays a legitimate and necessary role and I offer an alternative approach based on five educational principles:

– Education seen as growth…do students leave school as lifelong learners?

– Trust rather than fear

– Challenge matched by support from Ofsted

– Dialogue which Ofsted has shown to be the most useful aspect of inspection

– And, Appreciative Inquiry, which gives pride of place to everything that gives life to a school when it is at its most effective.

Ofsted itself needs help. I recommend that its over-extended remit be drastically reduced, that it becomes genuinely independent of government and that it re-introduces a system of local and national inspectors.  In this way inspectors would become once again respected colleagues, acting as the cross-pollinators of challenging ideas and novel practices in a joint search with teachers for improvement.

The new model contains nine components one of which I mention here: the curriculum which is currently Ofsted’s main research project.  The English Baccalaureate closely resembles the grammar school curriculum that I studied (and profited from) in the 1950s, but does it provide students with the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to tackle the main threats to our collective well-being such as climate breakdown?  Flooding in Bangladesh and the hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose in the Gulf of Mexico have brought catastrophe to millions of people.  When will Ofsted start reporting on the relevance of the curriculum to the lives of our students?

If teachers want a more just and valid system of inspection by which to be judged, they need to start collectively arguing for one.  Teachers reported to me that they saw Ofsted as the punitive enforcer of government policies, but in fact the organisation belongs to all of us who pay for it. So we have a right and a duty to call not just for some cosmetic tinkering but for a model that is based on our knowledge of how students, teachers and inspectors best learn.  This is the essence of an open, democratic society that offers its citizens the freedom not only to think differently but to demand a just, valid and reliable model of inspection.



  1. Hutchinson, J (2016) School Inspection in England: Is there room to improve? London, Education Policy Institute, page 25
  2. cit.,page 16
  3. Spielman, A (2017) Speech at the Festival of Education, 23 June.’s-speech-at-the-festival-of-education.  Accessed on 3 September 2017
  4. Will the Leopard Change its Spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted published by UCL IOE Press, September 2017, £12.99, can be bought from all bookshops, online booksellers and direct from the publisher