We have launched a new website and this page has been archived.Find out more

[Skip to Content]

19 July 2018

Does Ofsted need to be inspected?

Does Ofsted need to be inspected?

In a recent speech to the think tank Policy Exchange, the chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, noted that “Ofsted has no anti-faith bias or secular agenda” and shortly after that “the suggestion that Ofsted has an anti-faith school bias is simply not true and does not fit the profile of our judgments”. 

 It’s helpful for Ofsted to confirm its position, but there is an unavoidable paradox here. Ofsted is self-reporting its quality and the job it is doing, but Ofsted exists because, it rightly doesn’t just accept schools self-reporting the job they are doing, it inspects them to provide public accountability. 

So the question is, perhaps, whether Ofsted needs an inspection? Should someone Ofsted Ofsted? Or in its classical variation, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? 

 Who inspects the inspectors? 

A Charedi Jewish Orthodox school in London, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, was visited in April by the now Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP. According to reports of the visit, Mr Javid 

 “asked a group of pupils whether they had any experience of antisemitism. A bright-eyed Year 11 raised her hand. “When I was 10 years old,” she said, “I was surrounded and taunted by a group of teenagers. It was a terrifying experience that I haven’t forgotten. “Last week, we were inspected by a team from Ofsted. They grilled us about our school. I had the same feeling of being cornered and threatened – this time by people with authority.” 

 While this is a single story, it seems to be part of a wider trend and raises important questions about Ofsted. This is because there is a vital role in our education system for public trust in general and parental trust in the quality of our schools, particularly as the diversity of school types grows. The growth in academisation, the advent of free schools, and the distinctions between voluntary-controlled and voluntarily-aided schools, all mean trust in the school system in general and trust in Ofsted, in particular, is vital. Given parents are primarily responsible for their child’s education, Ofsted plays an important role in helping parents fulfil that responsibility through accountability of schools. 

In her speech Spielman helpfully sought to alleviate concerns about an anti-religious bias by citing anecdotal evidence from several positive inspection reports of religious schools, and general statistics on faith schools overall. But the story above and those others have highlighted (see here and here) make the opposite point, specifically about Ofsted having certain forms of anti-religious bias concerning what are viewed as more religiously conservative beliefs. 

So who is right? Without greater accountability and scrutiny of Ofsted it is very hard to know whether the reported incidences of anti-religious bias are isolated or part of a wider systemic problem. 

Trust in Ofsted is imperative for a well-functioning school system, so the chief inspector’s first step is a welcome beginning to confirming that Ofsted isn’t anti-religious. Yet, given religious organisations and parents are increasingly losing faith in Ofsted’s fairness when it comes to understanding particular religious beliefs, far more needs to be done. 

If Ofsted doesn’t have an anti-religious problem and isn’t driven by an aggressively secular agenda, it would hopefully welcome outside inspection and public accountability to assure children, parents, schools and the British people it serves that it takes equality, including religious equality, seriously. 

The Spiderman principle of government 

Parliament has given Ofsted great power to inspect and (by nature of that inspection) provide some degree of interpretation/definition to every aspect of school life that government proscribes. A bad Ofsted inspection can result in the closure of schools or cause heads to go, or roll. 

But uncle Ben taught us in Spiderman that, “with great power comes great responsibility” – so it seems appropriate to ask, how and in what ways is Ofsted responsible and accountable? 

 Put differently, how do people, groups or organisations ‘democratically disagree’ with Ofsted? Democratic disagreement here refers to the ways in which people and groups (in the case of education this includes groups of parents or a school community) can tangibly express their disagreement through specific democratic channels. 

These are certainly not questions exclusive to Ofsted, but given the power it wields and the area it works in, a strong case can be made that it needs greater accountability than, say, the Forestry Commission, which is structured the same way as a non-ministerial department (NMD). Both are accountable to parliament (as NMDs), but arguably the quality of school children attend is a bit more important than where a tree is planted in a forest. 

While schools can appeal an inspection report (parents cannot) through Ofsted’s general complaints procedure, the process isn’t the most straight forward for those who have tried and it doesn’t stop the publication of what might turn out to be erroneous conclusions. Some may feel like a process where there can be no independent appeal (outside of a court of law) to an inspection report is a good thing. But it seems a legitimate question to ask whether such an important and powerful organisation, which influences the lives of millions of children, tens of thousands of teachers, and thousands of schools, is sufficiently accountable? 

 Inspection always involves interpretation 

The question of public accountability only becomes more important given Ofsted has the task of inspecting not only a school’s provision of subjects like English or Maths but on whether schools are promoting ‘Britishness’ as defined in the Fundamental British Values of: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. The Government has recently significantly expanded its advice for independent schools on the standards, creating significantly more need for interpreting both the standards and the advice on the part of Ofsted inspectors. 

So, when Spielman in her speech affirms that “our inspectors find and report on truth as they see it, in line with the law”, she seems to agree that the ‘truth’ of the inspection reports is determined by the perceptions of the inspectors, as well as the law. Therefore, it would appear logical, if truth is understood through perceptions of people, (as it is elsewhere, not just with Ofsted) to have a more visible and public process for working towards truth together in ways that are inclusive of all people. 

 Multiple religious organisations, including the Evangelical Alliance, have been asking for a meeting with Ofsted to discuss these concerns in a constructive manner and to explore steps to working together so that Ofsted would serve all children, not just those at schools with whom it agrees ideologically.