Beware of Ofsted inspectors bearing gifts

Amanda Spielman, Osfted Chief Inspector (Photo: Ofsted)
Phil Hearse analyses the statement on the 11 October from Ofsted that it is going to overhaul the way it inspects schools in England, downgrading the influence of exam results. Is Ofsted really now agreeing with what teaching unions have been arguing for?


Thousands of teachers will have been stunned by the announcement by Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of schools, that Ofsted intends to downgrade the importance of exam results in assessing schools and colleges. Spielman said, “For a long time, our inspections have looked hardest at outcomes, placing too much weight on test and exam results when we consider the overall effectiveness of schools”.That is exactly what teachers, teaching unions and school heads have been saying for 20 years.

But education unions are right to question whether Ofsted is capable of effecting this U-turn and to be cautious about what will replace it. The whole framework of schools’ inspection and lesson observations is flawed and needs to be ditched. Ofsted has wrecked the teaching careers of thousands and driven tens of thousands out of the profession altogether. It is an institution based on quite false ideas about education and the way that society works.

Ofsted is based on the outlook of its head from 1994-2000, former teacher Chris Woodhouse who died in 2015. This says that major failings in the economy and society more generally – like poverty and crime – are caused by the poor state of education. This is caused by poor teaching, itself a result of inadequate teachers. Thus the solution is to whip teachers into line. Twenty-four years after Woodhouse’s appointment as head of Ofsted, this line of argument, beloved of the Daily Mail and other right-wing newspapers, education commentators throughout the media, successive education ministers and New Labour, has failed completely. It failed because every line of that argument is radically false, as we explain in detail below. Ofsted needs to be shut down. Labour, alas, says nothing about this in its education policy, and that needs to be changed too.

The problem with Ofsted’s exam results focus was well summed up by Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, in her response to Spielman’s announcement (1):
“It is clear that Ofsted’s focus on data has achieved the opposite of what the agency intended. Rather than raising school standards, Ofsted has caused them to decline. Teachers see the harm that data-driven targets are doing to their pupils and to themselves as education professionals. No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers, and our schools are being starved of that vital resource because the constant pressure on data driven targets, promoted by Ofsted, is taking the joy out of teaching and learning.”

The problem for schools and colleges was this. Since exam results were the key indicators for Ofsted, anything less than very good exam results would get you graded as a 3 or a 4 – “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory”. Then hell would be unleashed. In the case of unsatisfactory it would probably mean the school going into special measures, a new Head and governors, and an Ofsted inspection every term. The college I taught in for 14 years twice got a 3, and it unleashed a harsh regime of in-college lesson observations and assessment.

Ofsted’s ‘common assessment framework’ led to impossible tasks for individual teachers as well as schools and colleges collectively. In addition to striving to get a 100% success rate in exams, teachers were expected to set individual learning targets for each student in each lesson. Lessons were supposed to be structured so that the learning of each student could be checked against their individual target. And detailed scores for each student in each lesson were supposed to be kept. These targets were of course impossible in classes of 25+, typical in comprehensives and sixth form colleges in working class areas.

In addition, teachers were bowed down by Ofsted’s latest fetishes about how learning should be delivered. I was several times told that observed lessons I gave could not be graded a ‘1’ because they did not contain group work – for many of the kids I taught group work was just an opportunity to have a chat and play with their phones. Group work was then downgraded for whole class teaching and then other fetishes like ‘differentiation’.

Ofsted’s obsession with results and teaching methods owed a lot to importing the methods of American human resources departments, ie the notion that everything can be measured and assessed. Teaching cannot be and if it’s tried, radically false measures will be employed.

Tony Blair said his top three priorities would be ‘education, education, education’. Education would see legions of young, thrusting graduates at the cutting edge of industry and finance, which would drive the British economy forward. Education would bring millions out of poverty and improve health outcomes. Education could solve crime and anti-social behaviour.

But investing such hopes in education alone is absurd. Teachers and lecturers can do a lot, but most of them know the key indicator of how well students will do in the current system is their socio-economic background. Some students break through the barriers, most do not.

The college I taught at in Walthamstow had a cohort that mainly came from six of the poorest boroughs in the UK. Most students came from households where parents had low educational achievement, where English was not spoken, often with all the stresses and social problems that poverty brings, and were consequently deprived of encouragement to read and do other things that middle-class students did – like being taken to museums and the theatre. That many students did so well despite these disadvantages is a testimony to their tenacity and teachers’ skills, but overall teachers cannot solve problems like students who have reached the age of 16 with extremely poor levels of literacy.

Educational success can promote social mobility for individual students, but it cannot create a society of widespread upward mobility (2). Already with the target of 50% of students going to university, there are not enough appropriate jobs for graduates. Check out the number of twenty-something graduates working as baristas, Deliveroo workers or bus drivers. Sixth form students are typically told a falsehood, encouraged by schools’ and colleges’ recruitment targets and their own parents’ illusions – that getting A levels or BTECs will get them to university, which in turn will get them a good job and enable them to have a happy life.  Parents often internalise the false prospectus about education and expect teachers to automatically get their sons and daughters the fantastic grades they need to get into a Russell Group university, on their path to a well-paying career. And sometimes get very angry that this is not possible.

Ask a class of sixth form college students from working-class backgrounds where they see themselves in five- or ten-years’ time, and you will get a shower of sad illusions. ‘I want to start my own business’, ‘I want to be a doctor’, ‘I see myself as a TV presenter’. But sadly most of these dreams will not be fulfilled. They will not get into medical school because these schools are swamped with applicants from (mainly white) middle class backgrounds who are going to get four or five A-levels at A-star level, which most working-class students cannot achieve. They will not get into a top finance job because they won’t get the grades and/or their parents cannot afford to fund them for a year’s unpaid internship. And they will not get into the BBC because those jobs are typically reserved for public school and Oxbridge graduates.

Part of all that of course is simple discrimination against graduates from a working-class background, especially against students from ethnic minorities, but discrimination is not the whole story. There is considerable logic in trainee doctors having an A* in A Level biology. But the discriminatory barriers have to be dismantled by political action and would require radical social change. You cannot educate society out of discrimination by the (mainly white) rich and the affluent against the poor, any more than you can educate society out of poverty. In any case you cannot have a society in which everyone is a doctor, a lawyer of a TV prese­­nter. Other essential jobs need to be valued and financially rewarded in a decent way.

Sadly, for many students it would from a purely economic point of viewbe better to go to further education college and do a course in carpentry, car maintenance or training for nursing or hairdressing. For some liberal or left-wing educational practitioners this is a shocking thing to say, and sounds like contempt for working class students, but it is true. There may be many other reasons to encourage students to go to university, but the certainty of a good job is not one of them. I personally always encouraged students to go to university, because such education has the potential to open up a world of ideas and get you to meet a wide range of people, and all that can be liberating. But I never told students that a university degree would solve their economic problems. A growing minority looked at the university fees and said ‘no thanks, I’m going to get a job or an apprenticeship’.

The experience of numerous countries producing a huge number of graduates who end up unemployed or doing rubbish jobs confirms it. Look at Spain, look at Italy. Huge numbers of graduates have not stopped 50% youth unemployment. Nor will it ever. No country can educate itself out of poverty, only social and political action can do that. But for educators there is a strong temptation to see education as the key to a just and prosperous society. It can however only be part of such a process, if it goes alongside a society aimed at creating economic and social justice, together with educational success.

To conform to the demands of Ofsted, schools and colleges auto-Ofstedised themselves. At my college, internal lesson observations were often much harsher than those by Ofsted itself. Poor exam results or allegedly poor lesson observations were used to victimise individual teachers who the college management was hostile to, sometimes because they were supporters of the most militant college union, the NUT.

Teachers on strike at Sir George Monoux College, Walthamstow

In my college, a poor Ofsted report in 2005 unleashed more than a decade of internal strife, in which the NUT waged a decade-long campaign of rearguard resistance. Eventually by 2017, Year Zero was reached where nearly all the teachers from five or six years earlier had left, two college principals had been forced out, the progressive chair and vice-chair of the governors had been expelled in a reactionary coup, the whole of the senior management team was replaced several times, and finally the two bureaucrats in charge of so-called quality were given one day to get off the premises. (To really assert management authority, it is not just necessary to dispose of troublemakers, it is sometimes useful to execute the most pathetically loyal.) The college that existed in 2005 no longer exists, it has been replaced by a zombie replica, staffed mainly by young teachers, many of whom will not stay the course.

Schools and teachers should beware of the new Ofsted inspection framework announced by Amanda Spielman. First, inspections will be longer, basically back to one-week inspections. A new set of hoops will be erected for teachers to jump through, including what are schools doing to promote ‘personal development’ – defined as what exactly? Inspections are likely to delve more into the detail of what is happening in classrooms. A lot will depend on ‘behaviour’ – and yes, lots of middle-class schools are going to do well on this criterion.

Ofsted’s new focus on the breadth of the curriculum takes the biscuit. Ofsted itself is responsible for colleges closing down subjects like Computer Science, where it is very hard to get good exam results. And of course education minister Michael Gove in 2015, probably in concert with Ofsted, narrowed the curriculum by closing down a range of brilliant A-level subjects, like Creative Writing, Critical Thinking, Classical Civilisation and Communication and Culture.

Most of all, as Amanda Spielman spelt out, Ofsted is going to continue to insist on improvement.The absurd idea that however good you are, next time you must do better. Another impossible Ofsted objective.

I have a much better idea. Close down Ofsted. Sack all its senior staff and redeploy junior and clerical staff in other government departments. Go back, for the moment, to the old pre-Ofsted inspection system. Stop the cuts in education and give a substantial pay rise to teachers and teaching assistants.

In 2014 the local MP, Stella Creasy, came to talk to our college NUT. She gave 100% support to Ofsted, which went down like a lead balloon. Then again Stella Creasy is not exactly a supporter of the current Labour leadership. Let’s hope that Labour’s current education spokesperson, Angela Rayner, has a different view of the Ofsted monster.



(1) The National Education Union was formed from the merger of the NUT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2017. It still has NUT and ATL sections.

(2) On this see Class Dismissed  – why we cannot educate our way out of poverty by John Marsh, Monthly Review Press,


Phil Hearse taught Information Technology, English and Communication and Culture at Sir George Monoux College, Walthamstow, from 2002-2016. He was joint NUT rep from 2005-2010.

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