Working to make government more effective

Insight paper

How could Ofsted and the Department for Education reform school inspections in England?

The new chief inspector will need better support from ministers to reform Ofsted.

UK primary school classroom
Large cuts in Ofsted’s funding made by the Department for Education have put the quality of inspections at risk.

Careful reform to school regulation and inspections is needed to build on the benefits of inspection while reducing the risk that teachers will be put off entering school leadership.

The new chief Inspector Sir Martyn Oliver starts his five-year term – on 1 January – at a time when Ofsted is under heavy fire. Inspections are valued by parents and many school leaders but are used in too blunt a way by the Department for Education to fire headteachers.

The report finds that large cuts in Ofsted’s funding made by the Department for Education have put the quality of inspections at risk, even though ministers are more reliant than ever on these judgments to make decisions about firing headteachers.

Arguing against a pause in inspections, as called for by headteacher unions following the inquest in headteacher Ruth Perry’s death, and warning that a radical overhaul of schools regulation could cause damage to education outcomes in the long-term, Sam Freedman sets out how to improve the existing system in a way that would ensure it worked better for school leaders, while not sacrificing the interests of young people or their parents. Reforms also need to take into account the wider work Ofsted does – the majority of Ofsted’s funding is not for schools related work – and the potential knock-on consequences for regulators in other sectors like health and policing.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Ofsted moving as quickly as possible to provide a comprehensive response to the concerns highlighted in the Ruth Perry inquest, providing further resources for training for inspectors and support for school leaders.
  • The DfE immediately stopping intervention based on two “requires improvement” (RI) judgments, as removing this “cliff edge” would reduce stress on teachers and hostility to Ofsted.
  • The DfE providing much more detailed criteria for intervention – for example if a safeguarding failure can be fixed quickly by the existing leadership team then no intervention would be required.
  • The DfE funding Ofsted to commission independent studies on the reliability of inspections, as this could build trust in the sector and improve the quality of inspections and training.
  • Retaining the existing inspection framework as it has reduced unfair disparities between schools with very different demographics and building on this by providing more contextual information about schools.
Public figures
Gillian Keegan
Institute for Government

Related content

14 MAR 2024 Project

Performance Tracker

Our flagship report assesses the comparative problems faced by critical public services such as the NHS, schools and the police.