The Department for Education is being urged to re-evaluate its approach to school inspection after MPs concluded that long-term financial pressures had led to “shortcomings” in Ofsted’s approach that called its work into question, while the system for school-improvement was “muddled”.
A new report from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee says that Ofsted – short for the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – had seen its budget cut by 52% in real terms between 1999-2000 and 2017-18.
MPs said that the financial strictures had led to Ofsted and the DfE focusing “narrowly on the cost of inspection, rather the value of getting independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness”, which meant that both schools and parents were not getting the quality-assurance they needed.
The PAC said that Ofsted’s current regime saw schools previously judged as “outstanding” exempted from reinspection, while those previously judged to be “good” received only a short one-day inspection that MPs said was not enough time to give a meaningful insight. Committee members said that Ofsted was also failing to meet its targets for school inspections, and leaving greater intervals between inspections when they did take place.
Committee members said it was unacceptable that as of August last year 1,620 schools had not been inspected for six years or more, of which 296 had gone at least a decade without an inspection.
They said it was reasonable to assume that not all schools would maintain the same level of performance over such long periods of time, and said the lack of inspections for some schools made it difficult for parents to compare Ofsted grades on a like-for-like basis.
Among their recommendations, MPs called on the department to report back to the committee by December to explain the rationale for exempting some schools from inspection. They also told the department to review the effectiveness for Ofsted’s short inspections and report on the costs and benefits of alternative approaches.
Additionally, the PAC said the system for school accountability and improvement was muddled in a way that led to confusion for both parents and education professionals. They said the problem was exemplified by the department and Ofsted’s inability to explain clearly what measures were in place for 78 schools previously graded as “inadequate” where the inspectorate had not met reinspection targets between 2012-13 and 2016-17.
MPs called on the DfE to assess the balance of its spending between improvement and inspection, citing 2018 figures suggesting eight regional school-improvement commissioners had received £23m in funding compared with £44m given to Ofsted over the same period.
PAC chair Meg Hillier said it was vital that parents were able to maintain faith in the independence of Ofsted’s scrutiny, but funding pressures has brought its work into question.
“Cuts to Ofsted’s budget have undermined families’ ability to make informed decisions about schools,” she said.
“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.”
Hillier added that it was also “not encouraging” that Ofsted had wrongly reported to parliament that it had met its statutory school reinspection targets for 2015-16 in its 2016-17 annual report when had not inspected 43 schools that it should have during the timeframe.
Hillier said the mistake had further called Ofsted’s effectiveness into question. “We expect to see evidence that action Ofsted says it has taken to address this failing is working,” she said.
Responding to the PAC report, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said she was confident that the organisation’s inspections provided parents, schools and the government with the assurances they needed in a way that compared “very favourably” with other countries’ inspection regimes.
However she said the inspectorate had “reached the limit of being able to provide that level of assurance within our current funding envelope” after years of funding pressures.
The DfE said school standards were “undeniably rising” and that education secretary Damian Hinds believed Ofsted was the only body able to provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance.
“We trust Ofsted with these inspections and this is backed by parents, with Ofsted inspections the second most important consideration when choosing a school behind location,” a DfE spokesperson said.
“The focus of Ofsted should always be on underperformance so that no child has to be in a bad school that no-one is doing anything about. There is a comprehensive range of performance data available and where Ofsted has concerns about performance at any school, it has always been and will continue to be able to inspect at any point.”