Summary of key points and recommendations

  • As publicly funded institutions, schools should be held accountable for the contribution they make to children and young people’s educational progress and achievement. However, it is important that they are held to account for the right things and in the right ways.

  • Although much recent debate has focused on Ofsted and accountability in England, none of the current inspection and accountability regimes in the UK meets this test.

  • The current inspection system, and the wider accountability regime within which it sits, operates largely on the basis of a fiction that the responsibility for the quality of children and young people’s educational experience rests primarily within the boundaries of each individual school. However, the quality of education in individual schools cannot exceed the capacity of the wider system to support the efforts of teachers and headteachers.

  • Some form of external inspection is a necessary part of a publicly accountable education system. However, it is the case that inspection will always be regarded as deeply controversial and contestable for as long as it remains located within a dysfunctional accountability framework.

  • Accountability needs to be reformed so that it incorporates within its scope the actions of others with responsibility for the education system. In England, this includes Government ministers, leaders of multi-academy trusts (MATs), local authorities, Regional Directors and those responsible for the wider services for children and young people that impact on their learning and wellbeing.

  • Despite reforms introduced by the 2019 Education Inspection Framework (EIF), including its greater focus on workload and wellbeing and its more appropriate appreciation of the limitations of schools’ internally generated assessment data, it is becoming clear that these reforms have not had the positive impacts that might have been anticipated when they were first introduced.

  • Excessive workload demands associated with inspection may derive from perceptions and misconceptions about the requirements of the inspection process. The consequences of inspection on teachers and headteachers and schools also contribute to a distortion of the efforts of headteachers and teachers, which is damaging to school improvement and to the health and wellbeing of those working in schools.

  • Schools are too often driven by a desire to satisfy the perceived or actual requirements of inspection, which detract them from the provision of high- quality teaching and learning. We believe that robust remedial action is required to address the unintended consequences of inspection.

  • Reforms should be focused on:

    • ensuring that inspection teams include people with recent and relevant direct experience of classroom practice and entirely disassociated from the schools they inspect;

    • the ways in which complaints about inspection are managed; and

    • the drift away from the core focus of inspection on learning.

  • Further, we believe that consideration should be given to an immediate freeze of all inspections in order that a full mental health impact assessment of teachers and school leaders is carried out, and that Ofsted in its current form should be replaced with a framework that supports the work of schools in raising standards.

A. Understanding the context within which inspection takes place

Schools should be held to account for the right things in the right ways…
  1. As publicly funded institutions, schools should be held accountable for the contribution they make to children and young people’s educational progress and achievement. However, it is important that they are held to account for the right things and in the right ways. The NASUWT’s Maintaining World Class Schools Report, adopted as the Union’s policy at its Annual Conference, sets out the essential features of an effective accountability system. It specifies that such a system:

  • is fit for purpose and secures public trust and confidence in education;

  • secures greater parental and public engagement in, and support for, public education;

  • enables teachers to teach more and test less;

  • is driven by educational rather than political concerns; and

  • evaluates the quality of public education rather than simply measuring the performance of individual schools or colleges.

  1. The NASUWT applies these criteria to its assessment of the fitness for purpose of the accountability regime and its identification of improvements that should be made to that regime.

…and accountability means more than just the inspection of individual schools.
  1. However, in making such assessments, it is important to recognise that inspection forms only one element of a wider school accountability system - accountability is more than just inspection. Other important aspects of this system include formal performance tables generated from official test, assessment and examination data. It also includes the actions of the Department for Education (DfE) directly through, for example, the judgements exercised about school effectiveness by its Regional Directors. Inspection in England can only be understood meaningfully if it is sited within this wider context.

Decisions about what happens after a ‘bad’ inspection are not taken by the inspectorate…
  1. A fundamental stated purpose of the current accountability system is to identify schools that are deemed to be underperforming. It is necessary to recognise - and is often overlooked in debates on the role of Ofsted - that the decisions taken about what should happen to a school following inspection outcomes that are regarded as unacceptable are taken by bodies other than the inspectorate. These bodies include the DfE, operating through its Regional Directors, leaders of academy trusts, school governing bodies, and local authorities.

…and often have serious adverse impacts on those working in schools.
  1. These decisions are often highly consequential. Inspection outcomes are used to determine the future status of schools through their forced transfer from the maintained to the academies sector or from one academy trust to another. For staff, particularly senior leaders, in individual schools, adverse inspection outcomes can prompt employers - either acting on their own volition or under pressure from the DfE, local authorities or diocesan bodies - to dismiss those they identify as responsible for such outcomes.

  2. The impact that such a process has on the mental health and future employability of those involved is often profound. The anxiety that anticipation of inspection causes, given the consequences that may follow an outcome judged by employers and others as unacceptable, is wholly understandable, but also unacceptable.

The quality of education depends on the Government and others, not just schools and colleges…
  1. This characteristic feature of the context within which inspection operates currently serves to highlight the failure of the accountability regime to recognise effectively the role played by others, especially the Government, in establishing and maintaining a framework of investment and support for schools to deliver high-quality educational standards.

…but our system blames schools and lets others, including the Government, off the hook.
  1. It fails to acknowledge the significant authority, control and influence the DfE, MATs, local authorities and others have over individual schools or to hold them to account for the exercise of their powers. These bodies discharge critical functions that relate to matters including the curriculum and qualifications, supporting children with special and additional needs, workforce recruitment, retention and deployment, and the quantum and distribution of funding.

  2. Further, the accountability regime does not take account of the impact of decisions at national and local level on the provision of wider services for children, including health, social care and youth and community services, all of which play a critical role in supporting the work undertaken by schools.

  3. The Government should not insist on inspection arrangements that hold schools accountable for its failure to prioritise investment in education. Against a decade of real-terms cuts to school funding, teachers and headteachers have battled to deliver the very best education possible for children and young people. Too often, our members report that they are swimming against a tide of cuts and a lack of resources.

  4. The current inspection system, and the wider accountability regime, operates largely on the basis of a fiction that the responsibility for the quality of children and young people’s educational experience rests primarily within the boundaries of each individual school. The NASUWT is clear that this false prospectus for the accountability regime results in distortions and misconceptions about how the proper purposes and functions of this regime should be established. Too often, its consequences include the generation of excessive and unreasonable pressures on the school workforce and allow people to conclude that the main purposes of accountability are to be punitive and unsupportive of schools and their staff.

Reform of the accountability system should put this failure right…
  1. It is for this reason that the NASUWT continues to call for a fundamental reassessment of the ways in which accountability is understood and operationalised across the education system.

…as well as considering how inspection itself should be reformed.
  1. It is entirely valid to consider ways in which the current model of inspection might be changed and options in this respect are set out elsewhere in this statement. However, notwithstanding the nature of any potential changes, it is the case that inspection will be regarded as deeply controversial for as long as it remains located within a dysfunctional broader accountability system.

B. Towards a more holistic context for inspection

Every public body that has responsibility for education should be held accountable…
  1. There are measures that the Government could take to provide a more supportive context for inspection. In particular, reforms to accountability should recognise that individual schools operate within a broader educational and children’s services framework. While it is right that there is inspection of individual schools, the impact of the actions of other agencies and bodies must also be recognised within the accountability system.

…including multi-academy trusts.
  1. A clear early step that could be taken to address this shortcoming would be to introduce inspection of MATs. As Ofsted has noted, these bodies have a significant influence on the educational experiences of pupils in the schools for which they are responsible, but their key decision-makers cannot be held to account in the same way as senior staff within each individual setting.

  2. The original vision set out in the Schools White Paper, and in the original iteration of the now-withdrawn Schools Bill for the regulation of MATs, may have provided a basis for improving the accountability of trusts and those that lead them. However, it is clear from the outcomes of the DfE’s subsequent regulatory and commissioning review that there is now little current ministerial interest in addressing this longstanding and deep-rooted issue.

Government and individual ministers should be held publicly accountable for their actions…
  1. There are also no effective measures in place to ensure that DfE Regional Directors are held accountable in ways that are adequately transparent and that secure public and professional confidence that they are discharging their functions equitably and effectively. The DfE has confirmed that the opaque system of local advisory boards, onto which it is able to nominate representatives, will continue largely unchanged.

  2. Options for enhancing accountability of these increasingly powerful postholders, including through subjecting them to external and impartial scrutiny and quality assurance, remain unexplored by the Government.

  3. On the accountability of the Government and other national-level bodies, the NASUWT recognises the valuable work undertaken by the Education Select Committee, other Parliamentary select committees and the National Audit Office. The scrutiny exercised by these bodies plays a critical role in highlighting the strengths and weaknesses in the development and implementation of national policy and has often resulted in important changes in practice.

  4. However, in this context of strategic oversight of standards in education, Ofsted has been the servant of the Government rather than a body which holds it to account. A paradigm shift is required, in our view, which ensures that systemic strengths and weaknesses are properly interrogated and reported by the inspectorate.

  5. It is of concern that ministers are under no effective obligation to take meaningful action to address concerns raised by select committees. Ministers, therefore, have significant scope to act in ways that are contrary to their recommendations and that undermine the quality of provision of education.

  6. For example, in 2017, the Education Committee described in stark terms the scale and extent of the teacher supply crisis facing the education system and its roots in policy decisions taken since May 2010. The Committee’s concerns and analysis of this crisis were reflected in the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts 2018 Inquiry into teacher supply. The Committee concluded that the DfE had ‘failed to get a grip on teacher retention’. However, notwithstanding the accuracy of both Committees’ assessment of the recruitment and retention crisis, the steps that had to be taken to tackle it and the likely adverse consequences of persisting with current policy approaches, no effective action by ministers followed.

  7. The current accountability regime therefore holds accountable individual schools and their staff for problems that are in substantial part the responsibility of ministers and the Government. The fundamental reassessment of accountability called for in this position statement must, therefore, include an examination of the ways in which the work of the inspectorate and Parliament can be strengthened so that the scope for ministers to evade responsibility is minimised.

…as well as other public services that contribute to learning.
  1. As noted above, individual schools operate within a wider children’s services context that has significant implications for the outcomes against which schools are held to account. The Committee will be aware that in areas including supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities or securing high rates of attendance, schools depend upon access to sufficient resources as well as external services and sources of expertise. However, at present, accountability mechanisms such as performance tables and inspections place a disproportionate and inequitable burden of responsibility on schools for the impact of deficits in the availability and quality of these services.

  2. Further, it is not evident that decision-makers with responsibility for these services, including ministers and national-level bodies, are held to account for the impact of their decisions on the ability of individual schools to undertake their core functions. Reforming accountability meaningfully will require recognition of the interconnected nature of the impacts that schools and wider services have on children’s educational outcomes and life chances. An accountability regime that recognises these interconnections would not only allow for a more precise identification of responsibilities, but would also ensure that support for securing improvements across services and settings can be offered on a sufficiently informed basis.

C. Reforming the inspection process

The case for reform to school inspection is clear…
  1. While many of the concerns commonly identified with Ofsted’s inspection of individual schools are the result of the deeply flawed overarching accountability regime, aspects of the current inspection framework and the ways in which it is implemented are also problematic and in need of reform.

  2. Discussions around the role and work of Ofsted can focus disproportionately on the Ofsted ‘brand’ and whether or not it should be retained, while distracting attention away from consideration of options for reforms to the ways in which school inspection is undertaken. For this reason, there is a strong case for accompanying the introduction of reforms with the discontinuation of the Ofsted brand.

…including the need for a sharper focus on the inspection of staff workload and wellbeing.
  1. Despite reforms introduced by the 2019 Education Inspection Framework (EIF), including its greater focus on workload and wellbeing and its more appropriate appreciation of the limitations of schools’ internally generated assessment data, it is becoming clear that these reforms have not had the positive impacts that might have been anticipated when they were first introduced.

  2. The NASUWT acknowledges that the current EIF reflects a more appropriate appreciation of the limitations of internally generated pupil assessment data. Reflecting the findings of the DfE-commissioned report, Making data work, inspectors were directed not to request such information from schools and to consider the extent to which production of it results in unreasonable workload demands.

  3. Further, the focus of inspection under the EIF shifted away from the scrutiny of assessment data towards the fitness for purpose of the school’s curriculum offer and its primacy in the quality of pupils’ learning experiences.

  4. Nevertheless, however well-intended these reforms were, they have often not resulted in the improvements in the experience of inspection that might have been expected. For example, it is not clear that inspectors are always actively investigating the extent to which teachers and leaders are subject to excessive and unnecessary workload demands. This should be regarded as a core function of inspection, and NASUWT policy is clear that no school should be deemed to have passed its inspection if it is not taking action to tackle workload and promote staff wellbeing. The sharper focus on inspection of the curriculum has also resulted in a significant degree of confusion about the purpose of subject-based ‘deep dives’, which have prompted many schools to introduce unsupportive, workload-intensive practices that distract from, rather than support, teaching and learning.

The four-grade inspection reporting system should be abolished…
  1. In addition to specific issues in respect of the 2019 EIF, it is possible to identify longstanding features of the inspection framework that impede its ability to operate effectively and have adverse implications for the workforce.

  2. The use of four single-word or phrase-grade descriptors in inspection judgements is also deeply unhelpful. A fundamental function of inspection is to give assurance that schools are providing an acceptable standard of education. Differentiated grade descriptors do not align with this function and are so broad that they can never provide the level of precision they purport to about the performance of a school. They hinder the production of valid and detailed evaluations of the performance of schools, especially those that will be of practical use to teachers with school improvement responsibilities. They also undermine the important principle, particularly in respect of the ‘outstanding’ category, that all schools should seek to improve.

…and be replaced by a system that helps schools to improve and ensures that it is focused on the quality of provision.
  1. For this reason, the NASUWT advocates the introduction of a ‘passed/not passed’ inspection outcome system to affirm whether an acceptable system of educational provision is in place. Where schools are deemed to have ‘not passed’, they should be signposted by the inspectorate to sources of support to enable them to secure the improvements needed. Any re-inspection should be conducted in a timely way in order to verify that provision now meets the standards required.

  2. Inspection has become high stakes because any adverse judgement will trigger a process over which schools have little or no influence or control. A fit-for-purpose system of school inspection would necessitate a dialogue about how best to support schools that need support, which involves schools and their staff, employers and other stakeholders. Schools should be enabled to become active participants in their improvement journeys rather than the passive recipients of external interventions. School inspection outcomes should not be accompanied, as at present, by threats of forced academisation or forced re-brokering to another academy trust.

  3. The high-stakes accountability context within which schools operate has encouraged pressure from ministers and other advocates of particular practices, interests or curriculum content to secure their inclusion in the inspection framework. This is not a coherent basis on which to determine the foci of inspection and merely increases the accountability demands placed on schools.

  4. The NASUWT is particularly concerned by the education system’s almost complete reliance on Ofsted to ensure that schools’ safeguarding practice is effective. Quality assurance of safeguarding cannot be established on this basis securely, in light of the lengthy intervals between inspections to which the substantial majority of schools are subject. This function should, instead, be undertaken by appropriately resourced and empowered local authorities, given their statutory responsibilities and their knowledge of local contexts. Inspection should be focused on matters related directly to the quality of educational provision.

A balanced scorecard system would make inspection fairer, more supportive and more developmental…
  1. It is also clear that inspection reports in their current form seek to provide not only a description for parents about the quality of education a school provides, but also useful information for leaders, teachers and those responsible for governance on areas of strength and future development. These two purposes are legitimate but require inspection outcome reporting to be tailored to the interests of different audiences.

  2. The NASUWT believes that a balanced scorecard approach, alongside greater emphasis on qualitative evaluation, would have significant merit and should be explored further. Inspections should seek to provide more helpful feedback to schools and recognise that this reporting is likely to be different in nature to the report provided to parents. Inspection and accountability generally should recognise the very different contexts and challenges that schools face and the importance of accountability promoting an inclusive education system. A balanced scorecard would provide an opportunity to embed this principle more securely in inspection and other accountability-related processes.

…and should be part of a system in which inspections are carried out by serving classroom teachers as well as leaders.
  1. Much attention rightly continues to be focused on the credibility of the inspection regime and the extent to which it takes effective account of the realities of those working directly with pupils in classrooms. Without such credibility, inspection will never be able to command the highest possible levels of professional confidence of teachers and school leaders. While it is important that those with current leadership experience and professional inspectors continue to have a role in the inspection process, it is striking that very few inspectors are active classroom practitioners with recent and relevant experience of the classroom. This is in contrast to the Care Quality Commission and the HM Police and Fire Service inspection models, where the skills and experience of relevant practitioners are central to their inspection methodologies. The same principle should apply to the inspection of schools.

  2. Credibility of the inspection system also requires that those making potentially consequential judgements about schools are - and are seen to be - entirely disassociated from the schools they inspect. The role of the inspector in any effective system is to make judgements without fear or favour on the basis of the evidence before them.

Inspection myths must be busted more effectively…
  1. It is the NASUWT’s experience that while the process and requirements of inspection can create workload burdens, many of the issues associated with inspection are the result of misconceptions about these requirements. Schools have often imposed practices on staff on the basis that inspectors will expect to find them in place, when this is not, or should not, be the case. Often, such practices are advocated by expensive external consultants engaged by schools who have no recent experience of conducting inspections.

  2. The publication by Ofsted in 2015 of Clarification for schools (pdf), which sought to identify unnecessary practices and eliminate redundant inspection preparation, was a positive step. However, it is apparent that more robust action is needed to ensure that schools do not add to already significant workload burdens in this way.

…and a more effective, independent process for dealing with complaints should be introduced.
  1. Ensuring that the legitimate interests of those impacted by inspection are respected requires a process that allows for effective and timely complaints to be made and for any appropriate remedies identified following investigation of complaints to be implemented.

  2. It is apparent that the current complaints system is not fit for purpose in this respect. The current procedure is heavily weighted towards the judgement of the inspector and it is unacceptable that there is no effective appeals process to challenge an inspection judgement that relates to standards. The current system makes it extremely difficult for individual members of staff to pursue complaints about an inspection. The timescale for making complaints is too rigid and excludes cases where it has taken time for the full evidence to become available. It is not evident to the NASUWT that existing mechanisms for the external scrutiny of complaints provide a sufficiently robust means by which Ofsted’s inspections can be subject to objective and expert scrutiny and correction.

  3. Addressing these issues will be critical to ensuring the highest possible levels of professional and public trust and confidence in the inspection system. The complaints system must also allow for inaccuracies and unreasonable judgements to be challenged fully before inspection reports are placed into the public domain.


Your feedback

If you require a response from us, please DO NOT use this form. Please use our Contact Us page instead.

In our continued efforts to improve the website, we evaluate all the feedback you leave here because your insight is invaluable to us, but all your comments are processed anonymously and we are unable to respond to them directly.