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Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Reflects on the Last Seven Years

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Amanda Spielman

HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, looks back on her seven years in post; the challenges facing the sector and Ofsted’s role in supporting schools.

At the end of December this year, I will hand over the role of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector to a new incumbent. I’ve spent seven years in the role – two years longer than expected, because of the unprecedented disruption wrought by the pandemic on education and children’s social care.

The pandemic has not been the sole challenge we have faced in my time as HMCI – indeed, this year has seen heightened debate and discussion about our school inspections – but the pandemic’s impact has undoubtedly cast the longest and most stubborn shadow.

Reflecting on my tenure, it would be easy to cast COVID-19 in the role of the great villain, thwarting all forward momentum. But that would ignore the dynamism and energy of the school sector. There has been exciting progress made in schools – particularly in relation to the curriculum they teach. I’m proud that Ofsted has played a part in shaping and encouraging that change.

Education inspection framework (EIF)

In 2019, we introduced the EIF. This framework, based on extensive research and supported by widespread consultation with the sector, re-focused our inspections of schools, nurseries, and further education. Where previous inspection frameworks relied heavily on a school’s results, the EIF looks in detail at how those results are achieved. It puts the curriculum front and centre and rewards the integrity of those school leaders who think deeply about the education they provide. Results remain important, and valued by parents, but inspection reports give a richer picture. It tells parents what it’s like to be a child at a school; it gets under the bonnet and explores the basis of a school’s performance.

While there has been much debate recently about Ofsted judgements; inspections are much more than a grading mechanism. I have always talked about the importance of the professional dialogue between teachers and inspectors – helping school leaders focus on the right things to push forward and improve. An inspectorate is unlikely to elicit much warmth from the sector it scrutinises, but many schools have been pleasantly surprised by their experience under the EIF. Much of the feedback we get from schools is that inspection is now something that feels ‘done with’, rather than ‘done to’.

Of course, there are those who would like Ofsted to support schools, rather than judge them. But that’s not how Ofsted was conceived in legislation thirty years ago – and this government policy hasn’t changed. We’re not an improvement agency – but we do help highlight where improvements are possible and our reports are used by local authorities, academy trusts, and the Department for Education to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a school and to help frame decisions about interventions.

Research

It is perhaps because of those interventions that our work is seen to carry so much weight. Given its importance, I have always made sure that everything we say and do is grounded in evidence, whether to underpin our inspection frameworks, define our conception of curriculum quality or explore the challenges facing education and social care.

Our review of sexual harassment and abuse in schools in 2021 was an example of the latter. It delved into the pupils’ experiences and to what extent schools had grasped the scale of the problem and were taking steps to counter it.

We found that children often don’t see the point of challenging or reporting harassment or sexualised behaviour because it had become normalised for them. We recommended that schools should assume they had an issue, even in the absence of reports from pupils. We said they should build a whole-school culture that would not tolerate incidents of harassment or abuse, within or outside school. We know that the report helped keep the issue in the forefront of school leaders’ minds.

Post-pandemic education

During the pandemic, when inspection was suspended, our research carried on. We spoke to school leaders and aggregated their insights into the impact on children of lockdown, remote learning, and a lack of social contact. I repeatedly warned about the potential problems of isolating children from their peers and trusted adults. In October 2020 I wrote,

“The impact of school closures in the summer will be felt for some time to come – and not just in terms of education, but in all the ways they impact on the lives of young people.”

Since the pandemic, we know schools have worked incredibly hard to return normality into children’s lives. But there is growing evidence of damage to the social contract between parents and children that has been at the heart of education for generations. We are seeing more absenteeism and low-level disruptive behaviour, making it harder for classroom teachers to teach.

We need all children to see the value in the whole school experience, in learning as a group, in taking part in music and sport, and in making friendships. Schools need a strong curriculum, good extra-curricular activities, and a positive culture to help keep children energised in school. And parents must also play their part, ensuring that their children understand the importance of attending school every day.

Final thought

Education has long been central to any government’s agenda – and for good reason. There is no area of civic society or industry that would not benefit from a better-educated workforce. I hope that all future governments continue to hold tightly to the importance of education. Working for Ofsted has been – and continues to be – a huge privilege. I have much still to do in the weeks to come, before handing over to Sir Martyn Oliver. I wish him every success in this unique and rewarding role

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