Recent Ofsted changes likely to increase pressure on schools to raise exam results “by all means possible”, says ex-Chief Inspector

Janet Downs's picture
(Note: some of the following relates only to science teaching but most applies to all subjects)
There were two major concerns about Ofsted after it was set up in 1992, wrote Sir Mike Tomlinson*, ex-Chief Inspector of Schools:


1 The consistency of inspectors’ judgements and their subject expertise;

2 The use of raw data to judge a school’s performance particularly when these results were not put into context.

Sir Mike felt the second concern was less of a problem now because more contextualised data was available which allows like to be compared with like.  But he said there’s a tendency for commentators, particularly politicians, to make judgements about school effectiveness based on one year’s results rather than a trend over a longer timescale.

The first concern, however, increased further after the introduction of short inspections in 2002. Inspectors spent less time in schools and subjects were judged by non-specialist inspectors. This seriously reduced both the quality and quantity of information about teaching in each subject, wrote Sir Mike. Reduced time together with an increased amount of test data meant the latter became the “dominant input” into Ofsted judgements.

England has a very autonomous school system, Sir Mike said, and accountability was crucial. However, he didn’t believe the balance in the current accountability system is the best possible. It is skewed so schools feel under increased pressure to increase test results. This leads to:

1 Teaching to the test;

2 So-called “safe” teaching;

3 A decrease in innovation;

4 A reduced emphasis on developing pupils’ enthusiasm for subjects.

Nevertheless, Sir Mike felt Ofsted had had notable successes:

1 It contributed to a rise in the quality of science teaching between 1995/96 and 2003/4

2 Ofsted’s concerns about Key Stage 3 pupils being taught science by non-specialists combined with the Wellcome Trust’s report on the professional development of science teachers led to the establishment of the National Science Learning Centre and 9 regional centres.

3 It contributed to the establishment of the National College for School Leadership in 1997 to improve school leadership.

4 Ofsted’s identification of good practice led to effective schools being linked to other schools. This had been a factor in the success of the London Challenge.

However, Sir Mike feared that changes to Ofsted in 2012 would “raise the bar for what is acceptable examination performance”. These changes are likely to increase the pressure on schools to raise test results “by all means possible”, he warned.

So, is Ofsted friend or foe?

The positive: quality of teaching in science had increased.

The negative: teaching to the test, over-simplified use of data, and the stifling of innovation.

Sir Mike concluded that the “weight of all the accountability measures needs to be reduced and test and examination requirements overhauled”. Ofsted should rely less on test data and more on direct observation.

This change would give teachers the room and the confidence to innovate and develop good teaching practices.


*Sir Mike Tomlinson’s essay, “Inspection: friend or foe?” is published in the Wellcome report Effects from Accountabilities (2013) available here.

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