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John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Amanda Spielman’s appearance before the Public Accounts Select Committee, and her subsequent letter to it, were not unique – Sir Michael Wilshaw once answered on academy chains – but were certainly unusual. Her normal channel of accountability is, understandably enough, the Education Select Committee. This appearance was triggered by a report from the National Audit Office, saying that Ofsted had no evidence that its inspections were improving education, which, as the NAO knows perfectly well, is nothing new. The purpose of inspection is to report on what is happening – it is up to Ministers and other authorities to make things happen. Inspection can contribute indirectly, by drawing attention to good and poor work, but this is very difficult to prove. It can, conversely, fossilise ineffective, but generally accepted, practices simply by ignoring them.

The accounts committee has a Labour chair, and unions have been pressing Spielman to link what they see as falling school standards to cuts in funding, criticising her roundly for refusing to do so, and calling for the abolition of the inspectorate. Anyone knowing Spielman will understand her commitment to telling the truth as the evidence presents it, and if she says that there is no evidence of funding cuts affecting school standards, that is because, as things stand, there isn’t any.

She was equally clear that this is not the case in Further Education and sixth forms, which, for reasons I’m only now beginning to understand, are funded at lower levels than schools, even though the tasks they face are no less difficult, and in some ways more complex. Schools, she says, have spent a lot of money on teaching assistants, and there is no good evidence that this is effective, a point to which I’ll return in a moment. She might have added that secondary schools have large and very expensive management teams, partly because headteachers are now, in effect, inspectors in their own schools.

A Conservative member of the committee, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, got to the heart of the issue with this question:

“What I am hearing from this whole exchange that we have been having is that your resources have been cut, inspections have been shortened, and the interval between inspections has been extended. Does that not give rise to a regime where the school can game the system by doing things like the Chair has suggested: having a narrower curriculum and not putting pupils in for the more challenging subjects? Isn’t that likely to give us a narrower and narrower education system?”

There is really no arguing with this. In 2005, Labour destroyed the HMI approach to school inspection by removing the independence of inspectors, downgrading them from the top of the professional tree to middle managers, stopping the inspection of subjects, and extending Ofsted’s remit to areas it knew little or nothing about. Inspectors no longer had time to do their work properly, and this situation has got worse rather than better. Take teaching assistants. Prior to 2005, inspectors had time to evaluate their work in classes, and, if they were teaching on their own, to observe them on the same terms as teachers. One assistant, whom I observed teaching reading for the normal 30 minutes, received a top grade and proceeded to train as a teacher. The school as a whole failed, by a large margin, but we were able to pick out and reward her excellence. I doubt whether any such observation has taken place since 2005, and indeed whether Ofsted has any reliable evidence on the effectiveness of assistants at all. If the evidence of their impact on pupils’ attainment is, as Ms Spielman says, “far from clear”, we should be able to look to Ofsted to clarify it.

It is not the fault of Spielman, or her predecessors, that we can’t.

One of them agreed with me when I suggested that they had “played the hand that they’d been dealt,” and, as Sir Geoffrey’s question indicates, that hand does not enable them to carry out their work properly. Since 2010, the government has made major, and for the most part essential, changes in education, while meeting Treasury targets. Cutting quality control at the same time prevented Ofsted from dealing with potential scandals before they broke, and reduced the quality of evidence available to parents. I continue to read reports, and their quality and basis in evidence is showing strong improvement, as in the brilliant report on Michaela Community School and the report on behaviour at Great Yarmouth, whose headteacher, Barry Smith, is to address the Conservative Education Society on Monday.

There is, though, no question that reports do not give anything like the detail they used to, and I don’t rely on one unless I can check it from other sources.

Spielman said at one point that, “Our inspections are now a review of the school’s own work. A school can show us its work however it likes.” It can also choose what not to show. I know of one school that is still rated good despite a note on its last report, some years ago, of a significant weakness in maths. Until this year’s examination reforms, that seat of learning also boosted its results by having teachers write GCSE assessments, a practice which a senior Ofsted official told me was so widespread that Ofsted could do nothing about it.

The special needs issue that I discussed in my previous article is mentioned in reports, but not investigated in any depth, because inspectors don’t have time to find out whether these pupils are making the progress they should be. The campaign on this issue, like that on funding during the last general election, is biting, and will cost votes.

All three of Michael Gove’s successors have served in George Osborne’s Treasury, and their main area of expertise has been finance rather than education. School inspection has become a casualty, and its fate shows how austerity has bitten into essential services as well as eliminating waste. As austerity comes to an end, the government needs to consider giving it the means to inspect schools – and Further Education – properly once again. It would not cost a huge amount, and I can think of at least one quango that could provide a good chunk of the money.

4 comments for: John Bald: School inspection is not a “little extra”

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