Ofsted: too big to not fail

Last week’s decision by the House of Commons Education Committee not to endorse the appointment of Amanda Spielman as Ofsted Head raises important questions.

Teaching unions have pointed to Ms Spielman’s lack of teaching experience. In partial defence, she does know her way around education, having amongst other things been involved with the Ark academy chain and acted as Chair of Ofqual, the exams regulator.

A more fundamental issue is whether anyone should be doing the Ofsted job as it stands.

The post’s title is, in full, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills. That is a heck of a lot of responsibilities.

Schools have been inspected in England since the 1830s. The inspectorate was introduced after Parliament began making grants to schools, a reasonable enough justification at the time. For much of the 19th century such central funding was fairly minimal and the role of the inspectorate correspondingly limited. The 1902 Education Act (a Conservative measure, incidentally) established local education authorities and gave them the power to set up new secondary schools; it also gave the LEAs the power to inspect schools, under the general supervision of the national Inspectorate. This was the position for most of the 20th century, until John Major’s government centralised schools inspection under the new Ofsted – then standing for Office for Standards in Education.

Since then, Ofsted has accumulated a range of additional functions. In 2001 it took over from local authorities – more centralisation – the registration and inspection of day care and childminding. In 2007 it took over the Adult Learning Inspectorate, giving it responsibility for post-16 government-funded education outside the universities. At the same time it took on the task of inspecting social care services for children. If that wasn’t enough it moved into the independent sector (previously outside its remit) to oversee their boarding functions as part of its social care remit. It has also pushed for more regulation of home schooling.

These responsibilities are too much for one organisation and no individual, whether Ms Spielman or anyone else, can give them all adequate attention.

The core schools inspection function is in need of an overhaul. Its methodology is heavy-handed and there is a strong suggestion that its inspectors enforce adherence to debatable teaching methods. It has initially missed, and then overreacted, to bad practice in some Muslim-majority schools. Its approach to academies needs sorting out. Even when there are no problems, its communications to schools and thus to parents are full of template-generated banality and tell us little we do not already know or could glean from publicly available data. Policy Exchange have suggested radical changes to Ofsted’s approach which would also save money.

So a reform job there. But what about the other responsibilities? Social care raises a completely different set of issues. The Baby P scandal in Haringey is one demonstration of the inadequacy of Ofsted inspection of social care: another is failure to spot the sexual abuse of children in care in many northern cities (this latter failure is documented by James Tooley and Barrie Craven in the February issue of Economic Affairs).

As for daycare and nursery schooling, regulation has been a disaster for parents and Ofsted must share much of the blame. The rigid inspection system and adherence to the Early Years Foundation Stage – a national curriculum for tiny tots – have driven tens of thousands of childminders out of childcare, and raised the cost and reduced the availability of nurseries.

During the last Parliament, the House of Commons Education Committee called for social care to be split from Ofsted’s responsibilities. They should repeat this call, and also demand that childcare be taken from its remit.

Ofsted is just too big. The proper question for Nicky Morgan is not whether she should persist in the appointment of Amanda Spielman, but whether the Chief Inspector role should exist in its current form.

Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.