The future of inspection

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2023

ASCL's Tom Middlehurst delves deeper into our discussion paper on the future of inspection, which makes a series of proposals for improvements to the inspection process. And Tom's keen to get your views...

In January, ASCL launched a new discussion paper, The Future of Inspection, in which we make a series of proposals for immediate improvements to the current process, as well as longer term suggestions that we think would make inspection fairer and more meaningful. The paper was drawn from discussions with ASCL Council (your elected representatives) – in particular, with Council’s Leadership and Governance Committee – and has received a positive response since its publication, from both members and policymakers. 

However, we recognise that the suggestions in this paper have their own drawbacks and potential issues. Therefore, we’re keen to explore these with you, our members. 

Why does Ofsted need to change? 
We are very clear that any educational reform should be incremental, and that reform should be carefully thought through without causing the unintended consequence or perverse incentive of adding to teachers’ and leaders’ workload. 

We are also clear there is a lot to like in the current Ofsted framework (education inspection framework (EIF)): the focus on curriculum and lived experience of pupils in the classroom that shifts the focus from historical outcomes and draws a clear distinction between inspection and performance data. 

But it’s clearly not working for all schools and colleges equally, and becoming increasingly obvious that, for many leaders, Ofsted – and the implementation of the EIF – no longer carry their trust. In my role, I speak to hundreds of ASCL members every year who have had a poor experience of inspection. We hope the recommendations in our paper would solve some of these concerns, but they’re not without risk themselves. 

To grade or not to grade? 
In the paper, we recommend both the immediate removal of the ‘overall graded judgement’ and, in time, the removal of all judgements. We believe this would take a lot of the heat out of inspection and negate the current need to ‘best-fit’ schools into criteria, or indeed, remove their ‘outstanding’ rating because they fall down on a single bullet point. 

I believe personally that removing judgements would be a ‘good thing’ for the system, particularly during a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. It would allow reports to become increasingly narrative, focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the school or college. 

However, we know that some parents really value a single judgement for their child’s school. Removing graded judgements also runs the risk of making inspection even more ‘cliff-edge’ because we recognise that we will always need Ofsted to raise serious concerns about safeguarding, breakdowns in leadership and management and unacceptably poor quality of education. Would this essentially create a binary pass/fail situation where the stakes are higher? There are also big questions to answer about regulation; so much current policy relies on an Ofsted rating and changing that will not be a quick process. What do you think? 

Trust inspection 
We often get told that inspection reports do not adequately reflect the role of trusts in school improvement, whether positive or negative. With the deep dive methodology, a lot of emphasis is placed on middle leaders, regardless of where curriculum decisions are made within the trust. That’s why we’ve suggested that, immediately, reports should better reflect this. Ofsted currently carries out multi-academy trust (MAT) summary evaluations but is unable to formally inspect MATs. 

In a brave new world of all schools in trusts by 2030, we have to ask: what will inspection look like? The worst-case scenario is that we replicate inspection at different levels and thereby increase workload for everyone. So, should inspection continue to focus on individual institutions or mainly focus on trust decisions? The complexity of answering this question is increased by the fact that MATs operate in very different ways. Evaluating the quality of education, for example, will look very different depending on how much curriculum autonomy a school within a MAT has. 

Inspecting different stages and phases 
Overwhelmingly, ASCL Council feels that the current framework does not work equally for all schools (read the article on page 27 by my colleague Tiffnie Harris). In particular, small primary schools and early years providers tell us that the EIF’s focus on curriculum assumes a disciplinary approach to learning, whereas many of them adopt thematic curriculum models. 

In our discussion paper, we advocate for a single set of inspection ‘standards’ across phases, but with different implementation handbooks that would exemplify what each standard means in each sector and phase. We also suggest that the lead inspector, at least, should have experience of the phase or sector they are inspecting; for example, can an early years specialist validly inspect a post-16 college and vice versa? 

It may also solve a problem with post-16 inspection. At present, some post-16 providers are inspected under the schools’ EIF, others under the FE framework, while secondary schools with sixth forms have their provision inspected under a single report. Shouldn’t all post-16 providers be held accountable to the same framework, while making allowances for colleges that are predominantly 16–18 and those with many more adult learners? 

However, implementing this policy may lead to confusion and an increase in bureaucracy. Trust leaders have also expressed concern that having to use multiple handbooks wouldn’t make sense, and risks undermining cross-phase curriculum planning. If we want inspection to reflect MAT involvement in decisions, then does it really make sense to separate inspection out into different handbooks? 

What do you think? 
The complexities of this paper are ones we are keen to actively explore over the next two terms, and before a new His Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) is appointed. You can read the paper in full here We’d love to hear your views about the future of inspection. What do you think? Please share your views with us by emailing

Tom Middlehurst
ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist


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