5.5.1 Quality Assurance Processes: Ofsted

Learning outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Describe Ofsted, its functions, and its remit
  • Analyse how an Ofsted inspection works, and the nature of the grading criteria resulting from inspections carried out under the Common Inspection Framework
  • Consider strengths and weaknesses of, and alternatives to, an inspection-based quality assurance model for education
  • Identify ways in which an organisation might prepare meaningfully for Ofsted inspection

What is Ofsted?

Ofsted was established in September 1992 as an outcome of the 1992 Education (Schools) Act. School inspection had been coming under increasing parliamentary scrutiny and criticism since the mid-1970s, and reform of existing arrangements was widely considered to be long overdue. The 1992 Act and the formation of Ofsted may be seen as a continuation of education reform policies which had been considered in the UK for some time, and which included the inauguration of the National Curriculum in the late 1980s.

Ofsted is organised regionally, with 8 regional offices led by a regional director who reports to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. The regional directors lead teams of HMIs with the aim of promoting improvement of education and child services through inspection.

Ofsted maintains a set of core values which underpin the running of the organisation, and which inform inspection processes and approaches to education. These values are (Ofsted, 2014):

  1. Putting children and learners first: with an especial focus on the disadvantaged and vulnerable, there is a priority to put children and young people first in Ofsted's operations.
  2. Achieving excellence: a focus is maintained on standards raising and on outcomes being improved.
  3. Behaving with integrity: Ofsted is evidence-led in is assessments, and works to be a responsive and well-regulated organisation.
  4. Valuing people and their differences: The organisation works to celebrate diversity, respect difference, and to pursue an equal opportunities agenda, as well as to respond appropriately to arising issues.

Ofsted inspections are informed by the contention that independent and impartial external inspection offers diagnostics on what should improve in a setting, and communicates that information in a meaningful way to educators, parents, school governors, and other stakeholders.

Ofsted inspections, and the reports derived from such inspections, are useful in several ways. The headline grade given following an inspection can be useful as a general quality measure, and may be useful to the school for publicising their effectiveness, and of customer information value to prospective and current parents and learners. Ofsted reporting also provides for a country-wide overview of the levels of teaching and learning, and of the competence of educational and other settings' management. This may be being increasingly relevant in an educational landscape characterised by a diversity of organisational and funding arrangements for schools; academisation necessitates oversight to provide a reasonable check and balance against school independence from local authority control leading to waywardness, for example (Science

Community Representing Education [Score], 2010).

How does Ofsted measure the quality of schools?

The rubric by which Ofsted inspects schools and other settings within its remit is contained within the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) (Ofsted, 2015). The rules vary depending on the kind of setting being inspected, and on the nature of the inspection being undertaken at that time, though there are commonalities across all settings.

School inspection can take at any point in the school year after the first 5 working days of the Autumn term. The frequency of inspection will depend on the findings of the previous inspection (Ofsted, 2016b).

Ofsted uses a 4-point grade scale in its inspections to make the main judgments:

  • Grade 1: outstanding
  • Grade 2: good
  • Grade 3: requires improvement
  • Grade 4: inadequate

Inspectors also give grades using the same 4-point scale on four areas of the setting's operations (Ofsted, 2015):

  • Effectiveness of leadership and management: ambition in vision, robustness in self-assessment, commitment to staff development and practice, curriculum management, promotion of British values, equality and diversity management, quality of safeguarding.
  • Quality of teaching, learning, and assessment: subject knowledge, expectations of learners, appropriateness of planning and assessment, feedback quality, engagement with parents and other stakeholders, commitment to equality and diversity, support of English and mathematics skills. 
  • Personal development, behaviour, and welfare: fostering a culture of pride and ambition, promoting confidence in learners, careers advice, employability and contextual skills, attendance, and behaviour management, safeguarding and health issues monitoring, citizenship.
  • Outcomes for children and learners: Distance travelled, relevance of studies, progression. 

Notice of inspection

Schools are notifiedaround noon of the working day prior to inspection. If deemed appropriate, Ofsted may insect without notice. In a no-notice situation, the lead inspector will contact the school approximately 15 minutes before arriving.

Parents of learners should be notified of an inspection, using Ofsted-template notification. The Parent View section of the Ofsted website gives parents and carers a chance to comment on the school and to provide their views and opinions on its operation, which will be taken into consideration by the inspection team (Ofsted, 2016c)

During inspections

The inspection team will consist of a blend of Ofsted-employed HMIs, and self-employed inspectors contracted to Ofsted. A full inspection lasts 2 days; a short inspection lasts 1. Most of this time will be spent in lesson observations and in evidence-gathering. Inspectors will talk with pupils and with staff, and will consider external views such as local authority reports where relevancy.

After inspection

A draft report will be available within 2 working weeks, with a working day allocated for the school to fact-check and make comment, unless concerns are raised, in which case the school will have 5 working days to respond. The final report is posted on the Ofsted website within 19 working days of the inspection ending; if an 'inadequate' grade is given, this may extend to 28 days. Copies of the full report are distributed to the school, the local authority, and the governing body; the school must provide parents access to a copy of the report also (Ofsted, 2016b).    

What are the strengths and limitations of the Ofsted inspection model?

Ofsted is not uncontroversial. The inspection model is open to critique, and the importance of inspection placed upon educators can be stressful and demoralising, as well as arguably fostering school environments which are tailored as much to the satisfaction of Ofsted inspection criteria as they are to meaningful learning and fostering of young people's education and growth. A generalised concern about Ofsted can result in safe and dependable, though unambitious and sterile teaching, and school environments designed as much to tick boxes as to inspire learners.   

Inspections are inevitably subjective to some extent; though there are safeguards within the model to mitigate against wayward grades, there is nevertheless an element of inconsistency and, at times, inaccuracy in grading, reporting, and in the application of Ofsted guidelines to settings.

The Ofsted system (and its counterparts elsewhere in the UK) allows for a single body to present information and data about educational quality at the national level; a diversified system of accountability may not be able to do this in any meaningful way. A removal of Ofsted would mean that school performance measures would default to an over-analysis and reliance on test scores, which can have a series of interlinked negatives associated with such a regime. These include teaching to test, rote-based learning in the young, and narrowing of curricula and of teaching methods as exam-friendly criteria and topic areas become the focus of instruction (Ehren and MacBeath, 2016).

Europe-wide research indicates that school inspections have a positive impact on learner outcomes (Lifelong Learning Programme, 2016). Inspection programmes can also highlight good practice, and help disseminate innovation when it is found. Ofsted reporting can also provide correctives in that where broader patterns may discernible (such as in geographic disparities in educational achievement and experience, or in the performance of an academy over multiple sites) this can be detected and then acted upon as appropriate. Others, however, feel that Ofsted is insufficiently flexible to take into full account the contexts of education; the school is the focus, and not necessarily the ways in which the school must manage its intake, and the social and cultural issues associated with that pupil body. This can mean that schools in areas of low economic performance - where there are issues with poverty, with high proportions of learners for whom English is not a first language, and/or where there are other social deprivation indices at play - can be held perhaps unfairly accountable for the consequences of contexts which they are not responsible for (Score, 2010). 

How can institutions balance meeting Ofsted's quality criteria and minimising the stress and fear which often comes with an impending inspection?

An upcoming Ofsted inspection can be a time of worry and certainty for teachers and other staff in any educational setting. To some extent this is natural, and perhaps even positive, as it evidences pride in working, and care that people are seen to be providing a good level of provision for their learners. Also, the inspections - and the reports and actions subsequent to them - are important, and it is only proper that they are not treated lightly.

The current inspection framework is somewhat more supportive than previous iterations. When gaps between inspections were longer, there could be greater uncertainty about not only when an inspection might be called, but also how the inspection would work in practice. Some of those fears may have dissipated now that Ofsted is an established part of the academic cycle, rather than representing a recent and unwelcome innovation, but there is still the issue of staff tension to broach, while working to ensure that inspection criteria are being addressed.

It makes sense for internal lesson observations to be modelled on Ofsted criteria, so that they provide a fair facsimile of the experience of having an inspector in a session, and of the feedback resultant from that. Similarly, internal reviews and departmental self-assessments need to be balanced, fair, and relevant so that they support preparation for Ofsted as well as generating meaningful information in their own right. However, additional internal assessment burdens in the period prior to an anticipated observation is likely to be counterproductive; focus should be on ensuring school systems are working well, rather than increase stress through over-reactions and by making lesson observations unfairly stressful.  

An inspection plan, based on the previous inspection report, and on the actions resultant from that, is the first key element to have in place; this will work alongside other medium and long-term planning for the school. Settings should use their expectation of when an inspection is likely to manage the achievement of the planning in good time for the next inspection round. Colleagues should be prepared for inspection as befits their role and position in the organisation; whether it is having a confident grasp of relevant data for management, or on areas for teaching improvement for classroom educators, there will be focuses to be worked on.

As inspection is part of the educational landscape, school leaders can do much by setting the tone of the inspection preparation; this means calmness and confidence, and the evidencing to others of fair though rigorous expectations, and of meaningful support to ensure that all are helped to be able to work to a consistent high quality (Garvey, 2014).     


Ofsted's mission statement is "raising standards, changing lives" (Ofsted, 2016a). The statement draws a clear link between the enhancement of standards in education, and in the improvement in the life experience and future chances of young people.

When considering quality assurance measures, it is worth thinking about that mission statement and the ways in which an external oversight body can offer robustness, externality, and impartiality in supporting the improvement of schools. The logic behind this is that if schools can be meaningfully developed, then young people will be advantaged as a direct consequence. Though Ofsted will remain at times controversial, and sometimes both unpopular and unwelcome in its attentions, there is a place for quality systems in education, not least if they support learners, albeit indirectly.     


Ehren, M. and MacBeath, J. (2016) Should we scrap Ofsted? The pros, cons and alternatives. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/mar/06/scrap-ofsted-pros-cons-alternatives (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Elliott, A. (2012) Twenty years inspecting English schools - Ofsted 1992-2012. Available at: http://risetrust.org.uk/pdfs/Review_Ofsted.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Findlater, S. (2015) How to survive an Ofsted inspection. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Garvey, P. (2014) 12 tips for facing Ofsted - quality schools. Available at: http://www.quality-schools.com/prepare-ofsted/ (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Lifelong Learning Programme (2016) School inspections. Available at: http://schoolinspections.eu/impact/ (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2014) Raising standards, improving lives: The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) Strategic Plan 2014 to 2016. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/379920/Ofsted_20Strategic_20Plan_202014-16.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2015) The common inspection framework: Education, skills and early years. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/461767/The_common_inspection_framework_education_skills_and_early_years.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2016a) About - Ofsted. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ofsted/about (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2016b) Being inspected as a maintained school or academy. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/being-inspected-as-a-maintained-school-or-academy (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Ofsted (2016c) Welcome to parent view. Available at: https://parentview.ofsted.gov.uk/ (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

Science Community Representing Education [Score] (2010) The role and performance of Ofsted. Available at: http://www.score-education.org/media/7968/oct2010_roleofofsted.pdf (Accessed: 9 December 2016).

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