HMCI’s Verdict in Annual Report 2018/19: Education quality on an upward trajectory

13 Apr

I       Headlines

The quality of education continues to improve in England, according to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, as mentioned in her annual report for 2018/19, which was published on 21 January 2020.  The Coronavirus meltdown of the last few months has resulted in everything taking a backseat.  But it is worth chewing on the judgements and commentary of Amanda Spielman’s and her team about the quality of education over the last academic year – 2018/19.  Her cover report to the Secretary of State was wide-ranging.  The bones of that were as follows.   Overall,

  • 86% of schools and academies were judged to be good or outstanding;
  • 96% of early years foundation stage (EYFS) providers were judged good or outstanding; and
  • 81% of further education and skills (FES) providers were judged to be good or outstanding.

According to Spielman, this picture was reflected in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which showed average scores for 15-year-olds in England significantly above international averages in mathematics, reading and science. In 2018, standards in mathematics rose during the last three years for youngsters of 15 years of age. There was also a small rise in reading standards albeit there was no improvement in science.

The quality of social care improved too. Altogether, 48% of local authorities (LAs) social care services were judged to be good or outstanding – a rise of 12% on the first round under the previous single inspection framework (SIF).

II      Methodology

Her Majesty’s Inspectors focus on the quality of education starting with a top-level view of the curriculum, and testing this out with ‘deep dives’ into individual subjects. These include

  • discussions with senior leaders;
  • discussions with teachers;
  • discussions with learners;
  • discussions with curricular leaders;
  • scrutiny of learners’ work; and
  • visits to a sample of lessons.

The aim of inspectors is to assess the planning and sequencing of the curriculum and how this is being implemented in the classroom, workplace or other settings.

III    Judgements

  • The Curriculum

Spielman wrote that inspectors “were encouraged by the richness of the educational discussion and interest shown on pilot inspections”. Headteachers, teachers, support staff in schools and academies, Nursery personnel and Further Education principals and lecturers were passionate about making sure that they built “the right curriculum for their learners, and many seized the opportunity to make more space for real curricular thinking”.

The summary findings were as follows.

  • The curriculum was at least as ambitious as the national curriculum.
  • Subject leaders had clear roles and good subject knowledge.
  • There was effective curricular planning in all subjects.
  • As many pupils as possible had access to a rich and broad curriculum.
  • The school’s curriculum had enough depth and coverage of knowledge, including a well-thought-out model of progression and sequencing.

Spielman mentioned in her letter to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson, however, that the research that inspectors had carried out revealed that many primary schools were giving excessive priority and attention to English and mathematics to the detriment of other subjects – in particular, science. The upshot had been that both, the quantity and quality of science teaching, were reduced. This was, she hints, owing to the end-of-Key Stage 2 testing of science being abandoned.  The Department for Education’s own sample test showed that in 2018 only 21% met the expected standard.   She speculates that this was why the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) science tests in 2015 and 2018 had shown a drop in standards in the subject.

In those schools and academies that were doing well

  • the curriculum was at least as ambitious as the national curriculum;
  • subject leaders had clear roles and good subject knowledge;
  • there was effective curricular planning in all subjects;
  • as many pupils as possible had access to a rich and broad curriculum; and
  • the curriculum had enough depth and coverage of knowledge, including a well-thought-out model of progression and sequencing.
  • Pupils’ Behaviour

Inspectors found some good practice in staff’s promotion of good pupil behaviour. “…Staff (members) understood how important it is that behaviour policies are implemented consistently. They also understood the importance of whole-school behaviour approaches.”

However, work was still needed to bring policies to life. Spielman averred that good behaviour needed to be taught, along with the routines that enable it. “Rewards and sanctions need to be applied consistently and fairly. Also, teachers need support. In the research into teacher well-being, teachers cited lack of support by leaders and even by parents, in managing behaviour as one of their main sources of stress.”

Of special concern was peer-on-peer abuse.   In Autumn 2018, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reported a 29% increase in children seeking help from Childline in relation to physical, sexual and emotional and on-line abuse by peers.  Schools and academies could not deal with this alone. All educationists, social workers, police officers and workers in the health service had to work across the system and in concert to tackle such abuse.   Professionals should be protecting the victims.  Also, they would do well “to consider whether the perpetrator was the victim of abuse” (elsewhere).

Another concern was the “off-rolling” of pupils – without formally excluding them – in some schools and academies.  Altogether, 20,000 pupils left state-funded schools and academies in year 10 in 2018 and year 11.  The inspectors accepted that there were legitimate reasons for moving pupils between schools/academies and from mainstream schools/academies to alternative provision – i.e. pupil referral units (PRUs).  However, the movement out of mainstream education was excessive.

Ofsted commissioned a YouGov survey on teachers’ view about off-rolling.  They perceived an increase in this dubious practice.  Teachers remarked that

  • vulnerable pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) were more likely to be off-rolled;
  • academic achievement was more important in making decisions to off-roll than the behaviour of the pupils;
  • the pressure placed on senior leadership teams and classroom teachers to maintain high pupil performance for the purposes of climbing up national league tables and securing good Ofsted ratings contributed to this unfortunate practice; and
  • parents were being pressured to accept off-rolling through elective home education. These are parents who need more support, especially those with the least understanding of their children’s rights and/or who spoke English as an additional language.

Spielman stated that pupils leaving a school/academy presented challenges that went wider than the education system. Many fell off the radar of the authorities.  A lucky few were placed in good Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) or alternative provision.  However, the unregistered children not only lost out but became ‘fodder’ (my word) for evil influences like those who peddled drugs and broke into other people’s premises.

  • Social Care

Spielman made the blindingly obvious comment on social care when she mentioned that early preventative work could “remove the need for more intrusive, challenging and costly interventions at a later stage”.  However, tightened budgets had resulted in schools, academies and social services dealing with problems after they arise rather than engaging in preventative work.   The reality was that schools, academies and social care providers struggle with pressing their fingers to plug holes in the dykes and stop the flooding of cases involving exclusions and mental ill-health.  Many professionals tackled these problems with integrity.  Equally, on several occasions, poor decisions were made and/or providers lacked integrity and/or focused on the irrelevant so that they failed to fulfil their responsibilities and ill-prepared young people for adult life.

  • Teachers’ Workload

Teachers’ workload, observed Spielman, had grown out of all proportion to its usefulness – a case of the law of diminishing returns operating par excellence.  In the past, inspectors contributed to this in no small measure.  However, HMCI is taking steps to do something about it by no longer asking for institution-generated data of pupils’ attainment or progress scores.  Besides, it is impossible for inspectors to validate the data within the limited space of an inspection. She admitted that changes in an inspection framework added to teachers’ workload.  However, she added, the feedback she had had so far was that school and academy staff members found it more rewarding working on curricular plans and strategies for effective teaching than marking, assessment and data analysis.

In broad terms, many staff members were struggling because of a lack of human and physical resources leading to an increase in workload.  The increased workload had resulted in a decrease in the ability of staff “to do their core job effectively”.  They were “often asked to take on additional responsibilities outside their expertise”. Staff members also felt “hampered by a lack of physical resources such as computers or library materials”.  These factors contributed to “a sense of disempowerment, despite having the skills and knowledge needed to deliver good-quality education”.

Poor pupil behaviour exacerbated the pressures on staff members undermining their well-being.  “…..Teachers do not always feel supported by senior leaders or line managers in addressing poor behaviour. This is often because behaviour management is inconsistent”, she remarked.  She reminded all readers of her report that the leadership and management judgement in the Education Inspection Framework reflected the extent to which leaders took account of the workload of staff members and their well-being.”

  • Children in Care

She had serious reservations about the provision the nation makes for children in care.  To improve standards and safeguard these children, she recommended the following.

  1. Providers should have a better understanding of the needs of children in care at a national level.
  1. There should be greater investment in the sector so that there were enough places in the right areas.
  2. There should be a review of the type of qualifications that would best equip the workforce to meet children’s needs.
  3. The government should invest time and resources to create the right qualification systems.
  4. The nation should improve the status of care workers so that more people were attracted to work and stay in the profession.
  • Multi-agency work to address the needs of the broken fragments of  


Spielman observed: “…….no one local area can solve the systemic issues in children’s social care”.  Ofsted completed five rounds of joint targeted area inspections with the health service, police, and probation and youth offender services.  These joint inspections focused on

  • child sexual exploitation,
  • domestic abuse,
  • neglect of older children,
  • child criminal exploitation and
  • sexual abuse in the family environment.

In doing so, these agencies discovered that the following areas were weak. These included:

  • partnership working;
  • information-sharing;
  • adult services;
  • support for children and families; and
  • over-optimism of professionals.

Access to therapeutic intervention and support for children and families, in many cases, were poor.  In several areas, children faced significant delays accessing help and support when needed.   Many children that inspectors saw had multiple vulnerabilities which were complex.  Good support was just not there.  “This leaves children at risk of further harm,” she observed.

  • Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

While schools and academies are at the forefront of action to address the needs of pupils who have disabilities, good provision for such children requires multi-agency working.  The percentage of pupils identified with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) dropped radically in 2014 from roughly 21% to 14%.  The current number is 15%. The number of pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), however, continues to creep up.

According to Ofsted, in the most successful SEND provision

  • needs are identified effectively,
  • leaders have a strong understanding of the effectiveness of SEND arrangements,
  • co-production is working well, and area leaders jointly plan, commission and provide services that are responsive to the needs of children and young people with SEND and their families, and
  • education, health and care professionals work together in a joined-up way to improve outcomes for children with SEND.

However, this way of working appears to be conspicuous by its absence in too many areas.  Many headteachers and the heads of other services (according to HMCI) did not understand children’s education, health and care needs in enough depth nor had enough insight into children’s lived experiences.  Accordingly, they did not understand what services to commission, which resulted in considerable waste vis-à-vis service overlap.  They also failed to accept that they had collective responsibility for the provision they made for these children.  The upshot was that frequently, the provision lacked coherence and there was not much coordination across the areas.

Allied to SEND was mental ill-health.  One child in eight between the ages of five and 19 had at least one mental health disorder.  Anxiety or depression was the most prevalent.  Eight per cent had emotional disorders.  The statistics reveal that around 50% of all people who had mental health problems at some point in their lives experienced the first symptoms before they were 14 years old.

  • Child Protection

Most institutions make strenuous efforts to protect children from abuse, which occurs especially in their homes.  However, in a minority of cases there are spectacular examples of grooming by predators out in the field.   Sadly, there is cover-up, concealment or a dismissal of safeguarding issues.  Spielman has appealed to the Secretary of State to give Ofsted “stronger regulatory tools to address this”.  She supports the mandatory duty on professionals to refer allegations of child sexual abuse. The guidance, however,

  • must be clear and unambiguous in its scope,
  • must not conflict with existing guidance,
  • be limited to those in leadership or designated positions,
  • contain safeguards for those who report and
  • not accept a single solution to a complex issue.

Spielman has asked the Secretary of State to impose national minimum standards for residential special schools and academies commensurate with those attached to children’s homes.

  • Illegal Schools

Ofsted’s investigations into unregistered schools led to three convictions.  Since being established in 2015, its task force investigated 600 unregistered schools of which the watchdog deemed that 290 were operating in illegal settings.  Ofsted’s task force judged that safeguarding and health and safety arrangements were poor in a third of them and issued warning notices to 83 such “schools”.  Since then, 40 (circa) unregistered schools changed (for the better) the way in which they were run to comply with the law, mainly by reducing the hours of working to below 18 per week.  Fourteen per cent closed and 12% registered as independent schools.

Spielman opined that the work Ofsted did in this connection was daunting and has appealed to the government for the watchdog to be given “stronger powers to seize documents” and for the “government to tighten the legal definition of a school and of full-time education”.

IV    The Future

(a)     Outstanding Schools, Academies and Further Education Settings

Over the last eight years, Ofsted has been prevented from inspecting outstanding schools and academies routinely.  It is working with the government on this and welcomes the DfE’s intention to “remove this exemption”.  Currently, there are 3,600 schools and academies and over 150 Further Education (FE) providers in this category.  In 2018/19, Ofsted inspected 10% of exempt outstanding schools and academies.  Of these, over eight out of 10 lost their outstanding status and nearly three out of 10 were deemed to require improvement or were inadequate.

Ofsted inspected 12 FE settings deemed “outstanding”.  Of these, it judged that three required improvement.  Only two remained outstanding.

The reality is that more than 1,000 schools and academies and 30 FE settings have not been inspected for over a decade.

Spielman wrote: “Long periods without inspection are unpopular with parents and with teachers: 85% of teachers say the exemption should not be indefinite. The exemption has left us with blind spots about the quality of education, training and safeguarding in these schools and providers.”

(b)     Multi-Academy Trusts

Since December 2018, Ofsted has carried out several Multi-Academy Trusts summary evaluations (MATSE).

The first seven MATSEs revealed the following.

“MATs are more likely to focus on back-office functions than designing the curriculum, despite the clear value that can be added there. This is not to say that MATs should necessarily design the curriculum, but they should be making active and logical decisions as to where responsibility lies. Inspectors need to focus on understanding those decisions and their impact.

“Our early MATSEs and our research have highlighted the role of MATs in creating data workload for schools. Too many people tell us that there is no workload reduction from Ofsted’s new approach to school-collected assessment data because their MAT continues to require extensive data collection and analysis, beyond what is valuable for monitoring and improving the quality of education.

“We have also seen examples of MATs failing to take enough action to improve performance in inadequate schools. We have highlighted this when we have seen it, but we are concerned that, due to the lack of rating from a MATSE, the MATs concerned may not take effective action based on our assessment of these problems.”

Spielman, in so many words, is asking the government to legislate for Ofsted to inspect MATs.  Currently, they can do so only if the trustees of MATs allow the watchdog in.

V      Conclusion

Spielman commends most school/academy leaders and leaders of other educational settings such as independent schools and Further Education outfits for the great work they are doing.  She observes that this work is enhanced when they work well with their local authorities, children’s social services, the health service, youth offending services and the police.

However, some providers make the wrong decisions for children, off-rolling vulnerable pupils “to gain (good) examination results or enter pupils for sham qualifications”. Some “schools and colleges narrow their curriculum and teach to the test”.  The services which complement those in education could support schools/academies to improve outcomes “for children suffering neglect or criminal exploitation or at risk of knife crime”, Spielman remarks.

Spielman closes her commentary by pointing out that in some areas, Ofsted is working with one arm tied behind its back.  “Our blind-spots are caused by weak legislation, weak powers and weak enforcement. These areas, like unregistered children’s homes, unregulated provision for care leavers and unregistered and illegal schools, are where children are potentially coming to significant harm as a result of poor commissioning decisions, ill-informed parental choices or simply unsafe and unsuitable conditions for children.

“There are also settings that we inspect but that we are unable to look closely at where important decisions are being made. For instance, we inspect schools but the important decisions about finance, curriculum, behaviour or exclusions may be taken by a MAT. We inspect individual nurseries, but actually they may be part of a large chain. We cannot always know who the owners of children’s homes are. We are blind to the impact that has on each setting.”

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