Slashed budgets have been blamed for England’s school inspectors only providing a “snapshot” of standards compared to the “comprehensive picture” they did around two decades ago, the UK’s spending watchdog has found.
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) spent 52% less in real terms in 2017/18 than it did in 1999/2000, a National Audit Office (NAO) report said.
At the turn of the Millenium, a team of 16 to 17 inspectors would go into every secondary school for a whole week typically every six or seven years, senior Ofsted officials said.
Now, the typical “good” school gets two inspectors for one day approximately every four years, and up to four inspectors for a couple of days if it is in special measures, with re-inspection within 30 months.
Director of corporate strategy Luke Tryl said: “We’re now at the limit of what we can do.
“We can’t pretend that we’re offering the same level of inspection that we were before. We’re not providing the same comprehensive picture.
“In 2000 we were going into schools with a huge team of inspectors for a week ... now we’re going in and providing much more of a light touch form of assurance.
“We are confident that the short inspection does provide a good enough snapshot to show that standards are being maintained.”
A report by the NAO found that Ofsted - a non ministerial department answerable to Parliament - was missing targets amid falling budgets and high staff turnover and that lack of reliable data means it cannot show it provides value for money.
Ofsted grades schools on their overall effectiveness using a four-point scale: outstanding; good; requires improvement; and inadequate.
Schools graded “outstanding” are exempt from routine re-inspection and there are almost 300 which have not been assessed for more than a decade.
Mr Tryl said this was a “big concern” for parents and admitted a number of those schools will have slipped to “middling”, adding: “we don’t think that exemption is sustainable”.
Around one fifth (19%) of Ofsted’s directly employed inspectors, on a salary of around £70,000, left the workforce in the last financial year, often to take better-paid jobs.
Chief operating officer Matthew Coffey admitted there was “a challenge in terms of retention for sure”.
Head of the NAO Amyas Morse said: “The fact that Ofsted has been subject to constant cuts over more than a decade, and regular shifts in focus, speaks volumes.
“It indicates a lack of clarity about how best to obtain assurance about the quality of schools.”
But Ofsted said it “gets the balance right” in allocating dwindling resources, for example by focusing more on poor-performing schools.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “We have had to make tough decisions about how we prioritise resources. I am confident that Ofsted gets the balance right.
“An increase in either the number of inspections or time spent on inspection will quite simply require greater funding.
“As we have made clear to the NAO, judging ourselves against school outcomes would inevitably create perverse incentives. We exist to provide an objective account of the quality of the nation’s schools.”
Ofsted failed to meet its legal target of inspecting a school within five years of last inspection in 43 cases between 2012/13 and 2016/17, the NAO found.
In 32 cases it had incorrectly treated expanded or amalgamated schools as new schools; in the remaining 11 it deferred on the basis of exceptional circumstances.
Mr Coffey said all 43 had now been assessed, saying Ofsted “takes full responsibility” for the slip-up.
Around 21,500 state-funded schools in England teaching around eight million pupils are subject to inspection by Ofsted.
It inspected 6,079 in 2017/18, spending an estimated £44 million.
As of March this year it directly employed 166 school inspectors alongside 1,470 contracted inspectors.
Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “Over the past decade, successive governments have asked Ofsted to do more with less.
“The Department for Education needs to clearly articulate Ofsted’s role and explain how it fits with the various other bodies which monitor schools.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Ministers can’t ignore this report and the time for root and branch reform of Ofsted is now.
“Neither Ofsted inspectors nor schools can keep pace with the frequency of change in the content and form of inspections.
“Huge sums of taxpayers’ money are being spent on a system of inspection which demands high standards from schools yet cannot demonstrate the same standards itself.”
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Holding schools to account for the work that they do is an essential part of our publicly funded education system, but the current accountability system is muddled and hard to understand, even for schools.
“Schools and parents alike will be concerned to read that the NAO has concluded that the level of independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness has reduced.
“Confidence in the quality and reliability of inspection is of paramount importance to all.”