OK, I resigned from Ofsted well over a year ago, so the current, prolonged criticism doesn’t surprise me one bit. It is an organisation that has been struggling for years, with a very high turnover of staff.

If you want to read my resignation letter from February 2021, it’s at the end of this blog. But I would like to try and provide a personal reflection in light of all that has been said.

I have to say I felt very different about Ofsted back in 2018 (or it might have been 2019). I remember being at an Ofsted training event and coming away feeling super-positive. I really thought Amanda Spielman was getting it right. Here’s why…

  1. They were going to clamp down on off-rolling. As a headteacher, I hated the fact that some schools gamed their results by cheating. This was great news.
  2. They were going to deal with curriculum narrowing. Hallelujah! I remember interviewing some pupils in a leafy school somewhere and watching a Y6 girl cry in front of me, lamenting the fact she hadn’t done Science since Y4. ‘And I love Science!’ It was crazy that we were depriving pupils of all these subjects because of the appalling SATs.
  3. They were going to reward ethical leadership. Yess, at last, those of us who did what we did for our community, and not for Ofsted.
  4. They were going to end the crazy chase of internal data, most of which was made up and fabricated. About time too. Total waste of everyone’s time. Away with flight paths and tracking systems.
  5. They were going to put children with SEND front and centre of every inspection. And about time too. Their needs were growing all the time and the schools leading the way on this needed recognising
  6. They were going to champion cultural capital. This was music to my ears, as for years I’d been arguing in favour of languages, music, art and school visits. This was so important for pupils living in areas of multiple deprivation.

Sadly, it’s not turned out like that at all. The focus on curriculum has been gobbled up by a new version of technocratic mush, chomping away on jargon and ‘evidence-based’ research, demanding a level of consistency which ignores pandemics and intense change in society, and ignoring all the real, consequential things schools have been doing for their pupils.

And now we’re in a bit of a mess, with cumulative heads in the educational sand. Unless you are in there, living it, I really think people are underestimating the intense pressures on schools. It’s way bigger than the inspectorate, and requires a national conversation about schools, parenting, technology, health and so much more. We’re sleepwalking into a deep crisis for this generation of children.

But back to Ofsted.

When I think about it all, I keep asking how this has happened. Whether Ofsted have caused all this, or whether they have been collateral damage along the way? Or another way of asking the question is – are we in this situation because of Ofsted, or because of the government policy? And if it’s the second, has this been exacerbated by unscrupulous school leaders, cashing in on the chaos?

As with all things, it’s probably a mixture of all of this. And hence we need to inject some balance and step away from blaming Ofsted for absolutely everything. In my opinion, the current mess is a sad conglomeration of three things, all of which have caused great damage.

  • Ideologically driven policy over the last fifteen/twenty years, from meddling politicians who then walk away or bury their heads in the sand. Instead of trusting teachers, they have vandalised the education system.
  • An inspection regime that has lost its way, and lost many of its good inspectors. It has too little time in schools and didn’t use the pandemic to change, making the poor decision to carry on as if nothing had happened.
  • School leaders who slavishly follow both of the above to the detriment of the wider school system (by justifying them both). That’s not to say I don’t understand their reasons for doing it, particularly those new to post. But it’s a big reason, and one that is uncomfortable for us to confront. And I’m partly guilty. I’ve not slavishly condoned it all, but I haven’t spoken up enough when I should have done.

Do I regret working for Ofsted? No, not really. I think almost all the inspections I was involved in led to positive momentum for the school. Early on, there was one appalling one. I did feedback my concerns about the lead inspector who subsequently was withdrawn. But it was awful and I regret being involved in it.

Am I a hypocrite? Possibly. But there was an element of self-preservation involved, and I wanted any advantage to steer my school through tough times. And it helped me develop skills which I still use now in other work.

Would I work for them again? Possibly. But Ofsted would have to allow a greater degree of flexibility to inspectors. And accept that it’s impossible to have total consistency. Just trust good people to make the right calls. We also need to get rid of grading as I say in my letter.

And so to the letter, one I spent a long time on after Christmas 2021. It was a big moment, but I felt good afterwards. I knew it was the right call.

1st February 2022

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to tell you of my decision to resign as an Ofsted inspector/serving practitioner. After ten years working for CfBT, and then Ofsted, I feel it impolite not to share the reasons why, so here goes.

Firstly, there are personal reasons. Leading a school has never been harder, and I have increasing family commitments that I have to prioritise. I feel it’s too much to do alongside these other responsibilities.

Secondly, I’m struggling with the current approach to inspection, and have found it somewhat uncomfortable being in schools as an inspector. In previous frameworks, I felt that there was sufficient flexibility in the way evidence could be interpreted, and that the big picture often trumped the bare evidence when required. This helped schools with challenging intakes, or schools that had significant numbers of pupils with special educational needs, by recognising rapid improvements, for example, or transformative leadership. In short, there was a degree of professional judgement. And it worked. I look at the schools where I was the lead inspector, in 2015, 2016, 2017 for example, and almost all of them have gone on to improve after our inspection. In short, there was a developmental aspect to the inspection.

What we have now is a highly scientific, almost fundamentalist procedure that is increasingly divorced from the day-to-day challenges faced by schools, particularly those in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. This disconnect is even deeper as a result of the pandemic; it will not be business as normal for many years to come. The impact of societal pressures on some schools means their work includes so many things not recognised in the inspection framework. This will only intensify.

Leadership is crucial in such circumstances. At the outset of the new framework (EIF), I was greatly encouraged by the focus on off-rolling and gaming, on the integrity of leadership, or on cultural capital. Yet these seem to have drifted to the perimeter. Instead, theories of curriculum sequencing and progress dominate most of the inspection time in school, leaving precious little to discuss the context, peculiarities, and (crucially) leadership at the school. Children do not learn in neat, linear journeys, and schools do not improve in incrementally clean steps. It’s an inexact science, and always will be. Complete consistency is impossible.

That’s not to say that progression maps and evidence-based practice are not important. Of course they are. But there needs to be a balance, and current experience leads me to believe there is not.

Despite what its critics say, Ofsted has done a lot of good. It has helped to reduce the number of weak schools in the country. Some of its finer HMIs have provided real momentum for school leaders, who have emerged from an inspection with renewed energy, subsequently providing fantastic leadership for the school community. I remember being inspired by one or two inspection teams, particularly in the days when they spent time with the school over an extended period. But I have felt, over these past few years, that it no longer provides much value, save issues related to compliance. The period in school is far too short. It is almost impossible for a lead inspector to accurately sum up the school in a few hours. The reports produced are pallid, devoid of colour and shade. Parents pay less attention to them now. I’m writing in short sentences. It’s contagious.

Gradings have surely served their purpose. They cast a shadow over the whole week of inspection, supressing frank and challenging discussions that otherwise might support the school. With almost all schools good, surely they are now obsolete?

I hope this doesn’t sound too impertinent, but I also don’t think the recruitment policy is working. It appears that the value of HMIs/OIs lies more in their perspiration, rather than their inspiration. Too many inspectors do not know enough about school leadership, or education in general. Primary schools with big early years sections, or large cohorts of SEND pupils, are too often inspected by secondary specialists. In fact, it appears the whole system is now secondary school facing. This seems counter-intuitive, considering that English primary schools have been one of the success stories of the last twenty years.

I am very grateful for the training, support and development I have received over these past ten years, both at CfBT and Ofsted. I hope I have repaid this by conducting thorough inspections that have assisted schools in their development, and that have improved children’s education.

In particular, please extend my thanks to those senior HMIs in the North-West who have always been unfailingly courteous and helpful,

Yours sincerely,

Mr J D Barnes


One thought on “Ofsted

  1. You are a Champion for all those in your care. Particularly the more disadvantaged. You also have your “finger on the pulse” of reality in our schools today.
    I am not at all surprised that you have resigned from your role as an OFSTED Inspector. The reasons you give for doing so are valid and insightful.
    I’m pleased to read also that you had courage enough to offer your considered views regarding the awful lead inspector you had the misfortune to work with early in your time as an inspector. In my opinion, we need Headteachers of courage and integrity, such as yourself, more than ever before.


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