How Ofsted lost its way; my part in the story


I was sitting in the duty room at Ofsted’s HQ in central London in spring 2002. I was a newly appointed HMI and had been allocated a week of managing the national helpdesk, and when not too busy, quality assure a wide range of inspection reports. I was working alongside a more experienced HMI and it was a truly enlightening experience. I gained much from the wisdom, common sense and measured approach that he adopted.

He was a subject expert and appointed by the inspectorate because he could bring considerable experience and insight to theme, subject, initial teacher training inspections and other aspects. He spoke about the tradition of HMIs and explained how the role had constantly changed over time from advising to inspecting. This is captured really well in John Dunford’s book ‘Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools since 1944’ and I suspect is a theme in his latest chapter ‘From HMI to Ofsted’ published last year.

During the few gaps in the work we chatted about our own school inspection experience and I revealed that I had been inspecting since 1995 when I was seconded to Ofsted for a year as a serving headteacher. I had been fortunate to have Miriam Rosen as my mentor; she later became HMCI. She was a very rigorous inspector but acknowledged the limitations of her knowledge and emphasised the corporate nature of judgements and the strength that current school leaders could bring to the process. As the experienced HMI signed off another report he turned to me and revealed that like many other HMI at the time, he had never undertaken a Section 10 inspection (the fore runner to Section 5 inspections). I was shocked but he explained that HMI were used for a wide range of tasks including quality assuring the plethora of inspection providers. So, Ofsted had many Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools but nearly all didn’t actually inspect schools!

All of this changed in 2005 when HMI started to lead Section 5 inspections and I think it was at this point that many HMI decided it was not a job for them. Some left immediately while others either stayed to discover what the role entailed and stayed or eventually departed. So, September 2005 was a seminal point in the work of HMI and I believe changed their relationship with schools.

In summer 2002 I was allocated another week of duty desk work and was asked by the HMI I was allocated to whether if I was the Secretary of State for Education with an agenda of reform would I push for a new Act of Parliament or a new Ofsted Framework to drive it forward? I explained that both might be needed but that the new Framework was more likely to affect change in pedagogy and the way schools are led. Since then, the power, control and negative impact of Ofsted has grown.

Despite having inspected for six years prior to joining as HMI I was granted an amazing HMI as a mentor for the entire probationary year. I accompanied him during his various visits to schools and settings including an inspection of an army base in Germany, an inspection of prison education, two secure estate visits as well as an inspection of one of the country’s most expensive independent schools. Maintaining HMI quality was seen as central to the role and I was delighted when I received an acknowledgement from HMCI that I had successfully completed that first year.

In 2003, I was asked to lead a small team of HMI to design a training programme to support them in becoming school inspectors. This in turn led to me joining the small team of HMI charged with developing the 2005 inspection framework. This is the one that emphasised the central importance of the self evaluation form, the introduction of contextual value-added measures and the judgement word ‘outstanding’. The new Framework was tested by the development team in a range of schools and then rolled out by 150 HMI led inspections in summer 2005 prior to implementation in

September. The feedback from schools was positive because it felt they had been brought into the evidence gathering and judgement making process. HMI were on the whole enthusiastic but I felt that most could sense the flow of the river and just got on with the job.

Much has changed since 2005 with five Chief Inspectors bringing their own ideologies to the inspections but significantly there is much greater government oversight of Ofsted because they better understand the strength of both inspection Frameworks and Acts of Parliament in driving or enforcing change.

Now, why have I devoted so much space to life as an HMI pre 2005 and the introduction of the Framework in that year? Well, it draws a rather stark comparison to how schools are inspected now and how HMI are trained, supported and deployed.

Let me state clearly that I believe we need HMI and we need an inspectorate. But, we need to acknowledge that we now have 85% or so of schools judged as at least Good. It was in the high 60% in 2005 and when I departed in August 2012. The reasons for the improvement during the most severe austerity measures in living memory would require more space than I have here. But, the regularity of inspection hasn’t really changed to accommodate the improvement. We still have some schools that have not been inspected since 2008 and for nearly all the wheels haven’t fallen off. There are, however, some schools that sadly do not provide a satisfactory standard of education and we need to keep an eye on these.

This is why I believe HMI should resort back to a guardian role for schools in a particular area. They would visit schools regularly and review their work and where there were concerns after a follow up visit then they could trigger a full Section 5 inspection. This would not involve the HMI in any part of the inspection process including the quality assurance elements. This approach would ensure that HMI better understand the context of the schools in their area and would support a more reflective approach based on the school’s own self evaluation. Parents can assume that a school is doing well unless there is a published inspection report that tells a rather different story. There would be sufficient full inspection 5 reports each year to enable the Chief Inspector to report on the quality of education.

Schools could receive an announced visit from HMI every two-three years to check on progress. They would last three hours or so for an average primary and the entire day for a secondary. The visits are not judging overall quality but are to be used to determine whether the school has a decent handle on where it is going and appears to be making progress. Some schools, such as residential Special schools or those in the Secure Estate will require more frequent visits due to the vulnerability of the pupils. All visits HMI visits will be supported by a trained safeguarding administrator who will report back their findings to the HMI at the end of the visit. Any concerns could trigger a full Section 5 inspection in a few days’ time of even immediately, if major concerns arise.

There has been much debate about the use of gradings within inspection and my role in the Outstanding judgement is one I’m not particularly proud of. It felt the right think to create at the time but many things run past their sell by date. The change in role of HMI I am advocating would see all schools to be assumed to be Good and any exceptions would result from a full inspection. This could see the retention of the existing grading structure, which won’t please some, but would probably be more acceptable because a full Section 5 would be quite rare under the proposed arrangements. I genuinely believe the change in approach would encourage more innovation and cooperation. I still hear senior leaders explaining that a major restructure or shift in emphasis will need to wait until after the next inspection; whenever that is!

The central importance of HMI within the inspection process would be strengthened and this would require these colleagues to be drawn from the top of their profession. We need to make the HMI induction challenging, varied and focused on understanding the wider education field. Their current induction is far too narrow and too short and this is affecting their quality and the rewards they should get from the role. Their mentor must be given time to undertake this role effectively.

I was saddened to learn recently that the DfE were considering undertaking a deep dive into the efforts of schools in improving attendance during the pandemic. This was a role that HMI would be asked to undertake back in 2005. So, I propose that we reinstate thematic and subject based inspections that sit outside of the Section 5 arrangements. We should stop the crazy situation where we have Ofsted trying to be an academic vehicle for promoting preferred practice. Ofsted inspects and they should report on their inspection findings and leave the academic arena to those better skilled, more highly qualified and trained to undertake the role. The recent subject based reports have been discredited and Ofsted should revert to the thing it does well; inspect and report on the findings.


  1. Dr. Paul Norman

    An excellent and well conveyed analysis and I fully agree with the proposals within. I have experienced more inspections than most colleagues I know as a former VP in a challenging (ie: high deprivation) school. It was often brutal and disheartening and too often we were told we were doing the right things but needed to improve quicker. No actual support or suggestions just unrealistic expectations.

  2. Glenn Millington

    Really interesting and inciteful as always. An open and honest reflection of your time as a HMI inspector. Thank you 🙏


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