Who benefits from school inspections? Lessons from England

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Ofsted is an established feature of the English state school system. Ofsted grades are even displayed on property search websites in addition to government and school websites. This column explores the value of providing such information, versus the pressure such inspections place on schools. This comes in the context of a backlash against the system following the tragic death of an English headteacher earlier this year.

Schools in England are closely regulated. Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) has inspected schools since 1992 and is one source of information for prospective and current parents. After visiting a school, Ofsted awards an overall grade ranging from ‘Inadequate’ to ‘Outstanding’. This one-word rating comes together with an in-depth report summarising the inner workings of the school. But it is the headline grade that tends to catch the most attention. 

This established system is now under review by a Parliamentary Committee following the suicide of Ruth Perry, a primary school headteacher awaiting her school’s inspection result. On a wider level, it is important to ask whether the national inspection regime helps schools, teachers, parents and/or children. What evidence might help inform a potential re-design of the current system? 


Why is a school inspection system useful?

Parents in England (and many other countries) can express a preference for the school they would like their child to attend. But how should they decide which school is right for their child? School inspections can help inform parents’ choices, alongside other information that is commonly provided, such as school test results and pupil demographics. School inspections provide harder-to-find and less quantifiable details, such as the ethos of the school, its teachers, as well as management quality and pupils’ behaviour and attitude to learning.

Theoretically, schools have incentives to respond to the inspection system by improving their educational standards (along the dimensions that Ofsted measures). The incentives derive from reputational concerns and the system of school funding in England, where each additional student brings additional funding to the school. In the absence of school inspections, some schools might instead focus only on maximising student test scores. This could be detrimental, narrowing the curriculum and/or ‘cream-skimming’ the brightest pupils, rather than focusing on their wider educational offering to all children.

Past research shows that parents’ school choices respond to new information from Ofsted. They are more likely to choose schools that have improved their rating and less likely to choose schools in decline. Importantly, both rich and poor parents respond in the same way. This means that the information from Ofsted does not necessarily worsen school segregation. Similarly, all types of schools are affected, providing incentives for schools across the board to improve their educational standards (as measured by Ofsted’s criteria). 


What does the latest research tell us?

The English system provides a useful case study for examining the effects of school inspections on various outcomes. In a recent study, we compare schools that are inspected across the school year between September 2014 and July 2015. As the school choice deadline is in January, we can assess the group of schools that receive new information from Ofsted before parents submit their choices against the group of schools that receive the same information afterwards. As the two groups of schools (inspected earlier and later) are otherwise identical, we can isolate the effect of information on parents’ school choices driven by Ofsted ratings. 

For schools that improve their Ofsted grade, parents who live closest are more likely to choose that school as their first choice. We also find that schools that improve receive more choices overall. The opposite is true for schools whose Ofsted grade declines. These findings are intuitive but provide important evidence that the inspections provide useful information to parents in the school choice process.

We also uncover some unexpected and important findings regarding the choices of rich and poor households. Poorer parents/guardians have traditionally been portrayed as ‘disconnected choosers’ (Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz, 1996), who value school quality less than richer their counterparts (Hastings, Kane and Staiger, 2009; Burgess et al., 2015; Borghans, Golsteyn and Zolitz, 2015; Harris and Larsen, 2019; Walker and Weldon, 2020). But we find quite the opposite. Poor households respond to information as much, if not more, as rich households. This could be due to the established nature of the Ofsted regime, which has become embedded in the school choice process for all types of households. Another reason is that all households are free to respond to this type of information through their school choice. In contrast, previous research mostly focuses on channels that might be prohibitive for poorer households, such as moving close to popular schools (with higher house prices).

The overall effect of information on school enrolment depends on local area characteristics. In areas where most schools are full (there are more pupils relative to school places), information has a limited effect on school enrolment. This suggests that schools’ incentives to improve their educational offering are stronger where there are more ‘spare’ school places. Choice, as is often the case, is a luxury.


How reliable is the evidence? 

Our evidence has a good quasi-experimental design – it approximates the results from a randomised controlled trial (seen as the ‘gold standard’). The findings are also similar to those from previous randomised controlled trials that provide information to parents through experiments, which is reassuring. 

One advantage of our setting and design, compared with a randomised controlled trial, is that the findings relate to a real-world setting, where the system is already established and operating widely. This might be one reason why we find the novel result that poor households respond strongly to the information provision. The effect of established and trusted information from Ofsted could be different from new experimental information found by teams of unknown researchers, for example. Ofsted’s name, it seems, still carries trust and legitimacy among English parents.


What else do we need to know? 

There will be many contributions to the Parliamentary Committee enquiry into Ofsted. This is likely to include evidence from parents, teachers, school leaders and (hopefully) researchers. These contributions will provide valuable insights and evidence to improve the process of school inspections in England. This could then provide useful lessons for policy-makers further afield, including in Italy.

In our own work, overall, we find that parents trust and respond to the current system of grading. Since all types of schools can benefit (by receiving more applicants) from improving their Ofsted grades, the current system should provide schools with an incentive to improve their educational offerings. Achieving an ‘Outstanding’ grade remains highly valuable for an English school. 

But does Ofsted’s evaluation criteria truly reflect what policy-makers and parents value in a school? Does the system improve education for pupils or the experience of teachers? Who does the system actually serve? These crucial questions should be considered as part of the Parliamentary review, to ensure that the national inspection system does more good than harm. It is vital that the chosen system, whether it is Ofsted inspections or some other policy tool, passes this difficult test.


Author: Ellen Greaves