OFSTED has been more focused on the cost of school inspections than on getting assurance about schools' effectiveness, a report has found.
A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report found significant cuts in Ofsted's budget have led it and the Department for Education (DFE) to pay less attention to the value of inspections.
The amount the organisation spent on inspecting the schools sector fell by 52 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2017-18.
Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: ‘Cuts to Ofsted's budget have undermined families' ability to make informed decisions about schools.
‘It is not encouraging that Ofsted also misinformed parliament about the inspections it had carried out - a mistake that further calls into question its effectiveness.
‘If the level of inspection continues to be eroded there is a risk that Ofsted will come to be perceived by parents, parliament and taxpayers as not relevant or worse, simply a fig leaf for government failures on school standards.
‘Should this happen, its credibility will evaporate.’
Published on Friday, the report states there have been ‘clear shortcomings’ in Ofsted's performance.
It says fewer inspections than planned were completed and Ofsted failed to meet its targets for how often schools should be inspected.
Ofsted now conducts a one-day inspection and, under legislation, outstanding schools are exempt from routine re-inspection altogether.
‘Ofsted is therefore not providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need,’ the report summary says.
The report also finds Ofsted incorrectly reported to parliament that it had met the statutory target for re-inspecting schools every five years.
In its annual report and accounts for 2016-17 it stated it had met this target in 2015/16 and was on track for 2016/17.
However, Ofsted had failed to meet the statutory timescale for 43 schools (0.2 per cent) between 2012/13 and 2016/17.
Another finding was that Ofsted has struggled to employ enough school inspectors, meaning it has failed to complete its inspection programme.
The committee also voiced its disappointment at HM Chief Inspector's apparent reluctance to offer her views on the wider issues affecting the school system, despite her role including advising minister about the quality of schools.
The PAC makes a number of recommendations including:
- Ofsted should report annually to Parliament, on its annual report and accounts, on how many schools have not been inspected within the statutory target and the reasons why.
- The DFE should re-examine the rationale for exempting schools graded outstanding from routine re-inspection, and report back on its assessment in December 2018.
- Ofsted and the DFE should review whether the short inspection model provides sufficient, meaningful assurance about schools' effectiveness, and evaluate the costs and benefits of alternative approaches. They should report back on the findings in December 2018.
- As part of its review of accountability, the DFE should make clear where responsibility for school improvement lies. Working with Ofsted, it should also assess whether the balance of spending is right between different parts of the system for school accountability and improvement, including between Ofsted and the regional schools commissioners.
Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, welcomed the PAC's recognition of the vital role Ofsted plays in the education system.
She added: ‘As with all of the public sector, we have had to do more with less.
‘However, I remain confident that our inspections provide parents, schools and the Government with the assurance they need about school standards and that we do so in a way that compares very favourably in terms of quality and value for money with school inspection regimes internationally.
‘However, as I said at the hearing, we have reached the limit in terms of being able to provide that level of assurance within our current funding envelope.
‘That is why, with our ongoing framework review, we are looking at how to ensure that schools and parents get everything they need from our reports, and why many of the committee's recommendations are already long in train.’
Referring to the committee's comment on her reluctance to comment on wider issues, she continued: ‘It would be irresponsible of me to make comment on those areas where we do not have clear evidence of the impact on standards or young people's well-being.
‘Where we do have that evidence, be it about the dangers of illegal unregistered schools, the risks of radicalisation, the narrowing of the curriculum or the importance of early literacy, I have not hesitated to speak out and will continue to do so.’