11 Apr 2023

Sir Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of Ofsted

This month, we spoke with Sir Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of Ofsted, about how the watchdog's role has expanded over the years and how he thinks its working practices could be updated... 

Ofsted's role has expanded over the past few years, to include higher-level apprenticeship provision for example. In your view, what have been the positive results of Ofsted's evolving role? 

The major factor has been that now there is a single inspectorate, which is looking at education and training in all settings, starting with childminding, through schools, colleges, and of course into training/apprenticeship work. That ought, in theory, to give a much greater level of consistency in terms of what is inspected and reported upon and judged. 

There are those who feel putting all your eggs in one basket is not necessarily a good thing. At one point in my time with Ofsted, that was very much the department’s view. Which is why we at times had separate FE inspectorates, distinct from Ofsted. 

What do you make of the criticisms of Ofsted? 

There has never been a point in time since Ofsted was created when it was held in universal approval. There is now a general acceptance that providers should be accountable. Also that accountability should be driven by an external body, i.e., Ofsted. And that the results of that accountability exercise should be available to parents of current and future students. 

The question now is how should inspection be conducted today? What should it be looking at? How should it report on its findings? 

If I were still chief inspector, I'd put out for consultation what I thought it ought to look at. I don't think anyone would disagree with the idea that we should be looking at the quality of teaching and leadership. Those are known through research to be the two key ingredients to a successful provider. 

We should also be looking at curriculum and certainly post-16 destinations should be a clear question. After all, if you've spent 11-13 years in education you should be able to exercise several options in terms of where you progress, and those destinations should be known. 

I also think that there is a place for student voice. In my experience, there's a remarkable correlation between what students thought about their provider and what the inspector said about it. In fact, the students would often tell you where the strongest and weakest teaching was. 

When we started Ofsted, the national data on every school in the system was exceedingly limited. It was impossible to say anything in firm terms about the state of the system. 

No one was checking, including some local authorities, if young people’s experiences were as they should be. Given that Ofsted is over 20 years old, there has been a significant build-up of data. 

The question now is how should inspection be conducted today? What should it be looking at? How should it report on its findings?
Sir Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of Ofsted

We should be looking to create out of that data what I would call ‘families’ of schools or colleges. Certainly, in case of schools, it is possible to put them into relatively small families on a local authority basis or a type basis. Then what you get is a family of schools with similar characteristics; such as size, SEND student numbers, a measure of disadvantage. 

When I did this with London Challenge, that proved valuable to the provider and to inspectors because school leaders were able to say, ‘All these schools are similar to me and I'm at the bottom of the list in terms of performance’. 

Most commentators, including the teaching unions, have been very unreasonable. The reality is that within the report early on, there are several aspects of the provider which have a separate grade. It's wrong to say that it is just a single word. 

The other thing is that for a variety of reasons, not least because of an Act of Parliament, ineffective safeguarding is the one thing that can take a provider from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’. 

On safeguarding, most parents would honestly want to know that their children were safe and being looked after properly. 

What are your thoughts on Labour's plan to replace the 'outstanding' to 'inadequate' grades with a report card which would offer information on performance instead? 

There are merits in looking at the system. Some years back now, Tim Brighouse was asked by the then-government to do a piece of work and propose a report card system. It's not a new idea. 

The problem at the moment is it's very difficult to comment on what Labour suggests because their proposal is simply to measure poor performance without any unpacking of that. What exactly does it mean? 

But there is scope for looking at that and there is an opportunity for giving more detail about a student, their work, and achievements beyond the obvious. For example, that report card could include involvement in extracurricular activity. 

One thing that bothers me greatly is that schools are turning out people who are illiterate and innumerate. This for me is not simply a matter of how they can progress into employment. It's a matter of the young person being able to cope with life. 

I'm quite convinced the GCSE does not indicate being numerate or literate. Employers have been saying that for years and have been poo-pooed. But they're right. That's not to say that a student who gets at GCSE is innumerate or illiterate. 

A major test of a school should be that no student at 16 can be said to be illiterate or innumerate. After 11 years of education, to be so is something educators should be ashamed of. 

Are there topics you would like to see Ofsted conduct studies into? 

It's a pity that we no longer know how strong a subject is in the education system. How well it's being taught. What are the issues around staffing and retention. 

I'd like to see more subject work done, without a separate inspection. All you need to do on an ordinary inspection is say we will look in-depth at your science and put another inspector in two days to only look at science. 

When we've done 50 schools like that as a cross-section sample, we can then talk about the teaching of science. 

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