Sunday thoughts: What is in Sir Martyn Oliver’s in-tray at Ofsted?

Jonathan Simons
7 min readJul 23, 2023
courtesy of https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/sir-martyn-oliver-who-ofsteds-next-chief-inspector

Sir Martyn Oliver is the new HMCI. The Department is at pains to say this is subject to the Education Select Committee prehearing, but it isn’t really — they rejected Amanda Spielman in her pre appointment hearing, but the Department (rightly, in my view) appointed her anyway. I expect Sir Martyn will get a rough ride from the committee — there is no shortage of material for hostile MPs to focus on — but I fully expect him to become the next HMCI formally at the end of this year.

So on that basis, what are the things he’ll need to address in his in-tray? Here’s a starter for 5.

Build confidence. This can be overstated. For all the discourse on Twitter, 81% of classroom teachers told TeacherTapp that their last inspection outcome was fair (including 55% who got RI or Inadequate). In a separate survey, 85% of leaders across various settings (schools, early years, FE and social care) said that the inspection was more positive than negative and more than 9 in 10 thought the inspection will help them improve. YouGov’s work for Ofsted shows 70% of parents think inspection judgements are reliable when it comes to schools and 60% think they are reliable on childcare, though other work, including our own, suggests it can be more marginal among primary parents and those from lower socio economic groups.

But at the same time, recent work shows 90% of teachers have an unfavourable view of the inspectorate (67% very unfavourable) and only 28% of adults (not just parents) think an Ofsted rating is an accurate judgement of a school’s quality. — something which some academic evidence agrees with.

The target shouldn’t be to have a regulator that is loved — that’s unrealistic. Ultimately, it should make judgements that are valid and reliable, and that people who directly are affected by it — teachers, leaders and parents — think it’s accurate, even if they don’t like it. Nevertheless, particularly in the light of Ruth Perry, and with the after effects of Covid still lingering and debate over how much Ofsted takes account of that, some element of reset and conciliation is an important part of what Sir Martyn will have to do.

Manage change carefully. Sir Martyn isn’t — wasn’t, at least — a fan of the Spielman framework. It’s possible that he’ll want to amend it, or change it more substantially. It’s also possible — likely, even — that only a few months into his tenure, he’ll have a new government, who have said that they want to make quite considerable changes to Ofsted, including replacing the current report structure with a Report Card, and abandoning one word judgements.

Making these changes are technically complex (to ensure that the validity and reliability of judgements aren’t compromised) and take some time. But there’s also a significant change management task. One of the things that was underrated about Amanda Spielman’s tenure was how she deftly managed that change — from a huge amount of initial scepticism of the focus on curriculum and what that would look like in Ofsted inspection terms, the general consensus seems to now be that it works adeptly (which is not the same as people liking it).

Running an inspectorate is not like running a Multi Academy Trust. OGAT — like many of the very successful MATs — has a fairly prescriptive model of how they do school improvement and financial planning. And a CEO of the MAT is ultimately everyone’s boss. What (s)he says, more or less, the MAT does. This isn’t how Ofsted works. The majority of inspectors aren’t even direct employees. And the overwhelming majority of people who Ofsted need the acquiescence of in order to be effective aren’t even contractors or suppliers or people who have in any way a relationship to Ofsted. Making change in this complex system is a step up from running an organisation with direct levers.

Sir Martyn is of course an experienced and nationally recognisable CEO, but will also now face regular engagement with the DfE, Parliamentary scrutiny, media focus and all the rest. He will need to know what to do, and what to say, if it is alleged that young people identify as cats. There are times when he will need to be forceful, times where he needs to be conciliatory, times when he needs to compromise and times when he needs to accept Ofsted will make mistakes. Some HMCIs handle this well, others don’t. But the power of the HMCI role comes with the corollary that it’s a uniquely visible role in English education with unique accountability — even more so than the Secretary of State

Remember that Ofsted is not just schools. In Ofsted’s last annual report, they summarised information from around 20,000 inspections that they carried out in the 22/23 year. Only 4,600 of them — less than a quarter — were of schools.

More than half of Ofsted’s entire inspections (12,000) were of early years. 3,800 were of social care settings (children’s homes and the like), 500 were FE (including prisons), 130 were LA wide inspections of children’s services and 76 were ITT.

One of the common errors in policy and political discourse is to just think about Ofsted as a school inspectorate, and the risk is that resources, and time — especially HMCIs time — gets diverted towards that. And although the role description for the job covered all aspects of HMCIs role, the very first bullet of the person spec was “Significant experience at a senior level in schools or trusts, including substantial organisational leadership skills and proven experience in leading and managing change in complex organisations.”

Although Sir Martyn will have had experience engaging with the non-schools part of his brief on his time at Outwood, he’s clearly a schools person, and will need to quickly get up to speed with the intricacies of the other sectors as a regulator, rather than as a user or as a partner.

And remember that Ofsted is not just Outwood. OGAT is one of the largest Trusts in the country, and has 41 schools. As noted above, Ofsted inspected 4,600 schools just last year. OGATs schools also all share a common theme, in that they are in areas of substantial disadvantage and many of them were — and it’s to their credit that they now not are — low performing.

Running a MAT where the challenges and context are all similar to each other lends itself to a style of organisational design, and a to do list, that is also similar within itself. Sir Martyn will be highly experienced at knowing how to run an organisation that turns around challenging, deprived schools, and knowing what that team looks like. Subconsciously, the temptation will be to scale up that delivery model, and those people, and those actions. But Ofsted, even within schools, covers the waterfront. It inspects large schools, and small. Rural, and urban. Low performing and high performing. Obviously, Sir Martyn won’t be directly inspecting those schools, or even managing them. But in a myriad of small and not-so small ways- what the framework says, what he thinks of inspectors’ reports, how he responds to high profile cases, how he signs off or not on Special Measures judgements, how he handles any shift towards a report card, how Ofsted may become more directly involved in commissioning or brokering school improvement alongside the Regional Directors — they will all be shaped by a mindset, and that mindset needs to be cognisant of all schools’ context, not just OGAT type schools.

Sort the money. One of the things that is also often not appreciated about Ofsted is that as an Arms Length Body, it is run and funded similarly to the DfE. A large part of HMCIs job is not about inspection or regulation, but about management. And Ofsted’s budget is key to this. This is what Ofsted’s budget looks like:

By the end of this current SR period — 2024/25 — Ofsted’s budget will look similar in cash term (£200m) to that which it did in 2010. Given inflation, that buys around 25% less than it did 15 years ago. And the remit, and workload, on Ofsted is increasing — the budget is only the same in cash terms because of an additional £8-£17m being given to Ofsted to do additional work around catch up inspections in schools and FE, and to look at supported accommodation providers.

Ofsted’s budget is actually almost identical to OGATs (£202m expenditure last year) and they employ fewer staff (1,900 for Ofsted and 2,500 for OGAT). So I’d expect Sir Martyn to actually be very comfortable with running an organisation like this. But the critical difference is that he will have less wriggle room to change the fundamental operating model, compared to OGAT — where he has pioneered Curriculum Led Financial Planning and which has allowed OGAT to become one of the most financially efficient MATs in the country. Ofsted also has no scope for incoming revenue beyond that which is agreed by the Department for charges and the like (making up those dark green lines in the graph above), whereas OGAT earns revenue from its participation in various national programmes, local hubs, grants to investment areas and the like.

And so in an inspectorate where budget has shrunk by 25%, where demands have increased, and where there is limited scope to bring in additonal revenue or change the operating model, Sir Martyn will be faced with a situation in which it becomes increasingly difficult to do the volume and type of in-depth inspections needed for educational settings, to the validity and reliability required and demanded.

Sir Martyn will take office at a crucial time for Ofsted. In a way, it seems like that’s an evergreen statement. But he will need to navigate political change, public opinion change, and sector change — and all alongside a tight budget. But if he gets it right, he has the opportunity to advance education in a way that few other roles in England do. I wish him luck.

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