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Ofsted Chief Stresses the need for “Evolution, Not Constant Revolution”

A packed auditorium saw Sir Martyn Oliver, chief inspector at Ofsted, take part in a fascinating one-on-one interview with Jon Sever, the editor of Tes, at the Schools & Academies Show in London on 1st May.

Oliver, the former chief executive of Outwood Grange Academies Trust (OGAT), was announced as the successor to Amanda Spielman last autumn, officially taking up his new position in January.  

It has been a busy first few months for Oliver, which included the launch of Ofsted’s Big Listen in March, a wide-ranging consultation in response to the coroner's report into the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry. This initiative is described by Ofsted as a “comprehensive effort to hear from the full range of professionals and providers Ofsted works with, as well as the parents, carers, children and learners it works for”. 

In addition to the Big Listen, Oliver used the session to outline his priority to help the most disadvantaged children, the need for evolution over revolution, and the importance of inclusivity, whilst also highlighting current financial issues within Ofsted.  

Outlining his role as Ofsted’s new chief inspector 

Oliver was asked how he sees the divide between the inspection process and the accountability process. He explained that in his new role, his job is to “think about how the inspection happens and to think about the reforms and the changes”. 

“When people talk about the fear of an Ofsted inspection, what I need to be really clear about is what's in my gift and what I can change,” he said, adding that the accountability side lies with the Department for Education and the ministers. “I need to focus on my job and deliver on the changes that people are telling me that they want.” 

Financial challenges at Ofsted and a funding drop of 29% in real terms 

Discussing current finances, Oliver told the audience that since 2005, Ofsted’s remit has “grown and grown”, however since 2009/10, “our funding has dropped in real terms by 29%”, which has clearly had an impact”.  

The first thing I had to do in January [upon taking the job] was to make a 10% saving for the financial year budget that we set within government.” Oliver highlighted the funding challenges within the sector, as a whole, before adding that he doesn’t think Ofsted “should be at the front of the line for any additional funding, but I think it's a part of the system”.   

He added that Ofsted currently has an overspend in the budget of £1.2 million, before stating that he “won’t allow Ofsted to carry on inspecting in the future in the way it does now,” even if budgets are not increased. “I'll change the way we inspect to allow that inspection process to be as empathetic, courteous and professional, as I think it needs to be, to answer what I'm hearing from the sector.” 

Oliver was asked by Sever what would happen if he didn’t get the funding or the remit he needed from a future government: “Is there a point where you take a principled stand?” 

“My principal stand would be delivering against the legislation and then arguing for changing legislation,” he said, before adding that he’s  “already starting to build” a legislative wish list of changes he’d like to see. “It’s the best job in world working in education, and I only came to be the chief inspector to make reform.”  

Oliver added: “2024 is not 2019. Things are very different now - the pressures, recruitment, retention, workload, attendance, behaviour, finance challenges.” He explained that his vision must be to raise standards and improve lives, but if you “over inspect and over regulate, you may tip that balance and you suddenly find you’re not doing that”.  

“I need to make sure Ofsted has got high standards for every child in this country, report to parents, report to parliament, but not break the system.” 

Sir Martyn Oliver

The need for evolution over revolution 

Oliver said he understood “people are impatient for change”, before stressing the need for “evolution, not constant revolution”, before adding, “I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm just saying this is really complicated. It's really serious work. I've got to get it right, as if I get it wrong, that's millions of children, millions of staff, 97,000 institutions that will be impacted. Unfortunately, it takes time.” 

The chief inspector said he had just received a message from someone based at a challenging school, who explained their inspection had been carried out “professionally, emphatically and with respect” – but he said if one inspection isn’t, that’s one too many, “so driving that consistency is a challenge”.  

In terms of rolling out reforms, Oliver stated that “anything significant must be consulted on”. He also explained that inspection judgements taking place prior to any reforms could be caveated until a new system is brought in, highlighting the need for fairness. 

Contextual inspection at Ofsted 

 It is expected that one of the outcomes of the Big Listen will be the need for contextual inspection. When asked by Severs whether it is possible to have inspection that’s contextually differential, and is it possible for that to be consistent, Oliver said that was a key reason behind him taking the job.  

“My number one priority is the most disadvantaged, under resourced, vulnerable children in the country - and I'm really clear, if you get it right for the most vulnerable children, you're getting it right for everyone.”  

He explained in his previous role as chief executive of OGAT, he had one school in North Yorkshire that would comfortably achieve 50% basics in English and maths by the end of year nine, and another, in Middlesbrough, that wouldn’t achieve those rates even if “he’d spent a fortune on it, and thrown every resource at it – and yet the people in Middlesbrough were working just as hard, if not harder, than at the school in North Yorkshire”.  

“How do you do that? How do you make that judgement and then not condemn the children and say, “well, bad luck where you were born.” It's a really interesting question. I'm focusing hard on that.” 

The biggest consultation exercise ever undertaken by Ofsted 

Oliver said he’s “fairly sure” the Big Listen is “almost certainly the biggest consultation exercise ever undertaken by Ofsted”, and he found the challenge “liberating”.  

“It’s like a manifesto for me and the changes that I think the system wants”. He explained that he will be “open and transparent” and promised to talk and listen to people to build trust between Ofsted and schools, adding that he wants Ofsted to be “of the system, by the system, for children and parents”. 

“The vast majority of our workforce are serving practitioners – heads, deputy heads, college principals, who are out there working in the sector. He added that “the more I can lean into that” the better, adding that “in some ways, it’s the professional inspectorate, which is a peer-review system”. 

The importance of inclusivity 

On the topic of inclusivity, Oliver said that he was “really concerned about schools that no one wants, as they used to be called… they were the schools that I always used to sponsor. There are children in those schools and they need great leaders and they need great people. He added that “there shouldn’t be a system where they are afraid to take on those schools, because of anything to do with Ofsted. That’s just nonsense.” 

Closing the session, Severs asked Oliver what would he like people to be able to say about Ofsted at the end of his tenure. He responded: “That we've made a difference and that Ofsted has been a part of helping these great people make a difference to the most vulnerable, most under-resourced children. That's my absolute number one priority, no matter what.”  

He concluded by stating that he hopes that Ofsted can be “consistent in its professional, courteous, empathetic and respectful inspections,” and can help the sector respond to the challenges it is currently facing.  

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