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Dan Lambert HMI on the inspection of exempt outstanding schools

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Picture of Her Majesty's Inspector Dan Lambert

‘Exempt’ schools are mainstream providers that we judge to be outstanding. Their inspection is a contentious issue!

Parents often ask us why we have not inspected their child’s school for a long time. Here’s an explanation of why that is and what happens when we do inspect them.

Many parents, teachers, leaders and governors tell us that they like the outstanding grade. They feel that ‘outstanding’ is aspirational, something to work towards and, importantly, recognition of exceptional work. But, equally, many also feel that exemption from regular inspection is not necessarily in the school’s or the children’s best interests. For some parents, the top inspection grade has been devalued.

For Ofsted’s part, we believe that the exemption has had its day and the time is ripe for the Department for Education to revisit the policy.

Schools should be forward looking and constantly seeking to improve. And, indeed, that’s what most schools do – including those graded outstanding.

But our concern is that, in some outstanding schools, standards have stayed the same, or even declined. This means potentially that other schools, with a lower grading, have improved at a faster rate and are offering a better standard of education for their pupils.

No legal basis to inspect

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, sparked interest from the media when she told the education select committee that some schools have not been inspected in 10 years. Some pointed the finger at Ofsted. I can see why. However, many people did not realise that this is exactly how it is set out in law.

Ofsted has no legal basis to include these schools in our cycle of routine inspections. This is difficult for many to understand. Indeed, I have found myself writing to parents to say that, as the law stands, we have no firm plans to inspect their child’s school, ever.

To make sure these schools are doing well for their pupils, we regularly risk assess them. Sean Harford has discussed this previously in his blog. We also take the length of time it has been since a school was last inspected into account as part of our risk assessment.

Then, using this information, the Chief Inspector or the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, can ask us to inspect a school, but only if they have concerns about their performance. This allows us to make sure that the school is performing as it should.

Female teacher sat at a table with primary school pupils explaining a piece of work.

What’s the process?

One of our inspectors will call the headteacher the day before the inspection to let them know that it’s going to start. Often, we will not have inspected these schools in some years and the headteacher may not be the same person who led the school during the previous inspection. I inspected one school where the only remaining member of staff was the bursar!

The inspector will also explain who will be on the inspection team and share the draft timetable. They will ask school leaders to let parents know that the inspection is happening. Staff will encourage parents to give Ofsted their views about the school through our Parent View website.

When the inspectors arrive on site, they will do many things that schools are familiar with, like meeting leaders and governors, and carrying out work scrutiny and observations. They will also ask pupils and staff for their views. The inspection will focus on specific things to give the team an accurate view of the strengths and weaknesses of the school.

If the inspection team gathers evidence that suggests the school is still outstanding, then inspectors will write a letter to the headteacher explaining why the inspection was done and why the school remains outstanding. Often, the inspection will have been as a result of a dip in published standards, which we are satisfied has been addressed, or was due to a change in the school’s context.

If the lead inspector finds evidence to suggest that the school is not outstanding, they will stay in the school longer. They will gather more information about how the school is performing across a range of areas.

At the end of the inspection, our inspectors will invite leaders, including the CEO if the school is an academy, to observe the final team meeting when we make our judgements. As usual, the inspection will result in a published report that sets out our findings in full.

I find the inspection of outstanding schools to be some of the most enjoyable work I do. Often, leaders have been waiting a long time for their inspection. It offers them the chance to show and share the strengths of their school and hold professional, developmental discussions about what areas they need to address.

We will continue to make the case that we’d like to routinely inspect these schools. But, in the meantime, parents can rest assured that, within the restrictions set for us by government, we are doing all that we can to make sure that outstanding schools really are just that.

Her Majesty's Inspector (HMI) Dan Lambert  is based in the South East of England.

Follow Dan on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by Ross McGill posted on

    "For Ofsted’s part, we believe that the exemption has had its day and the time is ripe for the Department for Education to revisit the policy."

    Good news for the profession to read this. All schools should be inspected, regularly.

    However, incredibly poor to see a recent publication ... (source: ... Ofsted argue why the grades are staying, despite little or no robust research on your part.

    Research by Think Tank EDSK argues "Ofsted has NOT published any studies showing that inspectors will be able to make consistent judgements ... across thousands of schools, even though the new framework begins operation in September this year."


    In your annual parents' perceptions of Ofsted survey, you fail to conduct in-depth analysis on the key question the profession wants to be answered (Source:

    1. 'Should Outstanding schools be inspected?'
    2. 'Should the current 4-tier grading system stay or go?'
    3. 'Does grading schools actually improve state school education?'

    If we hope to reduce high-stakes accountability and improve teacher-retention, do you intend on conducting any valid research for the education system?

    I look forward to your reply.
    Ross / @TeacherToolkit

  2. Comment by B. Murphy posted on

    Inspection is not about providing opportunities for staff in schools with outstanding results to celebrate what they are doing with inspectors. Outstanding schools have many other opportunities for this. At a time of spending cuts it is not good use of limited funds to inspect schools with outstanding results. Priority should be given to schools that are underperforming with inspection being a supportive tool to raise awareness of how improvements can be made.

  3. Comment by Terry Pearson posted on

    Okay, Ofsted believes it has a robust inspection methodology, which includes a risk assessment process, that is capable of detecting when a school’s performance has declined. Ofsted has risk assessed schools for many years and one aspect of this process is its use for selecting schools rated outstanding at the last inspection for inclusion in an annual schedule of inspections. Importantly, Ofsted believes that regular risk assessment of schools enables the inspectorate “to make sure the schools assessed are doing well for their pupils” (See Sean Harford’s blog for further details).

    If the risk assessment raises concerns about the performance of an outstanding school, which is of course exempt from routine inspection, then the school may be listed for inspection. So, just to be clear, whilst Ofsted has no legal basis for routinely inspecting outstanding schools Ofsted does have a legal basis for inspecting those which are deemed to exhibit concerns through the risk assessment process. As the law stands Ofsted is not prevented from inspecting any school via routine inspections or because of concerns arising from the risk assessment of a school’s performance.

    When a school deemed to be showing signs of concern is inspected Ofsted is very clear that it believes this allows the inspectorate “to make sure that the school is performing as it should” (As mentioned in Dan Lambert’s blog above). Indeed, Dan goes on to point out that Ofsted believes that parents can rest assured that the inspectorate is doing all that it can to make sure that outstanding schools really are just that.
    It thus appears, according to Ofsted, that the risk assessment process included in current inspection methodology is working well and it has done so for many years. Ofsted plainly believe the process ensures the inspectorate can identify effectively a deterioration in a school’s performance and intervene promptly where needed.

    Despite Ofsted’s firm belief in the rigour of its risk assessment process it now believes the exemption of schools rated outstanding at the last inspection from the schedule of routine inspections “has had its day and the time is ripe for the Department for Education to revisit the policy”.

    Ofsted has made public its beliefs about inspection methodology so, what are the general public, parents and other inspection stakeholders to believe? Does Ofsted have a risk assessment process that is fit for purpose or has it been using a defective process for many years?

    Ofsted often quotes findings from responses to its surveys about inspection to support its beliefs but sadly it cannot provide more substantive evidence. Ofsted has no credible evidence of the trustworthiness of school ratings. What’s more Ofsted’s last attempt to confirm the reliability of inspection judgements was woefully inadequate (See report on this link:'s_test_of_the_reliability_of_short_inspections/links/5babced4a6fdccd3cb766993/A-review-of-Ofsteds-test-of-the-reliability-of-short-inspections.pdf

    Ofsted believes in routine and risk assessed external inspection as a means of validating the performance of schools. Yet ever since the inception of the inspectorate more than a quarter of century ago Ofsted has never been subject to routine or risk assessed external validation of the ratings awarded to schools. Perhaps the real message outlined in Dan’s blog is the exemption of Ofsted from a schedule of routine or risk assessed validation of inspection outcomes has had its day and the time is ripe for the Department for Education to revisit the policy.