Services in deprived areas still of concern, says Ofsted’s chief inspector

Ofsted’s work always generates considerable interest and sometimes controversy. I think this is because we report on things that matter deeply to parents and the public, and we sometimes have to give hard messages. It is our job to stand up for the interests of children, young people and adult learners. They are the people for whom robust and independent inspection matters most.

Today saw the launch of my annual report as chief inspector, and it has some really positive findings. The large majority of early education and childcare is good or outstanding. Almost seven in 10 maintained schools are now good or outstanding. Nearly twice as many schools are outstanding, and half as many inadequate, as four years ago.

And this improving picture extends to the quality of our nursery schools and our special schools too. This is a real tribute to governors and staff who are more professional than they have ever been, and to the broader community that supports schools.

At the same time, some real concerns remain about services for children and learners, especially in deprived areas, and it is my job to highlight these. Ofsted must not pull its punches, and there should be no hiding place for poor practice. My job is not to defend vested interests but to protect children’s interests.

Some of our hardest findings are around the protection of vulnerable children. This year there is a small but increased minority of councils that are performing poorly overall, principally because they are not ensuring that children are as safe as possible. Ofsted has raised expectations here, and our judgments have become more demanding as our inspection processes have become more robust. But if our work helps save just one child from abuse then this is justified.

I understand that child protection is a sensitive and emotive area, and I know that the pressure on individual directors of children’s services and their local authorities is intense.

But Ofsted must not shy away from expressing our findings when we see shortcomings, even if this is uncomfortable for the professionals delivering services and the bodies that represent their interests. We would be failing in our duty if we did not highlight both what works and where improvements are needed.

I also understand how important it is that these judgments are well founded. That is why they are based on the thousands of inspection and regulation visits we make across the education and skills sectors, and across childcare and social care: observing teachers and talking to social workers at the front line; listening to parents and carers, talking to children and learners and helping them to make informed choices about their lives.

Ofsted has highly knowledgeable inspectors, assessing services based on what they see on the ground. We deliver dispassionate judgments based on inspection evidence, with clear recommendations about what improvements are needed. And the fact that these judgments are made public enables informed choices by parents and strengthens accountability.

This September, we introduced a new inspection framework for schools. Every time this happens, expectations are raised and myths abound. One current myth is that many otherwise good schools have been judged inadequate on the basis of minor failings in how they keep children safe. The fact is that it is almost always the case that where safeguarding arrangements are inadequate there are also other significant weaknesses. Where a school can’t keep its children safe, it is unlikely to be teaching them well.

Neither is our approach reliant on data and box ticking. That view is quite simply out of touch. We have doubled the time inspectors spend in class, observing teaching and learning. We are placing a greater emphasis on attainment, because that is what children need in the real world. But wherever pupils’ learning and progress are judged to be good or better, and standards of attainment are improving, schools will be recognised for the quality of their work.

Ofsted reports throughout the year have been unequivocal: there are outstanding schools in challenging circumstances, whose pupils emerge as confident and capable young people, well equipped for the next stage of their lives. There are outstanding children’s services in all different parts of the country, outstanding children’s homes and outstanding fostering services, delivering great outcomes for some of our most difficult and distressed young people.

The best councils are doing a really good job of safeguarding vulnerable children as well as delivering good education and other services for their children. It can be done and it must be done, with real determination and urgency.

So my message is one of hope and expectation, as well as challenge. I see evidence of sustained improvement and I see excellence in the most difficult of circumstances. I see no reason why every nursery, every school, college, every children’s home, all children’s services and indeed, every provider, should not aspire to be good and to be working towards excellence. That is what gives children and learners hope and the belief that they can succeed, and it is what every parent deserves.