Regulating Schools and Exams

The regulation of schools, examination boards etc. raises some interesting issues. (The regulation of universities etc. is summarised here.)

It is clearly not possible to have highly intrusive systems which monitor the quality of education that is delivered to thousands or millions of pupils. Regulators such as Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) and its private sector counterpart therefore mainly report the outcome of inspections of individual schools. Parents can then choose whether to send their children to particular schools, and the national or local authorities can intervene if an individual school's standards are particularly worrying.

The weakness of this approach is that it relies heavily on parents' ability and willingness to choose a 'better' school for their children. Unfortunately it appears (including from OECD research) that parents are as much influenced by a school's social position than its exam results etc. 'Will my child be mixing with the right sort of other children?' It also appears that many schools tend to respond to competition not by improving teaching and learning but by better promotion and by positioning themselves so that they attract more middle class children. The result is that socially attractive state schools are heavily oversubscribed, and local house prices go through the roof. And of course such schools also attract more than their fair share of better teachers. Luckily, there are plenty of good teachers left to serve in other schools, but this is no thanks to the inspection system.

Ofsted became embroiled in controversy in early 2014 when certain right-leaning commentators accused it of being over-attached to once-trendy ways of teaching, and of being unduly critical of the performance of Free Schools and Academies - which had been given a large measure of management and other freedom whilst remaining state-funded. Coincidentally or not, Ofsted's highly respected Chair was told that she would not be reappointed, although its Chief Executive appeared to retain the confidence of the Secretary of State. A discussion of the independence of regulators can be found here.

There was another interesting development in March 2014. The background was that Ofsted had generally given schools advance notice of often lengthy visits and evaluations, which both allowed schools to put on their best face whilst also maximising the stress experienced by teaching staff. A rethink seemed likely to result in the more frequent use of shorter, more efficient monitoring visits.

One issue, which doesn't affect most other regulators, is that Ofsted often use currently-employed school Heads and other senior teachers to inspect other schools - and have on occasion asked such teachers to inspect schools situated close to (and so arguably in competition with) their own. This clearly leads to bias - or at least accusations of bias if the resultant inspection is less than highly complimentary.

The Limitations of Inspection

Regulators/Inspectors are obviously reluctant to arrive in a school without warning, but, equally obviously, their presence - especially if teachers have had an opportunity to prepare for it - creates an artificial atmosphere. One pupil's tweet summarised the problem quite nicely:

I hate it when the [the inspectors are] in our school. All my teacher change from A to Z .

Follow this link for a discussion of regulatory capture.


There was an interesting government/regulator interaction in the summer of 2012 when the exams regulator, acting as required by their statute, forced the English and Welsh exam bodies to tighten their standards, which had got too lax. The exam boards therefore awarded lower grades to those who had taken exams in the summer of 2012 than had been awarded to those who had taken similar exams a few months earlier, causing numerous complaints from those students who felt they had been disadvantaged - and there were just as strident complaints from schools which felt their reputations would suffer. To his credit, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, refused to intervene, respecting the independence of the regulator. His Welsh counterpart was weaker, and did require Welsh students' grades to be 'improved'.

And (a small minority of) teachers under pressure will cheat so as to improve exam results. Not quite the same but - I have to admit that I was amused to hear that at least one (non-UK) private school would allow only their brighter pupils to take their iGCSEs at the school. The rest were made to take the exam at a public exam centre, so sharply improving the school's reported results.


Martin Stanley