Regulating Schools and Exams

The regulation of schools, examination boards etc. raises some interesting issues. (The regulation of universities etc. is summarised here.) The state-provided education market (if you will excuse the word 'market') is highly imperfect. There are no price signals, it is hard for parents to shop around, and it is far from certain that their child will be taken by their first choice of school. Some form of regulation is clearly necessary.

But it is 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 counterparts therefore mainly report the outcome of inspections of individual schools. Parents can then (in theory if not in practice) 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.

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 .

There was an interesting development in March 2014. Ofsted had previously generally given schools advance notice of often lengthy visits and evaluations, which allowed schools to put on their best face whilst also maximising the stress experienced by teaching staff. A review of this practice 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.

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'.

It is important to be aware that (a small minority of) teachers under pressure will cheat so as to improve exam results.

It's 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.

Rethinking Accountability and Inspection

In the longer term, there are important unresolved issues about the purpose of education, and hence what practices should be praised, and what practices criticised, by Ofsted inspectors. The National Curriculum, assessments at age 7 & 11 (SATs) , and Ofsted inspections were introduced because our old friend the Principal-Agent problem had led to many schools failing their pupils in a variety of ways, including failing to ensure that children reached appropriate levels of attainment in key subjects such as English and Maths. This increased focus on readiness for 'the world of work' was never welcomed by all, and that debate continues to this day. But even putting that on one side, there is a good deal of evidence that many parents and teachers have become too obsessed by exam results and the associated league tables. The introduction of Free Schools and Academies - which were given a large measure of management and other freedom whilst remaining state-funded - was to some extent intended to allow parents to choose between different types of education for their offspring.

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 the modern approaches being trialled by Free Schools and Academies. 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.)

The Royal Society of Arts published a lengthy but interesting report in 2017 - The Ideal School Exhibition. Its objective was 'to help those who lead and teach in UK schools reclaim ownership of their institutions, their profession and their practice ... To achieve [this] we need to [inter alia]:


Martin Stanley