Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Sir Martyn Oliver's speech at the NAHT conference

Sir Martyn Oliver recently (04 May 2024) spoke about the Big Listen, the changes Ofsted is making and taking the time to collaboratively build a better education system for all.


Good morning (bore da).

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you all today.

I also want to thank you Paul and all your colleagues for the spirit of openness and cooperation that you have shown since I took up the role. I first met with you Paul in my first week and we agreed to keep that engagement going through frequent discussions and constructive challenge.

This dialogue has been really positive and valuable as I begin my 5th month, and I hope we will still be able to say that in my 5th year.

A shared goal

I say that, because I see working with you, as a union, and as individual heads and leaders, as vital.

After all, we all have the same aims. We all care about the same thing: children.

It is our goal to make sure that every child has a great education and is well cared for. That every child has access to as many opportunities as possible. That every child has the best possible childhood, because children only get one chance at childhood.

And I know that you all have this same goal.

The most vulnerable

But I do want to make sure that we never lose sight of that. And in particular, that we all do all we can for the most vulnerable children.

And I mean that in the broadest sense. In the many different ways that vulnerability presents itself. Children facing challenges as a result:

  • of cost of living difficulties
  • of mental health struggles
  • of special educational needs and disabilities
  • of caring responsibilities
  • of feeling excluded
  • of the legacies of COVID
  • of family dynamics
  • and of course of child poverty, something I’m really worried about, and that has knock on impacts on every area and aspect of children’s lives, and their futures

So, there are many factors that can make a child vulnerable, that can put them at a disadvantage. But it’s up to us to do what we can to make sure these factors don’t prevent them from achieving everything they can.

I know the lengths you go to support all the children in your schools to succeed. Especially the most vulnerable amongst them.

I know how hard the job is for those of you serving disadvantaged communities, delivering the highest academic and behavioural standards.

So, Ofsted will use the insights we gather, area by area and community by community, to recognise the difficulty of teaching and leading in those contexts. And we will champion those schools that deliver the highest standards for vulnerable children.

How we realise that ambition and get it right is one of the reasons we launched the Big Listen.

We’re listening

Hopefully many of you have already taken the opportunity to tell us your thoughts through the Big Listen. We’ve had over 15,000 responses so far. That includes over 4,000 from teachers and leaders like you, nearly 3,000 from parents, and most importantly, over 3,000 responses to our children’s survey.

This is already the single biggest consultation Ofsted has ever conducted – and we are still only two thirds of the way through.

If you’ve not responded, please add your voice! It’s a genuine chance to let us know what you think. And please ask your colleagues, your parents, and your students to respond too.

As I’ve said before, nothing, nothing, is off the table. The consultation includes questions on a whole range of topics, but you can answer as many or as few of them as you like. And if you want to tell us about something not covered in the questions, then there are free-text boxes in every section.

Indeed, if you want to put the same answer in every box, as at least one person already has, that’s your right. But please don’t miss this chance to contribute. Because it will lead to real action.

That is a promise – and one I want you to hold me to. I didn’t take this job to hold to business as usual. I know we can be better, and I’m determined that we will be.

Making changes where we can

I know many of you are impatient to see that action. I understand that impulse.

It’s an incredibly challenging time for the education sector at the moment. And it can be frustrating if improvements take longer than you would like. 

That’s why, where we can, we have acted.

On my first day we put a brief halt to inspections and brought in mental health awareness training for all of our inspectors. Every inspector we use has now completed that training package, with support from Mental Health First Aid England.

We’ve published as much of that training as we can, and we’ve committed to publishing our training in the future. I want us to be a more transparent organisation and I want us to be better at sharing what we know and what we do, with all of you.

We’ve also committed to thinking through all of our inspection policies and practices, to make sure we’re doing all we can to reduce leaders’ anxiety about inspection overall.

We have updated our complaints policy, so that we can handle your concerns more fairly, thoroughly and efficiently.

We have introduced a new policy on pausing and deferring inspections where it’s appropriate to do so. And we have made clear that a pause can be requested when leaders require support in the interests of their well-being.

And these changes are not just for schools. They’re for all the sectors we inspect and regulate, including social care, further education, skills providers, and the vital early years.

And next week, for schools, we’re making changes to our inspection reports website to show the full range of sub-judgements, rather than just the overall grade.

Announcement on small schools

And I can announce today that we are acting to reduce the burden of inspection following feedback from smaller primary schools.

We’ve heard from many of you that the inspection methodology is particularly challenging for these schools. For too many of you, it feels as though inspection is designed for large secondary schools, not small primaries.

That’s the feedback we’ve heard – we’ve listened – we continue to listen – but we’re also acting where we can.

So, from September, we will make changes to the way we undertake ungraded inspections for all schools. This doesn’t preclude further changes to our inspections in future – but where we can act quickly, we will do so.

On ungraded inspections, we will no longer conduct deep dives from September. It isn’t right and it isn’t helpful to try to cram all the detail of a full, graded inspection into a shorter ungraded one. Instead, we want ungraded inspections to feel more like monitoring visits.

What do I mean by that? The emphasis of these inspections will be on providing school leaders with opportunities to demonstrate where they have improved and to discuss where they still have work to do.

The inspection process must be a professional dialogue between the inspection team and school leadership. As I’ve made very clear to my inspectors, I expect them to act with professionalism, empathy, courtesy, and respect, at all times. And I hope you will meet them with the same. Because they’re not trying to trick you or catch you out. They’re trying to find out what’s great about your school and where there is some room to improve.

So, we will invite the headteacher and the senior team to show us:

  • what is typical?
  • what do you do well?
  • where have you made changes to improve?
  • and what do you still need to tackle to make the school the best it can be?

Now, will some of those conversations be challenging? Absolutely. Exactly as they should be. Because all of us, including Ofsted, can always do better – and that willingness to never stand still and to always strive for the best is what marks out the very best leaders from everyone else.

But removing the deep dives from September, will allow for a proper conversation between professionals about the school’s strengths, and its areas for improvement. Not a rushed dig into every detail. 

We also hope that this change will reduce the burden on subject leaders and more junior colleagues. We’ll focus on a dialogue with you and your senior leaders. So, while we will still want to have conversations with subject leads, this will be less intensive for them.

And the flipside of that, is that you’ll hopefully feel more involved. Headteachers have said that they sometimes feel out of the loop with deep dives because they’re not part of that process. Sometimes that’s right, as we want to see subject leaders’ expertise and skills independently. But it’s not necessary for an ungraded inspection, so we’ll put you and other senior leaders at the heart of them.

As I’ve said, we hope that this will particularly help small primary schools, where inspection can really stretch resources.

But it will help all schools. It means that over 40% of the school inspections we plan to do next academic year will no longer have deep dives.

That means nearly 3,000 inspections, over three quarters of which are of primary schools, won’t have deep dives.

It’s just one, one of the ways we’re trying to make sure you spend as much time as possible educating and caring for your children. And it hopefully shows we’re serious.

Serious about listening. Serious about acting. And serious about improving.

So, where there are solutions that can be implemented quickly, steps we can take that make life easier for you, and in turn for your children, we will take them.

But simple solutions are, unfortunately, rare.

A complex system

Because Ofsted is just one part of an incredibly complicated system.

And every change we make impacts 22,000 schools. It impacts the 75,000 other providers of education and children’s services. And of course, it impacts the millions of children and families that we all serve.

So, we need to make sure we get it right. Right for you, right for the sector, and most importantly, right for children – especially the most vulnerable.

I’ve said I want Ofsted to be a modern, world-class inspectorate and regulator.

That means an organisation that helps you drive up standards and keep children safe.

An organisation that acts professionally, and with empathy, courtesy and respect.

And an organisation that makes sure leaders like you are accountable, without restricting your autonomy and your ability to innovate. An inspectorate that challenges schools and other providers, but also encourages them to show what they can do and how they are making a difference for children.

Look, I’m not naive. I’ve spent too long as a teacher and school leader to think I can make an inspection an enjoyable experience. It is rigorous and challenging, quite rightly. We wouldn’t be living up to our responsibility to children if it wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be positive, helpful, and built around understanding and professional, courteous, dialogue. We want to see you at your best, and give you the opportunities to show us your best. I want that to be the experience of everyone we inspect.

This isn’t easy. It isn’t simple. But it is crucial.

Crucial for you, so that you can focus on delivering for children.

Crucial for the sector, the government and the public, so that they have clear, informed, and reliable information on the quality of education and care.

And crucial for children, so that they get the education and care they deserve.

Getting the right answer, not the quickest

So, where time is needed to get to the right answer, I will take that time. And I want to be honest with you about that.

I don’t want to stand here and make grand promises, then disappoint you for the next 5 years.

Because pretending it is easy to build a better inspection and accountability system helps no one.

If anyone says it is easy. If anyone presents sweeping changes without considering the full impact on all the people we serve. If anyone pretends there is an obvious simple solution that would resolve all of the difficulties without any downsides.

They are, I’m afraid, wrong. And their simple solutions could put children’s wellbeing and education at risk.

So, I will never pretend it’s easy. Or that there aren’t trade-offs to make and balances to find.

Because I want to get the right answer, not just the quickest.

That’s why we’re hearing from as many people as possible through the Big Listen.

Because it’s vital that we listen to everyone our work affects, the people we hear from regularly, and the people we rarely or never hear from. The people who work in our sector, as well as parents, children, and learners.

So, as well as the online consultation, my colleagues and I have been up and down the country. We’ve been listening to thousands of people at visits and events, at meetings and roundtables, at small discussions, and at big conferences like this one.

We are establishing external reference groups, which will give us independent advice and challenge on some of the most significant issues in our sector. These will include curriculum, teaching and assessment, behaviour and attendance, inclusion, and how we use our regulatory powers and insights for the good of children.

And we are also working with independent organisations to carry out surveys and focus groups with parents and professionals.

We are working with the National Centre for Social Research to poll the public and parents as well as following up with more in-depth parent focus groups.

IFF Research are also doing polling and focus groups with the professionals we work with, like you.

And we are working on research with the National Children’s Bureau and the children’s charity Coram to make sure we hear the voices of children in care. With Catch 22 to make sure we hear from care leavers. And with Career Matters to hear from children in the youth justice system.

We know we will hear challenging messages through all of this work. We want those messages. We are ready to hear feedback, accept criticism and improve. This is what the Big Listen is all about. We are determined to be open and transparent, in service of children.

To those who still doubt I’m serious, I ask you to hold me to account when we respond to the Big Listen and, start to build a better system for everyone.


And let me talk about the elephant in the room. I know some of you would like us to make changes to our gradings, as part of a future system. I’m sure you’ll know, especially from recent media stories, that we can’t do that unilaterally. So much of the government’s school improvement system rests on our grades, that any changes would need to align with a bigger, wider remodelling of the whole accountability system. That has to be a government decision.

But it’s worth noting that the grading system, like any system, has strengths and weaknesses.

The case against the grades is that they are simple. That they lack nuance and can be a blunt summary of a complicated reality.

The case for the grades is that they are simple. That they are unambiguous and give a clear picture, while more detail is provided in the sub-judgements and reports.

So, there is no perfect answer, but it’s right the debate goes on and that we continue to challenge ourselves about the way we present information to you and to the public. That’s a big part of the Big Listen.

And, whether grades stay, go or are reformed in the future, that decision will not stop us from building a better system now. As I’ve said, that’s why I took this role. I’m not here to maintain the status quo.

The system we need, an inclusive one

We need a system that – first and foremost – protects children and keeps them safe.

That helps to raise standards, whilst protecting the autonomy of teachers and heads.

And that ensures schools are praised not penalised for working with disadvantaged and vulnerable children.

Because a better system also needs to be an inclusive system. And that is something we should all be working toward already.

What do I mean by an inclusive system? And what does it mean for your schools?

An inclusive school system is a system where all children are supported to achieve their potential.

It is a school system where children are kept safe – and high standards of behaviour are expected of all, with support and sanctions, as appropriate.

So, I want to be clear that we want to see you serving your whole community – serving the community you have, not the one you want. 

We expect to see you promoting inclusion, and bringing down barriers. And that includes making sure your school is available for all who want to attend.

We all know off-rolling is wrong, but it can come in many forms, including putting children or families off before they even apply. So, there will continue to be consequences for schools that push children out.

But that will also be true for schools that work to skew their admissions and measures that aim to put children off based on their characteristics, background, or level of disadvantage.

All children have the right to a great education, and you have a responsibility to provide it.

We want to see you getting it right for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Because when you get it right for them, you get it right for everyone.

But I also want to be clear that inclusion cannot and should not ever be used as an excuse for lower standards. Inclusion is about bringing down barriers, not lowering expectations.

But if you are doing what’s right for all of your children, then we will recognise, praise, and support your work.

A positive future

So, I want to finish by thanking you.

I want to thank you for your help in finding the right solutions and building a better system. I want to thank you for your patience and understanding as we make sure we get the right answers. And I want to thank you for the difficult but vital job you do every day.

I’ve been a teacher, a headteacher, and a leader. I’ve done it for nearly 30 years. I know how challenging it can be.

But I also know that it is one of the best careers out there. And I know that the rewards make it all worth it. That feeling when you see the difference you’ve made in a child’s life, when you open a door that they thought was locked or show them that they can do something they thought was impossible. Well, that is worth every challenge, every bad day, every set back.

So, I also want to encourage all of you to remember and talk about the positives a little more. I’m not diminishing the very real issues in schools, or sticking my head in the sand, but I do worry that, if a narrative of negativity becomes all-encompassing, then we may lose some of the best potential teachers in the next generation.

Of course, we need to identify the problems, and be vocal about finding the solutions. Of course we do. But if that’s all we do. If we only talk about the negatives. The stresses. The things that make us want to give up. Well then we risk putting off a generation of brilliant and inspiring teachers.


Instead, I hope we can continue to work together. To focus on what we can improve. To not shy away from the difficult challenges but instead find the right solutions. Then I know we can build a better school system.

Better for you, better for parents, and most importantly, better for children.

Thank you (Diolch)


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