Sir Martyn Oliver’s first big Ofsted speech: in full

Ofsted chief inspector promises to 'do more to recognise the challenging circumstances leaders face'

Ofsted chief inspector promises to 'do more to recognise the challenging circumstances leaders face'

Ofsted chief Sir Martyn Oliver has given his first keynote speech today, launching a new Big Listen consultation and declaring he wants to turn the watchdog into a “world-class inspectorate”.

In his speech to ASCL conference in Liverpool, Oliver added the watchdog “understands” the current difficulties facing school and college leaders, saying he will “do more to recognise the challenging circumstances you face”.

Sir Martyn Oliver’s first Ofsted speech: in full

Hello! Thank you for that welcome.

Thank you for the invitation, and for the many constructive meetings I’ve had with ASCL colleagues in my first couple of months.

I met with Geoff, thanks Geoff, on my fourth day in post, and I’m looking forward to working with Pepe when you take on the mantle next month.

I’m delighted to be here, speaking to you, the leaders of this country’s great schools and colleges.

I feel very comfortable here with you, because we share so many of the same experiences.

I’ve been a teacher; a head; a multi-academy trust leader; and a member of ASCL for nearly two decades before I took on this new role.

And now I stand in front of you for the first time as His Majesty’s Chief Inspector at Ofsted.

I lead an organisation that is, at every level, a reflection of the sectors we inspect and regulate. The teams I now lead are drawn from schools, from further education, from early years, from social care. I have colleagues inspecting the training of military recruits who have served time in the armed forces. I have others inspecting prison education who have worked (I said ‘worked’!) in prisons.

That experience and insight is so important. So important. It’s what gives us credibility. Credibility with you. And credibility when we talk to those in power.

And it’s what gives us the right to inform parents about the services their children are getting.

Because that’s the other side of the coin: we are of the system, but we exist – as you exist – for children, for learners and, of course, for parents and carers.


Ours is – or it really should be – a joint enterprise. We talk about raising standards and improving lives – but in truth, our role is to help you do that.

Ofsted does not educate children. You do.

You’re the ones out there every day, educating, inspiring, and shaping the lives of children and learners. I promise you that I’ll never forget that.

I worked in schools for 29 years. Many of them were schools in very difficult situations which needed help.

These schools were often described as being in “challenging circumstances.”

But that phrase begs the question of what circumstances other schools are facing.

I don’t think anyone working in our sector would say their circumstances aren’t “challenging.”

After all, we’re all struggling to various degrees:

  • with the legacies of COVID
  • with cost-of living difficulties
  • with the intertwined problems of attendance and behaviour
  • with increasing demand for mental health and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities services
  • And with a stubborn and stark gap in the performance of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children

And of course, looking at other areas we inspect and regulate, we see rising demand for childcare, for alternative provision, for support services and for safe and nurturing children’s homes.

It’s hard to see what you call that other than “challenging.”

But, whilst these are real challenges, there are also reasons to be optimistic. Ours is a great and noble profession full of people, like you, who care deeply about children. Passionate professionals who want the best and can see the impact on individuals when we, as a system, cannot deliver this, for whatever reasons. This makes it difficult. I understand that. But I also understand that the best of you take on your leadership roles not because it is easy, but because it is hard. You want to make a difference, especially to those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable, and so do I.

So, I want to reassure you that I get it. And that Ofsted gets it.

Why I joined Ofsted

It’s that challenge that brought me to this job. I didn’t apply for it to maintain “business as usual.” I want to meet these challenging times head-on and I want to improve and change the way Ofsted goes about its work.

My ambition is for Ofsted to be a modern, world-class inspectorate and regulator – fit for purpose and also trusted by parents, by children and by you, the sectors we work with. I will need your help in doing this.

I want us to be the best, because children deserve the best.

And because we share the highest expectations for all children – especially the most disadvantaged. They deserve that from us.

I want us all to challenge the so-called soft bigotry of low expectations wherever we find them. Low expectations are pernicious, they are malignant, and they are just plain wrong.

We want to see high standards for all children, and positive outcomes for all children. This is how we start to tackle disadvantage as a society, by opening new doors, creating new opportunities and better life chances.

That’s why, we will of course continue to call out providers when they aren’t meeting the needs of children and parents. Children only get one childhood. None of us want to see their potential limited because of where they were born – or their future mapped out based on their background.

But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore context. I know we can do more to recognise the challenging circumstances you face. To look at the bigger picture and the context in which you’re working.

We can be better at focusing on the things you are and should be doing. The areas where you can add value and make a difference.

But no single school can do it all. I know you all want to do everything you can for the children and communities you serve, but you cannot do it alone. And we don’t expect you to.

And I know only too well that being a teacher, or a lecturer in a college, is a difficult enough job on its own. And so is being a social worker, or an educational psychologist, or any of the other roles in our sector. We shouldn’t expect teachers to try to combine these roles – it just isn’t fair to them, and it isn’t fair to children and learners.

So, I want Ofsted to be better at understanding the decisions you make, in the context you are working in. Understanding why you made those decisions and the difference that they made for your children.

And when we find problems that you can’t control, I want us to do more to follow the thread and hold the right people to account.

Ofsted’s position

Because Ofsted has a unique position overseeing almost all of the services that affect a child’s life, especially a most vulnerable or disadvantaged child:

  • their childminder or nursery
  • if they need help from social services
  • their primary and secondary school
  • if they go on to a college or an apprenticeship
  • if they access SEND support
  • if they’re referred to alternative or specialist provision
  • if they need help from mental health services

And of course, we inspect their local authority, and report to the government and parliament along the way.

So, we have the ability to pull the threads across services and follow where they lead, and I want us to do it more. Because we know that good education and care isn’t the work of one institution – it’s down to all the influences on a young life.

And so, seeing that bigger picture is vital. It’s one of my biggest priorities for Ofsted over the next 5 years.

It means we can see how a child moves between these services, or if they fall through the gaps.

It means we can better understand the difficult decisions you make, particularly where your options are restricted.

And it means we can draw policy makers’ attention to significant gaps, postcode lotteries, where services are not joined up, and where things just aren’t good enough.

Ofsted holds a unique position, and we use it to provide these insights and help to link the whole system together.

Disadvantaged and most vulnerable children

Because I want Ofsted to be a champion for children. Helping you to attain high standards, and improvement through the dissemination of best practice.

And I want us to do that for all children. Especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. That’s my other big priority.

We want the right opportunities and the best chances for every child from South Shields to Southampton, from Canterbury to Carlisle, and from Lands End to Lowestoft.

We don’t want disadvantage or vulnerability to be a barrier. Because if you get it right for the most disadvantaged, you get it right for everyone.

Ofsted has a crucial role to play in making sure that happens, and pointing out when it doesn’t.

My first two months

So I have set out a path for Ofsted. And I have set out two big priorities for my tenure. To fully utilise our position, and make the most of our insights. And to make sure our focus is always on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

These are big ambitions, and not things that can be achieved overnight. But I hope the steps I’ve taken in my first two months show you that I’m serious.

Serious about Ofsted doing better. Serious about making a difference. And serious about working with the sector to make sure all children have the best possible education, care, and life chances.

On my very first day I announced three things:

  1. an immediate package of training for inspectors on mental health awareness
  2. a full response to the Coroner’s inquest into the tragic death of Ruth Perry
  3. a Big Listen exercise to hear from everyone we work with and for

And I have delivered on those three things.

  1. Every lead inspector has already completed the training package, with support from Mental Health First Aid England. And every inspector used will have completed it by the end of this month.
  • We have published our full response to the Coroner following her inquest into Ruth’s death. We accepted her findings and responded to every single recommendation. Ruth’s death was a tragedy and I am determined to do everything I can to prevent such tragedies happening in the future. It should never happen again, and no one should feel as Ruth did.
  • And today we are formally launching our Big Listen.

Other activity

As well as delivering on those three promises:

  • we have introduced a new policy on pausing an inspection
  • we have made clarifications to our handbooks including setting out how leaders can raise concerns during an inspection, who can attend inspection meetings, and the sharing of provisional outcomes
  • we will shortly be publishing our response to the Education Select Committee’s recent report into our work

And another small change that we are working on, is to make changes to our website to show the full range of component grades at a glance, not just the overall effectiveness grade.

This neither promises nor precludes further changes to our gradings, but I hope it shows that we are listening. That we have heard the views of you, the ASCL members. And that we are acting.

You are clear that all the sub-judgements that Ofsted makes about your schools matter and all should be seen. And it should be about much more than just the overall grade.

By showing the full range of judgements, we hope that parents will be better able to compare providers.

Better able to see a more rounded, contextual picture that speaks to what they care about: behaviour and attitudes to learning, quality of education, their child’s personal development and the way the school or college is run.

So, hopefully you can see, that we will always listen to your views and the views of all the sectors we inspect and regulate.

Of course, the views of children and parents must always come first. They are our highest priority, as I know they are yours too.

And I hope that we can bring together the views of professionals with the views of parents to plot an improvement journey that meets everyone’s needs.

Big Listen

And that leads me nicely back to the Big Listen.

The Big Listen is just that, a big, comprehensive effort to listen to everyone we work with and everyone we work for.

And we want to hear from as many people as possible. From parents and from providers. From children and from commissioners. From educators, and from carers. And from representative groups.

We want to hear from those providing services, those commissioning them, those arranging them, those receiving them, and those impacted by them.

We want to hear from ASCL and all the other representative bodies as well as all of you, as individual teachers, practitioners, and leaders.

And we want to hear from everyone working in our other sectors. Everyone in social care, early years, further education, SEND provision, prison education, teacher development, and local authorities.

As well as the professionals we work with, we want to hear from the people we work for – parents, carers and their children.

So, if your work, your children, your decisions, your education, or your care are impacted by what we do, we want to hear from you.

But please, this is just the beginning. The Big Listen is how we will learn the lessons we need to learn. And how we will improve. But it will not end with listening. The Big Listen will be followed by real action. You can already see action being taken, but I know we have more to do.


Ofsted is an organisation filled with talented and committed people. People who have come from schools, colleges, nurseries and local authorities. I think they do a crucial job, and in most instances, they do it very, very well.

And I often hear that same feedback from you. I don’t think the minority who just want to see the back of inspection represent the people in this hall. I think the vast majority of leaders agree with accountability and recognise the importance of inspection.

But I know many of you – perhaps most of you – think Ofsted can be better.

And I agree. We can be better. I have big ambitions for the organisation, and for the impact it can have.

And to deliver on that ambition, we need to listen. We need to listen to feedback. To criticism. To ideas for small changes and for big reforms.

So please help us. And please encourage others to as well. Your colleagues and contacts, as well as the parents at your school or college.

We’re casting the net as widely as we can.

We have commissioned two external organisations to undertake surveys and focus groups with parents and professionals on our behalf – presenting us with a fully impartial take on what they hear.

And, we will also gather views directly at the many events and meetings that our staff attend.

And we will conduct an open online consultation, asking questions and inviting comments.

You can find more information here.

As I’ve said, we are also determined to gather a wide range of children’s views – including from children who are in the care of social services. We’ll have more to say about that in a couple of weeks’ time.

We work in their interests, so we will listen to what they have to say too.

Every voice will be heard, and nothing, NOTHING, is off the table.

Rebuilding relationships

So, the Big Listen is about us doing better. But I also want it to mark a new chapter in our relationship with those we inspect and regulate.

I said, when I announced it on my first day, that I wanted a “fresh start.”

I want to earn and rebuild your confidence in Ofsted. And the confidence of parents and children too.

I know you may not like every decision we make, but I hope you’ll see that we’re doing everything we can, within our constraints, to work with you.

It’s obviously still early days, and I know we still have a long way to go, but I hope our approach is starting to make a difference. I have seen comments from teachers who have been inspected this year describing inspections as understanding, courteous and positive. But I’m not complacent – I want to make sure that is everyone’s experience, and will do all I can to make that happen.

In particular, we want inspection to feel like it is done with you, not to you. I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a few inspections myself, and I know they can be challenging. Rightly so.

But I want you to have the confidence that inspection will be built around a respectful professional dialogue, and that we all have the same aim: the best outcomes for children.

I want you to be confident that you have the autonomy to innovate and make the decisions that deliver those outcomes for your children.

I have been clear with my teams that they must go about their work with professionalism, empathy, courtesy and respect.

And I hope, in turn, our inspectors will be received with the same. I want to calm any tensions and reduce any friction that has built up in recent months. And I know doing this will help with one of my stated ambitions – right back at the education select committee before I took up this role – I want to involve more serving practitioners, and school and college leaders in inspection.

I want to make sure we recruit inspectors who represent the best of the sectors they inspect.

People with the expertise, understanding, and empathy to make the difficult judgements, as well as to praise innovation and outstanding practice.

And who are able to interrogate and report on the things parents really care about.

In short, I want inspections of the sector, by the sector, for children and their parents.


Because, just like all of you, everything, everything, we do is for children.

So please get involved with our Big Listen – and help us to work better with you – in their interests.

Because we work with incredible people. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with some of the most generous, hardworking, dedicated, and passionate people. With fantastic teachers and leaders, carers and social workers, childminders and nursery staff, specialists and advisers, and all the other people who dedicate their lives to children’s education and care.

So, it’s only right that, as the inspectorate and regulator for these sectors, we reflect that excellence and live up to the standards you set.

Thank you.

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