Give it a rest, Ofsted

Ian Duckett and Chris Smith

Norfolk and Suffolk SEA and Norfolk NEU

 “Ofsted has nothing to contribute to this current crisis.” Was the response of NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney to a question from a teacher about what to expect from the government watchdog over the next stages of the educational response to Covid19 in one of the unions many zoom meetings to discuss its approach to the governments mishandling of school reopening. Hardly a revelatory sentiment and one which the majority of the teaching profession will have shared in normal times, but times of crisis like these are remarkable for their ability to bring into sharp focus the things that really matter and those that don’t. The fact that during a time of existential threat to education as we know it the body whose own logo reads as “raising standards, improving lives” can be so accurately described is telling, and the quangos silence over how to educate children in unprecedented circumstances speaks volumes over how little it has to offer on the subject of raising educational standards. It is revealed for what it is and what all teachers have always known it to be a political tool utilised to shape education in a manner appealing to politicians even, and often especially when at odds with the profession itself. It has nothing to offer now on how to actually educate and safeguard children because ofsted inspectors are not in the business of offering such services themselve, if they were they would be where doing so really counts. In the classroom.  So now that Covid has established the political narrative of following the science and being led by the experts let us apply that theme to a reconstructed school inspection system based on those principles.

The most significant failures of Ofsted as a body charged with “raising standards and improving lives” through inspecting schools all stem from the inadequate nature of its inspection procedure and the professional nature of its inspectors themselves. The political narrative around Ofsted’s creation and reform has also been far too narrow to provide adequate discussion of such an important issue. In his memoirs Ken Clarke the former education secretary who presided over Ofsted’s creation claimed he introduced it “not to kick teachers” (although it its telling he felt the need to address this perception) but to counter what he perceived as the tendency of education, as well as all other public services in his view, to favour the needs of those who worked in the service over those who, in his words “consumed” the service. The need to counter this “producer bias” was also referred to by Tony Blair in his memoirs in explaining why he continued the public service reforms of the Major governments and why he held the views of trade unions in such low regard feeling they did not represent the people that really mattered, the consumers of services. Even former union leader Alan Johnson recently resorted to the term “producer bias” in an interview explaining why he felt the government was right to push for school reopening against the views of the majority of the teaching profession and its unions. This language is significant as it frames the narrative in a dangerously reductionist fashion in two ways. Firstly by applying the language of the market to public services it begins the transition to applying the logic of the market to their delivery. However as services like education are not commodities they should not be reduced to market speak as students certainly do not consume education from teachers who dispense it in a transactional fashion and I doubt very many parents think of their child’s experience in school in this way. Interestingly in the case of education politicians often mean “parents” rather than students when they speak of consumers in a further debasement of language.

Secondly perhaps most significantly this language casts producers and consumers as being somehow in conflict with each other and in possession of opposing and irreconcilable goals which of course is absurd in the relationship between teacher and student. Both desire the students’ success, in some cases teachers wanting it more than students themselves.

This false dichotomy then is the basis for Ofsted, keeping the producers of education in line in case they attempt to fleece their customers. Absent from this view is any trust in teachers as professionals who have the best interest of their students at heart, in the same way doctors do their patients, lawyers their clients or even politicians their constituents (and I mean that unironically as I am convinced the majority of politicians enter politics to serve others, I just take issue with which others specifically they seek to serve). Aside from Tristram Hunt’s unthought through pitch of a teacher’s oath to rival the Hippocratic oath of doctors from his brief stint as shadow education secretary under Ed Miliband the case of teachers professionalism being the starting point for assembling the superstructure of the UKs education system has been totally absent from the thinking of leading politicians. At the last election despite both the Liberal Democrats and Labour pledging to remove Ofsted the Tories didn’t even engage in the debate that a standards body which long ago lost the confidence of the profession it seeks to safeguard is in an untenable position. So let us now re frame this debate in the realisation that while Ofsted has nothing to offer the world of education as it now is, that world cannot function without the highly skilled and committed professionals who are teachers. So their views must surely be placed at the forefront of determining, assessing and then raising standards in education.

My former head of department used to half jokingly compare ofsted inspectors to the ring wraiths from the Lord of the Rings. Just as the wraiths had once been great kings, corrupted by the temptations of the rings of power, many ofsted inspectors had once been teachers now tempted out of the classroom by the inspectorates’ claim to “raise standards and improve lives”. Only of course to find themselves bringing nothing but misery to their former colleagues. The most insulting feature many teachers will report from ofsted inspections is the unaccountable and out of touch nature of inspectors, many will not have been in the classroom full time for years and given the pace of change in education that can well equate to making their previous experiences irrelevant. So why not make all those who inspect schools currently serving classroom teachers themselves?

Make it part of the professional expectation of the role that at some point in your career you will be called like jury service to undertake a year out of the classroom to travel the country reviewing other schools Ask any teacher what they wish they had more time to do in the cause of CPD and invariably “observe other teachers or schools” will be on the list. As a PGCE & NQT mentor it is something we must make time for trainees to do as part of their initial training but then after that initial NQT year it is something which drops to the bottom of everyone’s priorities despite it being recognised as a great way of improving all involved. Ask School leaders what they spend their time doing to raise standards and it is network with other schools to scout out how others cope with the latest initiative or challenge. So why not adapt the inspection of schools to meet these goals and make it what Ofsted claims to be a supportive body dedicated to raising standards. Well put the teachers in charge of it and let them do just that at a stroke raising their professional autonomy and status as gatekeepers of standards based upon peer review rather than top down dictat. There should be no such thing as permanent inspectors whose sole job is to pass judgment on others doing a job they themselves do not. Rather the DfO can pride schools with the funding required to cover the salaries of serving teachers for the years they are drawn to visit other schools, with the expectation being that at the end of the year those teachers return to their schools and can then present a whole school cpd session informed by what they saw in the other schools they visited. A virtuous circle for all involved.  Including on the financial front, gone is a vast bureaucratic quango with armies of permanent inspectors on contract in its place a minimal secretarial staff for administration, and perhaps a small pay rise equivalent to an additional point on the current pay scale for teachers competing for a years service. Or perhaps not even this as teachers would value the enhanced professional autonomy they would receive and the corresponding stress free existence in a post ofsted world they would enjoy far above any financial reward. The true definition of doing more with less, and working smarter rather than working harder.

What of those school visits (I am purposely dropping the term inspections). They are to be what they should always be a learning opportunity for all involved in the spirit of what education is a public service. All schools have something of merit that they can teach to others, depending upon their different circumstances and this lack of appreciation of context is one of the most gaping holes in current ofsted criteria. Serving classroom teachers are the best places to notice and comment appropriately on this difference in context when visiting schools different to their own. The aim of these visits should be to point out what is going well, what can be improved and what could be shared to improve other schools. If “innocent until proven guilty” is good enough to form the basis of the western world’s justice system it should equally apply to education. Unless clear evidence of malpractice, or continued ineffective practise is found schools should be assumed to be effectively meeting the needs of their communities. Teachers can judge what is effective or not in a classroom or school community and it is this language that should be used to replace the debasement of language that are the  “outstanding” “good” and “requires improvements” of Ofsted. If we must stick to such labels how about: “effective” “partially effective” “not yet effective”. These terms were suggested by education blogger and author Mike Fleatham (who runs the Thinking classroom website) who led a session on pedagogy for an NUT young teachers conference some years back that I was fortunate to attend. Afterwards I suggested to my head we use this language for our staff appraisals to replace the ofsted language we had been using to that point, and to my great surprise he agreed regarding it as summing up what he wanted to do in changing the culture of appraisals from “observations done to people” to a collaborative process they took ownership of”.

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