I am not unbiased in the discussion about Ofsted. Over the last five years, I have worked in two schools that have been downgraded from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’ within weeks of starting there. Unlucky? Yes, but the experience has given me a detailed view of the injustices of our education system. I have witnessed the paranoia and stress that follows an RI rating.
The first school has spiralled out of control. The leadership was dismantled: the head teacher was paid off and left suddenly; the deputy head, disillusioned by the arbitrary nature of the inspection process, moved out of the state sector . (The inspection started well, but became hostile when the inspectors were themselves inspected on the second day.) All national measures of the school have fallen sharply and, as one previous colleague says, the new leadership has introduced “a pervasive culture of deceit.” She recounts that superficial initiatives are relentlessly rolled out on a weekly basis. Many are counter-productive or even damaging and none are given the time to have any impact. She is leaving teaching.
At the second school, the inspection team was extremely negative from the start. Evidence of classroom practice was ignored. The data, which seemed to put the school inside ‘good’, was twisted to fit a pre-determined narrative. A quarter of the staff left the school at the end of the year. The school leaders now throw huge resources at students facing national exams, put extra pressure on staff and increase our workload. We don’t criticise because we know they are fighting for their careers.
The common feature of the schools is the socio-economic deprivation of the areas they serve. The percentages of ‘disadvantaged’ students in both are amongst the highest in the country.
In arguing that “Ofsted currently does more harm than good,” Professor Coffield cites evidence that the “most deprived schools are systematically more likely to be downgraded than the least disadvantaged” and concludes that they are “harmed by inaccurate and biased Ofsted reports.” The Education Policy Institute report that the professor quotes also states that “schools with more disadvantaged pupils are less likely to be judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, while schools with low disadvantage and high prior attainment are much more likely to be rated highly.” Why should this be?
Neither the professor nor the report addresses the question. The government’s academy programme has stalled, not least in parliament where the Conservative’s reduced majority has forced ministers to withdraw their most reactionary policies. Now, the only route to increase the number of academies by force is through an Ofsted rating of ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. The former leads to immediate academisation; the latter gives the school an initial two years to improve and then another two if required. In this way, Ofsted acts as the attack dog of their political masters, promoting their academy programme when it cannot be pursued through democratic means.
Similarly, neither the professor nor the report raises the political motives behind why schools in deprived areas are more likely to face biased inspections and be downgraded to RI. This can only be explained by the position of the majority of such schools in inner-city Labour areas. Downgrading a school in the Shires could bring out the middle classes and that would reflect badly on the local Tory council. In this way, Ofsted acts as the lapdog of their political masters, trying to avoid upsetting the government’s political friends.
Meanwhile, the politicians demand that Ofsted goes further and prove its cringing subservience in other ways. Ofsted now falls over itself to promote its masters’ traditionalist teaching methods. These, of course, are as damaging as the rest of the government’s education programme. The school’s minister cherry picks research to support his traditionalist agenda and then forces Ofsted to promote stultifying direct instruction. Just as the bully always demands more, the schools minister continues to berate Ofsted even when it has demonstrated its spineless loyalty many times over.
That Ofsted is simultaneously the government’s attack dog and lapdog leaves the progressive teacher in a quandary. Does she abandon teaching for the quieter and more gentile life of the consultant or teacher trainer? Does she abandon the state system and go to an enlightened international school abroad? Or does she stay and fight for her ideals about teaching ‘disadvantaged’ students in the knowledge that bullies never win in the end?