A new accusation being made against Ofsted is that “superhead” Rachel de Souza’s Inspiration Trust academies knew in advance when its inspectors were coming. She denies the allegation. If you take the view that public servants are generally honest and motivated by doing good, then you may be untroubled by the revelation, irrespective of whether this particular public servant is admired by Michael Gove, who once said he would like to “clone” her 23,000 times (once for every state school).
To be notified that your inspection is “bound to be this term” is clearly less helpful than “your Ofsted inspection will be on this date in three weeks”. For practical purposes those things may not be wildly different. Perhaps being given a specific date could yield advantages that only those in the system would know.
What I find much more interesting about suspicion of the inspection system is not whether it’s founded, but the fact that it is so widely held. I have lost count of the number of teachers and local politicians (of all three main parties) who are dubious about the Ofsted “outstanding” granted to an academy, when the LEA-maintained school down the road is known to be better but only got a “good”.
There is so much riding on academisation as a policy and so much misinformation given as fact by government ministers, that people expect the system to be bent.
Some academy chains are better than the local alternatives and some are worse. A minister, looking at this evidence, could just as well claim that academisation was destroying education as that it were an improvement. A neutral process would say the picture is mixed. However, since neutrality is lacking, those closest to the coalface find it hard to trust government sources and hard to trust Ofsted, especially as its top job has become a political appointment. They therefore also find it hard to trust the impartiality of Ofsted’s findings.
A deeper problem predates this government, indeed, predates the roll-out of academies. The deeper problem is that measuring schools in this way was a stupid idea in the first place. Methodologically, the process is specious. None of the words mean what they say they mean. “Outstanding” means “everyone should be this”, and “good” means “no better than you ought to be”. Everything below that means, “awful, why don’t you just go and shoot yourself?” Gove thought that it was possible – indeed reasonable – to expect every school to be above average. The discourse trades in the principles of motivational speaking and sales-team away-days: always be closing (improving); to be the best, beat the rest.
An anonymous education writer (now a teacher, previously at the Department for Education under Labour), called DisIdealist, points out two problems: first, children don’t learn in straight lines, at a fixed pace. Learning is more of a mountain path. And second, there is more difference within schools than between them. If true, these things shoot a hole through the bow of a system built on getting the greatest number of kids the highest possible grade.
A really good school would have the flexibility to deal differently with different pupils, at different times in their educational development. Eventually, the only schools with the freedom to do this will be private schools. The day will arrive when they are genuinely educationally superior, rather than just full of richer pupils and more fragile teachers.
The data on secondary schools is pretty plain: you are more likely to get an Ofsted “outstanding” if you start off with very able pupils. Trevor Burton, the headteacher at Millthorpe school in York, calls this, among other things, an “anti-Matthew effect”: Ofsted expects more from those who have less to start with.
I doubt it is deliberate: it is just one of the consequences of a childish system. As Jeremy Gilbert and Mark Fisher describe in a new paper,Reclaim Modernity, Ofsted is what happens when, as a parent, you want to delegate all responsibility for your child’s education to an institution but you don’t want to trust the institution. Get someone to watch the watchers. But what can they really tell you, with their charts and unconscious bias and corrupted language? Not as much as you could find out for yourself if you were prepared to deploy and then believe in your own judgment.
Ofsted is a corporate concept in the sense that everything is driven by competition and competition can only be fostered in a world of constant measurement. In fact, almost no multinational would consider ranking its staff and subsidiaries this way for fear of destroying morale. Ofsted’s system is not even a proper rendition of private sector values, just a perversion of them.
Gove’s desire to clone De Souza belongs even more plainly in the world of the MBA. Parachute in an expert to knock everyone into shape and, crucially, make those experts identical; because, of course, there is no real difference between one school’s needs and another’s, one pupil and another, one teacher and another. It’s a contradiction: individuality for the “superheads”, whose distinction is everything, but homogeneity for everyone else.
Our problem is the fact that the entire culture – targets and terror, name and shame, compete and count – discourages what education thrives upon: trust, cooperation, participation. This slavish respect for a handful of experts is as preposterous as the multimillion-pound salary of a CEO: even the best of them, even if they’re honest, cannot deliver.