Monday 14 March 2016


Ros Asquith cartoon in Education Guardian

Under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative government reorganised the schools inspectorate and instituted OFSTED (now the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) in 1984. An Orwellian moment?

Every state school now faced regular inspection and a public report, on the basis of common criteria that applied to all inspections. In 1988, the National Curriculum was introduced under the terms of the Education Reform Act of that year. The content of what was now taught in schools was standardised across the land enabling assessment of outcomes to be measured and league tables to be compiled to rank schools according to performance.

Almost a generation later, who is still fooling whom? Lies, damned lies and statistics. In fractured times, politicians toss statistical data around like confetti to spin a sense of certainty. We are the ......

objects of manipulation, comforted in insecure times by the illusion of certainty through figures. Meanwhile, academic statisticians who haven't sold their souls must suffer such heartache at the abuse of number-crunching.

Interestingly, the European country with the most impressive record of educational achievement is Finland which has no national inspection framework and lacks a rigid national curriculum (see Reference 74 in my soon-to-be published The Road to Corbyn, as explained in my website). There has been a political agenda in the UK for over half-a-century intent on establishing that schools were not good enough. Much of this agenda is misguided and ignorant. And the so-called solutions have sometimes made things worse as in the case of Ofsted.

In the last two decades of my teaching life, I experienced five Ofsted inspections as a department head in three different Suffolk schools. Did I personally gain fresh insight into my teaching performance? No. Was I judged good enough? Yes. Did the schools learn anything new about what they were doing in the name of education?  Hardly. All three were good schools doing a more than good  enough job in circumstances that were then made more difficult by the intrusion of inspectorate teams aware of their own power and programmed to avoid humility. They had the rules that mattered. We would be judged accordingly. 

Louise and I arrived in St Ives to live in January 2013. Within a few months, the local papers were headlining the news that St Ives School, the town's state secondary school, had failed an Ofsted inspection and been put in 'special measures'. An interim executive head teacher would be 'parachuted' in to put things right. Yet as I read on, I learned that the school had been inspected less than three years earlier in March 2010 and been judged 'good'. And some parents were alleging this new verdict was political, part of a move to direct the school towards becoming another 'academy'.

Knowing the statistical weakness underpinning Ofsted judgements, I thought it more than possible that one relatively weaker cohort of pupils, with lower reading ages than previous cohorts, entering the school five years previously as Year 7s, could have accounted for the decline in GSCE performance that shaped such a negative Ofsted report. But the Ofsted judgement is a snapshot that defies the need for a statistical view over a reasonable length of time to achieve an acceptable measure of validity.

Fast forward six months to February 2014 and the media is reporting that St Ives' secondary school has been lifted out of special measures after one of the fastest turnarounds in Ofsted's history. I read that from April the school is set to become an academy. Ofsted's director in the South West is reported saying: 'There is no political agenda from us in terms of placing more schools  into special measures'. 

Two years later and I am able to savour the joys of a free press. It is March 8 2016 - last Tuesday - and I am reading in the Education section of The Guardian, the whistle-blowing testimony of an Ofsted inspector who recently resigned after refusing to take down a blog when ordered to by his Ofsted superiors. His name is Andrew Morrish. He is CEO and executive head of Victoria Academies Trust in the West Midlands. His new book, The Art of Standing Out, will be published this year. I had never heard of him before this week. I give you some of what I see as key points in his article:

  • 'As an inspector myself for seven years, I lost count of the new and improved Ofsted frameworks we had to get to grips with.
  • 'We'd watch a video of some children in a lesson ... out of 400 or so inspectors, there would be a four-way split on how we'd judge it ... Thankfully, Ofsted eventually saw sense on this and changed its policy, finally realising that what the teaching profession had been saying for years was correct: you cannot judge a school by observing lessons.
  • 'But this surely raises the question: what's the point of visiting a school in the first place? Herein lies the problem with inspection: it's flawed to the point that it is nigh on impossible
  • 'I guarantee that in any inspection, if you repeat it a week later with two different inspectors then the outcome will be different. And given that decisions can rip the heart out of  a local community, inspection at its worst is both cruel and unusual.
  • 'You cannot make a meaningful judgement on how effective a school is by spending a day in it ... Last month Wilshaw (the Ofsted chief inspector) told the education select committee he could tell how good a school  was within half an hour. I don't think that's the best sort of judgement.
  • So please don't tell me that inspection is not flawed. If that were the case, why the continual new frameworks? Why were 40% of the inspection work-force culled last year? More to the point, how many schools have been placed in special measures on the back of reports that were written by this 40%'

Thank you, Andrew Morrish, for lifting the veil. Ofsted is unrobed.

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