“…at just this moment it had been announced that Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally. Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”
–George Orwell, 1984
Ignorance is Strength!
Times must be quite desperate when you have to resort to comparing the education establishment to an Orwell novel, but when it comes to OFSTED, there really is no other option than to keep calm, take a glug of Victory gin, and carry on. In the same way that people in Orwell’s dystopian nightmare have to gaze on helplessly as their rulers bend the truth to fit their own means, school leadership teams are at the mercy of the inspectors. Last week Oceania was at war with Eastasia and group work was best practice; this week, Oceania is at war with Eurasia and teacher talk is best practice.
School leaders are afraid to question OFSTED, as we all know, and bow down to their idiosyncratic rule. Everything depends on those all-important inspection reports. Parents look at an OFSTED report when deciding which school to send their precious offspring to. If they aren’t impressed and send little Johnny to the Catholic school down the road instead whilst telling other parents to do the same, eventually, pupil numbers will go down. And we all know that if pupil numbers go down, people’s jobs are at risk. And all of this is owed in part to the number that we get given at the end of a very stressful two day tea party. Under such pressure, Heads are forced to comply with anything the inspectors come up with. They could tell us that 2+2=5 and we would have no choice but to act on it. “Quick, we need to change ALL OF MATHS! Hurry! OFSTED told us to!”
Of course, this will inevitably lead to nonsensical school policies, fads and gimmicks, but I think it raises a rather more troubling issue. Under OFSTED’s rule, governed by whims and guided by the ever changing tides of what supposedly constitutes ‘best practice’, we forget to focus on the objective reality that must exist somewhere in the universe. Instead of looking to answer the question ‘what really is best practice according to the evidence?’ we ask instead ‘what do OFSTED want?’ The presence of OFSTED and the continuance of their increasingly farcical regime mean that we completely sideline truth in favour of a couple of inspectors’ version of reality.
The Good and The Ungood
Of course, you might be lucky when OFSTED pay a visit and be greeted by a fair and decent inspector who recommends that you do sensible things to improve your school, like implement a behaviour policy, for instance. The same inspector might be one of very few that have actually listened to Wilshaw’s advice and don’t favour particular teaching styles over others. This is the dream. In an ideal world, all OFSTED inspectors would be sane and good at giving recommendations that genuinely help to improve the school. In a recent inspection, I had the privilege of meeting one of these sane types, and had a very good experience as a result.
However, as Andrew Old has catalogued at length in his campaign against them, many OFSTED inspectors still aren’t listening to Wilshaw’s claim that they ‘aren’t looking for any particular teaching style’. Many are still praising group work and condemning teacher talk, ignoring the instruction from their almighty leader and demoralising scores of teachers in the process.
So yes, you might be lucky and have a good inspector, but you might be very unlucky and be subjected to the whims of an ‘ungood’ one. For instance, in a previous inspection I met with an inspector who told me that he knows a lesson is outstanding by ‘looking at the students’ eyes’. I kid you not.
Recommendations of Doom
So OFSTED inspectors aren’t doing what Wilshaw is asking them to do. Yeah, yeah, what’s new?
I think there is a deeper issue to tackle here. It doesn’t matter what OFSTED are looking for, good or ungood. At the end of every inspection a list of recommendations is made, and it is the contents of this list that schools will focus all their energies on until the next OFSTED visit. Schools are living in a perpetual state of reaction to the latest OFSTED recommendations. One minute they are being told to introduce more green elephant pedagogy into lessons, so they spend a year leading up to the next visit hammering green elephant pedagogy home in CPD sessions. The next minute a new inspector comes along and the school is told that there is a little too much green elephant pedagogy in lessons, and that some yellow giraffe pedagogy would help students to make more progress. And so the relentless cycle of panicked reaction continues. Yellow Giraffe pedagogy might be a ground breaking, cutting edge approach, or it might be something completely useless and arbitrary. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Whilst we are wasting time trying to do what OFSTED want, we are no closer to answering the question that we probably should be trying to answer: what is the best way to teach? Even if the recommendations they make are sensible, they still become a box to tick. We don’t do what’s sensible because it is sensible: we only do what’s sensible if OFSTED tell us to.
If all that’s required to improve our schools is to listen to an OFSTED inspector, then why bother looking to science for cutting edge research and thinking about the most effective ways to teach?
I was fortunate enough to spend some time working at the DfE this summer. Whilst there, I was delighted to hear so many civil servants talking about ways to get more evidence based practice into schools. They had considered a huge number of barriers: teachers might find research inaccessible, they might not agree with the ethics of RCTs, they might want to engage with it, etc. However, as several teachers I was working with pointed out, one of the biggest barriers is OFSTED. Why bother wasting time investigating the most effective ways to teach if it’s not what the inspector wants to hear. We aren’t being held to account by research, and research won’t impress parents.
Any recommendations that OFSTED make will show up in a school policy shortly after they have left the building, once again demonstrating that we are completely at the mercy of their whims. Schools are afraid to innovate; they can’t possibly deviate from what OFSTED have told them to do for fear of a bad report next time they pop in.
(NB: I’m sure that there are many ‘requiring improvement’ schools out there that do look to research for answers. In such cases, I would say that this is down to good leadership. Many schools have weak leaders who are afraid to be so innovative, making the point about OFSTED’s power still relevant.)
Free at Last!
Once schools have jumped through the many OFSTED hoops: good, ungood or otherwise, the time may come when a school achieves that coveted OFSTED ‘Outstanding’. No doubt that this will lead to a gradual increase in pupil numbers, improved teacher retention rates and better job security. This is the ideal world for schools: to be free from regular inspection and to finally have the space to think. Sounds great! I would like to know how it feels not to be faced with the constant threat of an OFSTED visit and subsequent doom. But is it just me that finds it deeply ironic that in order to achieve freedom we need to hand over all power to OFSTED first?
I guess any pro-OFSTED readers might argue that they are supposed to support us in achieving the outstanding, and that when we reach that point, we no longer need it and so can be trusted to have a bit of freedom. But if you believe that, you’ve probably never been OFSTED-ed.
So what can be done about this? OFSTED recommendations become another box to tick, regardless of how good or bad they are. They hold this power over Head teachers because Heads need to keep their staff in jobs and their schools open. So what to do… do we abolish OFSTED? Do we reform them? Do we appoint a new chief inspector?
Who knows? Maybe they do. After all, they are the only power that does have any influence over schools these days. Their grasp keeps us tightly under control, chaining us to one set of ideas and shielding us from another until the time is right to make a switch. In OFSTED’s world, objective reality is set aside in favour of ever-changing advice. We continue moving up and down the road of distraction as we ignore the path that we should all be travelling down: the long and winding road that leads to truth. Even if we never get there, the pursuit of it has far more value than any other road. But will we ever be able to change course whilst OFSTED still exists?
That remains to be seen.
Who are we at war with again?