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Ofsted vs English education

26 January 2014

The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, believes that supporters of Michael Gove are running a ‘dirty tricks campaign’ against him. In the Sunday Times, Sir Michael claimed that his critics were annoyed because Ofsted had criticised two free schools: the Al-Madinah in Derby and the Discovery New School in West Sussex.

Civitas, the think tank of which I am director, is one of two think tanks whose criticisms he seems to have taken very personally. In reality (naively, it now seems) we were carrying out our study in the belief that Sir Michael had a philosophically similar view  and that he was struggling to change Ofsted’s direction because so many of its inspectors were committed to the now-discredited child-led methods of the 1960s and hostile to more-modern teacher-led approaches.

During Sir Michael’s outburst he claimed that Ofsted was the chief protector of education standards and that recent criticism was undermining its authority. He went on to say that  ‘extreme educational philosophies’ had no place in modern schools. And he used decades-old caricatures of teacher-led education. He suggested that some of his critics want  ‘children to be lectured for six hours a day in serried ranks’. Such ‘rote learning’, he mused, would not produce successful learners who can think for themselves.

But it is common ground that a good school should aim for children to be able to think for themselves. The dispute that seems to have so angered him is about the best way of encouraging independent thought. Ofsted is under criticism not for being too rigorous in maintaining standards, but for failing to achieve its primary purpose. Sir Michael made the extraordinary claim that: ‘We have done more to raise standards in 21 years of existence than any other organisation.’ His contention suggests a refusal to accept any criticism. In truth, Ofsted was silent during the years when education achievements were falling while the exam results appeared to show rising standards. Ofsted said nothing when exams were being watered down and when the results were being ‘gamed’ in the fifteen years up to 2010. Its silence allowed the public to go on being deceived and many of the officials from that era are still there.

In addition, Sir Michael showed hints of the insolence of the bureaucratic monopolist who will brook no criticism when he said:

‘I am not having government or anyone else tell inspectors what they should assess as good teaching.’

If schools are to be given ‘feedback’ and held to account, should Ofsted not do the same?

Sir Michael’s claim that the Civitas study was inspired by Ofsted’s criticism of two free schools is simply incorrect. Criticism of the two schools came to a head in November and December 2013, but our proposal to create a separate inspectorate for free schools and academies was first put forward at a conference of free schools last June. And we had first published a criticism of Ofsted much earlier in 2006, under the heading ‘Inspection, Inspection, Inspection: How Ofsted Crushes Independent Schools and Independent Teachers’. It was followed by a second study, ‘Inspecting the Inspectorate’ in 2008.

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So what’s bothering us? That at least a third of children in successive year groups have been under-performing in recent years. They tend to be children who come from disadvantaged homes and their best chance of success is go to a school that will take them to new realms of understanding outside their day-to-day experience. That means that schools should be teacher-led (As opposed to schools under bureaucratic control of local government).

Free schools and academies were introduced to encourage innovation, and it is Civitas’  contention that this independence is being undermined by Ofsted. We see three problems.

1) Ofsted’s ethos is still influenced by the desire to enforce compliance with centrally-imposed targets, rather than to encourage the professional development of school leaders and teachers. Ofsted may be under the control of Sir Michael, a former head teacher thought to be in favour of free schools and academies. But many of its inspectors are still enforcing the doctrines they learned under the compliance regime of the Blair/Brown era.

2) Ofsted’s imposition of standards is erratic and often varies with the personal tastes of individual inspectors. The style of inspection should be more about senior teachers giving professional advice to colleagues than grading schools. It’s true that it can be useful to have an agency that says when a school is so inadequate that it ought to be subject to special measures, but Ofsted’s ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ and ‘requires improvement’ categories are too subjective to be of real value.

3) Ofsted’s approach is based on a narrow theory of human nature, which assumes that individuals are self-serving and must be motivated by external sticks and carrots. The rival view is that we are all guided by conscience and are, therefore, capable of self-motivation. In schools, ethical conduct is best achieved when teachers identify themselves with the moral obligation to do the right thing for their pupils. Moral obligations are best reinforced by a shared professional ethos and by the mutual oversight of colleagues. The objective should be continuous personal improvement, rather than public ‘naming and shaming’.

Here’s an example. Ofsted’s top two classifications are ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’. One free school was recently given ‘outstanding’ for ‘leadership and management’, ‘behaviour and safety’, and ‘pupil achievement’, but only ‘good’ for the quality of its teaching. When the head asked the inspector why, he was told that some of the teaching was ‘too didactic’. Whole-class teaching was frowned on before 2010, but it is no longer supposed to be an Ofsted-proscribed activity. And yet, the Ofsted inspector was enforcing the theory that lessons should be pupil initiated and not teacher led.

During teacher training, this doctrine is often encapsulated by the rule of thumb that lessons should be 10% the teacher and 90% the pupils. Good teachers, however, may well need to talk to the whole class for much of the lesson, perhaps in order to explain something in two or three different ways, to get through to all the children so that they can go on to work independently. With a class of 30, there isn’t time to give one-to-one attention to more than a few pupils and many teachers recognise that whole-class explanation is an unavoidable necessity for empowering children to think for themselves.

For the last 30 years the state school system has failed miserably to serve the interests of children from disadvantaged homes. That’s why free schools were introduced: to make sure that everyone gets a fighting chance. To break out of this cycle, schools need to help children reach beyond their everyday lives, which implies teachers imparting knowledge that children don’t have and would never encounter. This activist approach is based on the belief that teachers are custodians of the best interests of children.

Teaching is a vocation. The teacher’s role is not to facilitate learning defined or initiated by the children themselves – because they think it’s interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about. If pupils come from homes with lots of books and computers and educated parents, they may get enough help to overcome the inadequacies of a bad school. But if they rely almost entirely on the school for knowledge and skills, they will fall behind and stay there.

A well-run school, even when children are drawn primarily from poor backgrounds, can make a vast difference. It is why free schools should be allowed to innovate without Ofsted imposing failed doctrines.

Ofsted is feared by schools, but not so much because they don’t want their underperformance to be exposed. Rather, it is because Ofsted’s power is unpredictable. Sir Michael  has made speeches that seem  supportive of teacher-initiated learning and some inspectors share his views. But many do not. As a result, schools can’t be sure what to expect. Ofsted’s classification is arbitrary. Often judgements depend on the subjective beliefs of individual inspectors. As a result, schools have become ultra-cautious – and the result is something that doesn’t help pupils, or society: a belief, in schools, that it’s safer to go along with the shibboleths of the last 30 years than to innovate.

Dr David G. Green is Director of Civitas.

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Show comments
  • Antony Bridge

    Inspection is too often the luck of the draw in terms of the quality and personal whims of the inspectors, particularly at primary level. HMI are usually excellent. Wilshaw talks tough on standards and behaviour but his inspectors come down hard on schools that exclude pupils and through pupil voice and parent voice and the associated customer satisfaction surveys, he requires school to treat pupils and parents as customers. This might work in the leafy suburbs but the battle to raise standards in disadvantaged areas is with the people he expects us to treat as customers. And he talks of Ofsted being undermined.
    Gove is similarly watering down standards in our universities with this notion of customer service. Lecturers used to set the standard and students had to meet those standards. Through the universities customer satisfaction survey, lecturers have to meet the standards of the students (students rate individual members of staff); staff are rated for spoon feeding, abolishing exams and rigour, reducing the amount of time required to satisfactorily pass a module and watering down the curriculum to get rid of the difficult and boring stuff (how many IT based design and computer gaming / graphics degrees took out maths from the curriculum?). HE is about bums on seats, high pass rates and good scores in the student satisfaction survey.
    We have a generation of over-certified, under-educated young men and women, many of whom lack the self discipline, responsibility, resilience and motivation to perform in the workplace in a role other than customer and critical consumer. Is it any wonder that employers organisations are so disappointed? Well done the two Michaels. We just need a third Michael now, the mouse, then we could truly say that we really do have Mickey Mouse team running the show.

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  • Kooljeff

    It is so obvious that the attack on Ofsted comes after they criticised schools that Gove and the ultra-right wing think tanks like Civitas adore. To them it doesn’t matter if the schools are run by embezzlers or Jihadists – mustn’t get in the way of Tory ideology.. All the time they were delivering bad reports and character assassination of teachers of State schools Ofsted could do no wrong. Green is advocating lecturing kids for 8 hours, making them learn by rote, with just enough education to be slave-fodder for Big Business Nothing about expanding horizons. Just cram them full of facts and figures so they can be semi-educated slaves to be exploited.

  • arnoldo87

    Why is it a good idea to have a separate inspectorate for free schools and academies? Surely we need a common standard to be applied to both, which won’t be possible with separation.

  • Mr Creosote

    Dr Green is right to allude to Wilshaw’s “carrot and stick approach” – trouble is, the reality is all stick and no carrot. In the early Years sector he has also forgotten the 4th classification of “inadequate” – a classification that produces immense reputational and commercial damage and can lead to closure resulting from one of their duff inspections – to which there is no appeal.

  • Mr Creosote

    “In addition, Sir Michael showed hints of the insolence of the bureaucratic monopolist who will brook no criticism…”

    Didn’t you know all Ofsted Inspectors are infallible?!

    This is clearly demonstrated by my FoI request asking for the number of Early Years inspection grades that had been changed after recipients had followed Ofsted’s 3 stage appeal process – answer, around half of 1%.

    When asked why the appeal process had a 99.4% failure rate an Ofsted Director responded that this demonstrated the “robustness of their inspection regime”!!

  • Fergus Pickering

    I believe Mr Gove has poured oil on these troubled waters and the ruffled Sir Michael Shortfuse now feels better. Another win for our charming Education Secretary!

    • Kooljeff

      How brown is your nose.???

      • Fergus Pickering

        That comment is way above my head.I am not employed by Mr Gove. I do not know Mr Gove. And I have no desire for advancement in the conservative party.He is witty and I think he does have charm, partly because he does not have an inflated idea of his abilities. Fat Balls take note.

  • swatnan

    The trouble with Ofsted these days and Gove is that both regard Education as being a commodity like coffee or tea or sugar, to be traded in the Market. But Education is not like that, at all; it is more a passion and a vocation and life changing developmental process, and it is continuous. You don’t stop being educated when you leave school at 16 or HE at 21.We need a more progressive SoS at Education than Gove.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Like silly Tristram?

      • swatnan

        You can’t get any better than a kwikfit fitter.

  • McRobbie

    Ofsteds overpaid boss does come over a bit petulant…”oh my dear how dare anyone disagree with me”. The facts are plain, the standard of our education is falling and failing and Ofsted are there to maintain standards. They, and therefore their boss, are doing something wrong and to stand there and pontificate about how they have raised standards over the years suggests to me they / he is living in some parallel universe…as many teachers do.

  • telemachus

    In no place in this diatribe do we hear that the attempted assassination of Ofstead is not at the behest of Gove whose agenda in educational social Darwinism it so clearly supports

  • James Wilding

    What an extraordinarily ignorant article this is. Managing school-based gtp and gtp training through a variety of providers for 25 years I have never read or heard a 90/10 split advocated. But there is so much more in here that’s ghastly, not least the upper school bias and commentary. Teachers talking at children in three different ways to explain things – imagine that with year 4. Ofsted crushing independent schools means what when the largest % by far of independent schools aren’t even inspected by Ofsted. The last 25 years of education has seen our state education run ragged by ill-informed political intervention without associated research backing up the choices made. I accept there are some poor schools not getting better, but don’t confuse those with the substantial majority who have got their act together.

    • telemachus

      The more I read it the more extraordinary it seems
      Point 3 is quite plainly ridiculous
      In a world where all institutions were led by able Heads like Pat Davies it might be possible to take the logical extent of this
      However in an imperfect world of well led and indifferently led schools and well motivated job satisfied teachers and the reverse you need a robust universal system of quality control distant from political interference and party political dogma
      When Gove is thrown out of office we will look back and see failures in this area one of his greatest crimes

      • Fergus Pickering

        Will no-one support Dr Green? I will. I would have thought most of his points were obvious and incontrovertible. We can ignore telemachus’s three posts whoever is actually reading his script today. I think we can take it that the director of Civitas is not trying to assassinate Ofsted at the behest of Michael Gove. Simply asserting that Civitas is biased and its Director dishonest is not enough. Dr Green gets my vote. Sir Michael comes over as a cross apparatchik. .

    • FF42

      It’s the old maxim. If you can, teach. If you can’t, inspect. If you haven’t a clue, concoct policy.

  • James Williams

    “During teacher training, this doctrine is often encapsulated by the rule of thumb that lessons should be 10% the teacher and 90% the pupils.”

    I have worked in teacher training for nearly 20 years and I have never advocated such a silly notion, neither have I observed such nonsense in the various other ITE providers I have examined or worked with. I am assuming that this statement is backed with some empirical evidence or is it just hearsay and anecdote?

    • monty61

      Yes but never let the facts get in the way of an ideologically consistent opinion.

    • telemachus

      This is a politically inspired post
      The hand of Gove is imprinted all over it

      • Colonel Mustard

        All your posts are politically inspired with the hand of Stalin all over them.

    • Colonel Mustard
      • AHE

        Not a teacher’s blog – a Civitas researcher’s blog – strange it agrees with the Civitas director’s article above ! :)

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