Reform the Death Star of Ofsted, or it's time to blow it up.

22nd September 2013 at 18:23


It was a year ago, at the London Festival of Education, that I listened to Michael Wilshaw, the Commissar of Ofsted, promise a packed room that from then on, the inspectors wouldn't be looking for a particular teaching style; that what was sought was, instead, evidence that children were learning, however it happened. The Dementors of recent history, with their prescriptions and prejudices, were to be retrained and taught to smile.


This mattered, because many commentators, myself included had long noted that Ofsted had become a lash and a rack of good teaching, rather than an instrument of accountability. It had gone from microscope to centrifuge; it affected rather than observed the school experiment. Schools had evolved to anticipate its caprices, rather than rely on professional judgement and experience. An industry of consultants sprang up to sate the anxious appetites of school leaders, paid to read the entrails, runes and bones of the Ancient Ones. The great deprofessionalisation of teaching had begun.


True to his word, Wilshaw has harrowed the guidelines into a less prescriptive shape, insisting that teachers would no longer be scored down for failing to satisfy this Shibboleth or that. On paper at least, much has been done.


But ocean liners are not turned so easily, and as writers like Old Andrew have noticed, inspectors are often still reverting to their factory settings of discovery learning, group work, engagement, discussion, thinking skills, learning styles and skills-focused lessons. This is possible because so much in education is an article of debate. As Andrew says, it is not enough that Ofsted inspection guidelines describe what it is permitted to evaluate upon, but also what is forbidden. The difficulty for Wilshaw is watching the watchmen. It's an enormous bureaucracy to transform, and early signs are that the Leviathan is proving hard to bait.


Part of the issue for me has always been the question of evaluating a lesson, then grading that evaluation. If we could harness bullshit as an energy source, we could power a city and use laser cannons to write our names on the Moon, with the evaluations of some inspectors. Let me be quite clear about this: if you want to be able to evaluate if a lesson is good or not, you have to be at least as good as the teacher you're observing. And you have to be familiar with the entire aims of that teacher, the context not only of the class, but the lesson- where the kids have been and where they're going.


Not only that, but you have to be experienced enough to know when a class should be sitting straight and saying nothing, buried in books, and when they should be talking. You need to be aware of the core values that all good teachers live by, and also the million stylistic tics that make every teacher different. When you say to a teacher, 'What you should have done was this,' what you often mean is 'I would have done this.' But that's not what an inspector's for. It would be like one comedian saying, 'Oh I would have cracked this joke, you should have too.' And this is exactly what inspectors are still doing. And why Ofsted is still hurting more than it helps.


Plus there is a greater concern- the quality of the inspectors. While some are, I'm sure, beyond criticism, many appear to be escapees from the profession, either too late in their careers or too early; many of them are steeped in ancient sorcery; some entrenched in awful orthodoxy; they seem to as a profession, attract the kind of people who don't want to be in a classroom. Dodgy consultants and witch doctors, fad chasers and spoon benders, all with one thing in common: they don't teach anymore. Forgive me if I don't fall over my underwear in an attempt to welcome them into my classroom.


The most pernicious myth is that the Ofsted report will somehow suggests a prognosis for repairing or renewing a school that fails the inspection. It does nothing of the sort, nor could it, because most of the inspectors don't know how to turn a school around. Why should they? It's a complex job, beyond all but the most capable of teacher managers. Reports are awful, bet-hedging works of dreadful administrative fiction, always being just vague enough to evade appeal, but specific enough to suggest expertise. They're as helpful as a horoscope. 'Students must be encouraged to learn independently more,' they suggest. 'And your lucky number today is 8.'


If Gove and Wilshaw can't turn the ship, I doubt anyone can. And there's no one on the horizon with the political stomach to do so. So I'm left with one conclusion, and as solutions go, it's a ransom note:


Give it a year- see how much change can happen between now and then, and if schools are still being scourged for not dancing to fashionable dogma that was old when Voyager launched, then detonate the whole machine. In Sanctuary House there must be a keypad ready to receive the launch codes. Blow the whole thing to Hell, and watch it sink into the deep, just in case. Bury Ofsted at the bottom of a mine and barricade the entrance with cautionary signs. If it can't be fixed with the toffee hammer and archeologist's toothbrush of reform, then fix it with dynamite, because it's still being used to hurt the education of children, despite the best of intentions. Then rebuild from the rubble. Build something new. Governments are good at inventing bureaucracies. Go nuts.


It could be done. It wouldn't be the most controversial thing that Gove has done, and few possess his adamantine chutzpah for constant revolution. Certainly, upsetting people doesn't seem to bother him. So why not finish what can't be fixed?


I hope it doesn't come to that. Ofsted could have a role. Schools do need to be inspected, and held accountable. So why not do so, but at the level of leadership and governance? Schools can be assessed on headline results, for instance, and other external performance indicators. They can also be scrutinised for progress, but not, please, using the godawful sorcery of levels, soon to be gone thankfully. Levels are largely made up. They're plucked out of the air, and we call them objective. We produce target grades from them divined from the KS2 levels, some of which are complete fabrications. It's a mess. Let Ofsted scrutinise the school, and let the school scrutinise the teacher. 


I'm asking the Empire to blow up it's own Death Star. But Alderaan is a peaceful planet. Gove has shown he has the balls to give teachers the one thing they truly fear- freedom. But would he be able to do the one thing that most politicians fear- genuinely give power away, deactivate the doomsday device? It's hard to imagine. But things that are hard to imagine are the business of leaders. It'll take balls the size of Banthas to even conceive it, but love him or write turgid open letters to him, balls are the one commodity that Gove packs in paddocks.


I don't want to see Ofsted destroyed. I'd rather it were reformed. Like a pupil I'd rather see them behave than expelled. But it's not a person so I can countenance the death penalty. Reform or die. Light a long fuse. Stand back.