Watching the Watchmen: The Policy Exchange versus Ofsted

17th March 2014 at 01:11


Think tank Policy Exchange released a report today, Watching the Watchmen, and it's a pretty damning judgement on Ofsted and its methods. Ofsted gets such a kicking in it, even I start to feel like I should root for it, like an underdog – and frankly I've been hazing Her Majesty's Inspectorate so long I'm starting to feel like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.


The PX's Code Red can be summarised as this:


  1. Ofsted needs to be radically overhauled.
  2. All lesson observations should be dropped from the inspection process.
  3. Schools should experience shorter, 'light' touch inspections, with more rigorous processes reserved for schools in difficulty.
  4. 'Radically reduce' the number of inspectors outsourced to private companies.
  5. Compulsory training for all inspectors in data analysis.


As Jonathan Simons, one of the authors, says:


“The quality of our schools is critical to the future prospects of this country. That is why we need an independent schools regulator that inspects all schools freely and fairly. But it is also why we must make sure that the school inspection regime is fit for purpose.

“At the moment a team of external observers watching a handful of lessons can make a judgement on the quality of teaching which trumps the view of the school itself. The evidence suggests that when it comes to relying on judgement of a trained Ofsted inspector on how effective a lesson, you would be better off flipping a coin. 

“More needs to be done to drive up the quality of inspectors. Heads and teachers must feel confident that the person running their eye over their school is a specialist, preferably with recent teaching experience. Inspectors don’t need to be rocket scientists but they must also have the ability to interpret the increasing amounts of data on the performance of schools, and understand the different ways in which schools are now operating. Schools should not be forced to second guess what the inspector coming through the door will be like.”

There's a lot to agree with here. Frankly, compared to some of the blogs that people like myself, Old Andrew and David Didau have written, it's practically a love letter. But it makes many valid points. Michaels Wilshaw and Gove have been hacking at the roots of Ofsted's redwood of adamantine bureaucracy, and Mike Cladingbowl has been reaching out to teachers for their input. But still, Ofsted keeps doing what it does, rolling into schools like a Panzer division, pulverising nuance and imaginative leadership or teaching. 


I've coached in many schools over the last six months. The panjandrums of Ofsted say "We don't grade lessons, and schools shouldn't either, in an attempt to emulate us". So why has every school I've been in still do so? Because Ofsted. Because fear. Because in this survival of the fittest, no one wants to relax or take a chance, when taking a chance could mean you get harrowed by a desk jockey who has a hard-on for group work and crypto-psychology.


Cladingbowl et al are working hard to turn the ship. But the wonder is, is it to late to turn? If even Gove and Wilshaw can't do it, can it be done? I doubt it. This giant won't wake up by whispering in its ear. It needs a  sonic boom. It needs Joshua's goddamn trumpet. 


As if by spooky magic, here's what I said about the matter in a blog from last September:


"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?"


Well, it's been six months. The clock is ticking. And every second that passes without reform, children's futures suffer. Tick. Tock. Tick.