Dear madam: letters to the editor 15/7/19

In this week's postbag of letters to the editor, Tes readers discuss overhauling Ofsted, a 'toxic' system and exam appeals

Tes Reporter

Tes letters to the editor

John Roberts rightly highlights the commonly ignored yet crucial methodological inadequacy of Ofsted ("An expert look at…whether schools are prepared for Ofsted's new framework", Tes, 5 July) – viz. that Ofsted does not measure school quality; rather, it measures the state schools are in when they know they are being inspected by a punitive organisation with the power to discipline them. The two are entirely different, yet Ofsted hopelessly conflates them, and assumes its judgements to be an objective depiction of a school’s quality. It always has assumed this, and yet its judgements never can be the accurate quality assessments that it erroneously claims them to be.

Last January, in an extraordinary letter to education secretary Damian Hinds, Ofsted head Amanda Spielman urged the government to shut down what she deemed to label as “failing Steiner schools”. England’s hapless Steiner schools are merely the latest victims of Ofsted’s iron fist – and the Steiner movement mustn’t allow itself to be seduced by the predictable Ofsted charm offensive that will doubtless occur following the open letter that 55 educationalists recently sent to Spielman.

A century ago, educationalist Rudolf Steiner himself made an extraordinarily prescient statement, shortly before the founding of the world’s first Steiner school in Stuttgart in September 1919: “The State will tell us how to teach and what results to aim for, and what the State prescribes will be bad. Its targets are the worst ones imaginable, yet it expects to get the best possible results. Today’s politics work in the direction of regimentation, and it will go even further than this in its attempts to make people conform…Institutions like schools will be organised in the most arrogant and unsuitable manner.” Steiner could easily have been speaking about Ofsted and Spielman in relation to their “arrogant” treatment of England’s schools in general. 

Ofsted has a long, disreputable history of bullying and intimidating both schools and teachers. The flagrant abuse that is sanctioned by Ofsted’s structural power has to stop; and the only way of ensuring this is to replace it with a new inspectorate that is empowering, collaborative, and understanding and respectful of pedagogical difference. We are now in the process of founding a new campaign and a movement to bring this about.

Dr Richard House, chartered psychologist, former senior lecturer in education studies 
Dr Rowan Williams, University of Cambridge; former Archbishop of Canterbury
Sir Tim Brighouse, former schools commissioner for London
Dr Simon Boxley, University of Winchester
Emeritus Professor Dave Hill, Anglia Ruskin University
Professor Saville Kushner, Edge Hill University
Professor Marilyn Leask, co-editor since 1994 of Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: a companion to school experience (Routledge)
Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, director of CIRCL, University of Reading
Emeritus Professor Richard Pring, University of Oxford
Professor Diane Reay, University of Cambridge
Dr Leena Helavaara Robertson, Middlesex University London
Emeritus Professor Brian Thorne, University of East Anglia
Emeritus Professor Sally Tomlinson, Goldsmiths, University of London; honorary fellow, University of Oxford
Professor Dave Trotman, Newman University, Birmingham 
Emeritus Professor Tony Watts, OBE, University of Derby

Four years after qualifying as a teacher, I have decided to leave the profession. I love teaching children but the job is unmanageable, vicious and, at times, dull.

The reason I am leaving is that teaching is no longer about teaching. Instead, it is about collecting evidence to prove you have been teaching the dull national curriculum and presenting it in a way that will look good to an Ofsted inspector when they take a cursory glance at your children's books and the accompanying data.

As a result, style has triumphed over substance. Uniform, neat books created in a robotic fashion have beaten spontaneity and creativity into the ground. While bland, carefully contrived fodder is fed daily, the results are neurotically weighed and measured with hands together in prayer, hoping that there has been some measurable progress. Meanwhile, leadership sweat, blame and bully under the pressure. 

It saddens me that a child in my class ultimately has their worth measured by a meaningless test, an outside inspector looking at a score and looking in their book while muttering that it could be neater. 

Teaching has no integrity. The whole system is built on fabricated data about pointless skills. Does anyone care that child A can use a range of conjunctions? If they can, it is because they have been forced to do so in every piece of work since eternity without regard for content and creative freedom. 

People who enjoy collecting/fabricating data on children shouldn't teach them. Teaching should be about immersing children in a rich, creative culture and heritage. Imagine a world where passionate teachers were allowed to teach with passion, able to create a rich and delicious curriculum that would nourish. Almost unnoticed, children would thrive and grow. Only then should we measure. But first of all, we need a measuring stick creative enough for the job. 

I have made friends for life at the schools I have taught in. Bound together through shared stress and trauma, we have supported each other through thick and thin under constant fire from above. 

The job is unmanageable; the system is broken. Teaching is a vicious game; I am choosing not to play – while hoping I've used the semi-colon and dash correctly. This toxic education system has a long half-life. I can't wait until it's out of my system. 

Louise Eatock
By email

A story in The Times on the erratic marking of AQA English Language GCSE reported that, this year, assessment had been “particularly volatile”. This fills me with horror. 

To say that 52-58 per cent of students (according to Ofqual) are likely to get the correct grade is to potentially open the floodgates to schools and parents submitting queries after results.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, may be correct that “exam boards have processes in place to ensure consistency and reliability”, and AQA asserts that it has robust “quality assurance measures” in place, but I’m not convinced.

As a head of department, I have certainly seen erratic results and used the post-results services to query perceived inaccuracies. Few change – although enough do to encourage us to use the costly services.

My recent experience with OCR’s English literature A-level post-results services has demonstrated to me that, if centres are prepared to spend time and money on taking exam boards on and challenging unfair marking of scripts through the hearings process, they are not going to succeed. To admit error at this stage is to call into question the entire marking process.

Worrying times ahead.

Ali Constanti
Head of English at a school in Suffolk

Ann Mroz is right to highlight the plight of “the Forgotten Third” who fail to get a GCSE in English and maths by the age 19 (“We have an education policy vacuum – let’s fill it”, 5 July, free to subscribers). But how far is it a "failure" on their part? How far is it a failure on the part of those who have failed to provide a stimulating, life-relevant curriculum? How far is it a failure on the part of those developing inappropriate assessment systems? And how far is it a failure on the part of those funding and managing provision? 

And, more fundamentally, why are we still perpetuating a system that insists on talking of “passing” and “failing”? Is that a symptom of a failure of imagination and/or a failure to respect those who find our kind of learning difficult and/or irrelevant?

Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria

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