If Ofsted told us to jump off a cliff, would we?

Ofsted and the DfE give us instructions, and we submissively obey them. Why aren’t we calling them out for their contradictions, asks Mike Fairclough

Cartoon of man in suit, walking off a cliff edge

Isn’t it slightly ironic, listening to Ofsted chastising schools for having narrowed their curriculum?

The inspectorate has said that it will not turn a blind eye to schools where the curriculum is overly focused on English and maths, to the detriment of other subjects. 

And wasn’t it the DfE, under the leadership of Michael Gove, that introduced more challenging tests for English and maths, and which significantly ratcheted up the high-stakes low-trust culture within the education system?

Don’t get me wrong. I would prefer the Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, to her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, any day of the week. 

Balanced and meaningful curriculum

Spielman talks about the teaching profession with great respect. She has focused on a more balanced and meaningful curriculum, and made other necessary reforms to Ofsted. 

In stark contrast, during his tenure as Her Majesty’s chief inspector, Wilshaw stated: “If anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low, you know you are doing something right.” 

He also advocated a fairly Victorian approach to education. 

Gove was equally scathing of the profession at times. Both men were toxic influences on the world of education, as far as I am concerned.

In response to Wilshaw and Gove, many schools narrowed their curriculum, out of fear of the repercussions that they might face in the wake of poor exam results

These were valid fears with real consequences. And they still are. Heads continue to roll when results dip, or when a school fails its Ofsted inspection

However, given that a school can now do badly in an inspection for not having a broad and balanced curriculum (something that I agree with), should we not be highlighting the uncomfortable truth that Ofsted and the DfE actively created the conditions for this? 

And what if (and when) a new draconian chief inspector gets the job? Or a new Michael Gove takes over the reins of the DfE?

Should we all jump in the opposite direction of travel, if commanded to do so? If Ofsted told us to jump off a cliff, would we? 

Sticking to our guns

I began teaching in 1995. I’m now on my 13th secretary of state for education. During my time as a teacher, the UK’s inspectorate has taken various forms and been led in different directions

Each time someone new has taken charge, the education sector has been presented with new and sometimes contradictory commands.

I’m not sure what the solution is, other than to talk about this awkward phenomenon and to remember it for future reference. 

However, I also believe that we should all attempt to cultivate the education reforms that we want to see from within our own schools. To do what we believe, and to stick to our guns, regardless of the latest government directive or focus from Ofsted. 

Strong voices and examples of good practice within the profession do make a difference. We can influence policy and revolutionise education from within. 

Sadly, fear of being reprimanded for not doing as we are told gets in the way of this. 

Of course, none of us would jump off a cliff, if instructed to do so. But we do submissively obey a lot of other instructions that we do not genuinely believe in. 

That’s why calling out Ofsted, education secretaries and the DfE for their contradictions is important. 

Mike Fairclough is headteacher of West Rise primary in East Sussex

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