Invoking the untrainable Ofsted dragon

New children's laureate Cressida Cowell has talked about the importance of school libraries. But beware the dangers of bringing libraries under Ofsted's remit

school library

It was cheering to read this week that Cressida Cowell, author of the best-selling How to Train Your Dragon series, has been named the new children’s laureate. 

Waterstones' biennial literary honour gives its nominees a platform; invariably, recipients seize the opportunity to exercise their ephemeral influence on education, to promote reading and creative writing and, frequently, to lambast government for squeezing creativity out of schools.

Such high-profile writers, speaking from outside the education system, can shame government for its more negative policy outcomes. According to Tes, Cressida Cowell has “a gigantic to-do list”, including campaigning to make school libraries a statutory requirement. 

Elephant trap

But will even statutory protection ensure that libraries survive and thrive when there’s just not enough money in the system? I doubt it.

One tweet in response to Ms Cowell's statements suggested that school libraries should be specifically part of the Ofsted inspection. Now, as far as I know, Ms Cowell did not make that suggestion, and I won’t put words into her mouth. Nonetheless, using Ofsted as a lever to force schools to do things is an oft-repeated trope: but it’s an elephant-trap that catches many well-meaning agents of change. 

I’m becoming a cracked record on this topic (nice to revive that metaphor, now vinyl’s cool again). But here’s how the trap works. Identify a perceived societal/educational problem. Form an influential pressure-group to demand action. Declare education the best way to change, inform or improve behaviours/outcomes. And, to ensure it happens, oblige schools to adopt the new strategy by getting Ofsted to inspect it. Schools will do it because they can’t risk a poor grading: the stakes are too high. Job done. 

Not the villains

How many times have I written about the unintended swings-and-roundabouts consequences of high-stakes accountability? Schools aren’t the villains here: they’re squeezing or losing their libraries because they haven’t the money for them. If libraries become an Ofsted priority, something else will lose out. Sport, probably.

Sport? Hold on! Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s boss, recently deplored physical education being “squeezed out of the curriculum as a result of funding cuts and excessive focus on exam results”. She’s right: it is. We may rejoice that the HMCI is at last raising funding issues. But surely we must lay the blame for schools’ excessive focus on exam results at her door?

Yes, but it’s an unwished-for, unintended consequence. Her pronouncements frequently suggest that, like many people at Ofsted, she possesses a right-headed view of what a broad and enriching education should be. If I met her in a conference bar (which I won’t, being retired), I’d hope to buy her a drink and have a long and fascinating discussion about the deep and ultimate purposes of education. 

With her, I’d deplore schools responding to the new framework’s focus on curriculum by writing statements of intent (I know about those: for years, regulations have required independent schools to publish largely meaningless curriculum policies that include such specific words as “broad and balanced”, or to risk non-compliance). I’d share her concern about sport being squeezed out. We’d agree on many things.

Blight

But not on the damaging effects of high-stakes inspection. This week, Stephen Petty wrote a wickedly clever Tes piece about the new image of Ofsted inspectors as “deep-sea divers”: “new” Ofsted, he declared, “is still too controlling…and…is still going to grade.” 

The framework may be new, but Ofsted grades retain the potential to blight schools and wreck careers. So long as ‘requires improvement’ judgements bring further pressure rather than support, and few or no additional resources, schools will continue to regard Ofsted as warmly as heretics viewed the Spanish Inquisition. They’ll jump through hoops and perform contortions. They’ll rob Peter to pay Paul. Most (85 per cent, according to ministers) will play the game, survive the experience and emerge ‘good’ or better, which they’ll stick on a banner at the school gate. 

But they won’t necessarily make right, values-based, ethical, visionary educational decisions: not until the policymakers who control our hostile accountability system throw away the stick, reject its destructive side-effects and ponder instead how to design a truly effective carrot.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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