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'Labour or Tory, nothing changes in schools while we still have Ofsted'

The inspection regime traps schools in a state that is half-alive and half-dead - they must break free, says JL Dutaut

Ofsted has schools and teachers trapped in a box like Schrödinger's cat, says JL Dutaut

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger tried to make sense of quantum mechanics with a thought experiment that involved a cat, locked in a box with a Geiger counter and a flask of poison. If the Geiger counter detects radiation, a mechanism is tripped that shatters the vial, exposing the cat to the poison and killing it. Upon opening the box, an observer will find a cat that is either alive or dead. However, for as long as the box remains locked, the cat remains in superposition, neither dead nor alive. It is both alive and dead.

In an Act of Parliament given Royal Assent less than a month before his departure from the Department for Education for the Home Office, Ken Clarke took that thought experiment and applied it to every school in the land. The Education (Schools) Act 1992 created Ofsted and put the education system permanently in a state of superposition. For 27 years and six weeks, no school has ever been better or worse than its last inspection.

What drove the creation of Ofsted was concern in central government circles over the variability and bias of inspection regimes across the country. Specifically, successive education ministers, having been leaked what were then private inspection reports from HMI (inspectors), were worried that inspectors were biased in favour of child-centred, so-called progressive pedagogy and against traditional methods. The Conservative government’s answer was to inspect all schools according to a single framework.

To bring about unity of purpose, Ofsted’s first chief inspector, Stewart Sutherland, hired a firm of quality assessors, Coopers and Lybrand, to inspect the inspectors. Already, teachers complained of box-ticking, trepidation and honing lessons for the inspectors.

Ofsted’s second chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, was more direct in trying to change the culture of the inspectorate – not to make it unbiased, mind you, but to make its bias the diametric opposite. His single biggest doubt about Ofsted, he said, came from the fact that inspectors seemed “unwilling or unable to jettison their progressive educational views.”

Slaves to Ofsted

Woodhead kept his post until the end of his term, despite an incoming New Labour government, but successive chief inspectors over the next decade would increasingly embrace rather than reject progressive ideology.

Meanwhile, schools have continued to feel increasing discomfort in the face of inspection. We are locked in national curriculum-sized boxes, with inspectors as the Geiger counter, a "special measures" judgment as our potential killer. Outside is an unknown observer, who may wish to see us alive or to see us dead, and is guaranteed to find what they’re looking for.

Here we are, after nearly a decade of Conservative-led government, fighting the progressive Blob. Recruitment and retention are at crisis point, teacher and student wellbeing at all-time lows. We have intractable workload problems, a narrowing curriculum, increasing inclusions disproportionately affecting vulnerable students and students from ethnic minorities, and little to show for it by way of improvement in international league tables. Perhaps the latter are part of the problem.

Would things be any different were New Labour still, or back, in power? Perhaps, but not substantially. The numbers might be more favourable, but part of our education system would still be failing – some schools because of a disliked pedagogical approach, others because of the relative level of disadvantage outside their gates. Good teachers would still be leaving, branded square pegs in a system of round holes. Good children would still be failed, their likely outcomes having put them below the threshold that makes them worth investing in. The curriculum might be broadening, but it would only be losing depth by it.

In other words, our schools would still be cats in boxes. The only thing that has changed in the past 30 years of experimentation is the depth and breadth of the box. Nobody has thought to put a window in its side, far less a cat flap. Nobody knows the cat’s opinion and nobody cares. It is, after all, just a cat.

Our problems don’t stem from a lack of evidence-based policy. Education research is a rich field. Nor do they stem from one ideology or another. Traditionalism and progressivism both have evident limitations, as all ideologies do. Much less do they stem from tests, which are a natural part of any education system. Our problems don’t even stem from austerity. They are simply made far, far worse by it.

No, the challenges facing our education system stem from Westminster, and won’t go away until its incumbents reject the notion of standardising education for the sake of chasing the shadow of future economic prosperity. International rankings, after all, are just a proxy measure for exactly that, and while the overall score may increase, so will inequality and injustice.

Our schools are strong enough to prepare young people for economic prosperity and democratic life. Ofsted is not. Our education system is expansive enough to accommodate traditional and progressive methods. Ofsted is not. Our curriculum is wide enough and deep enough to be customised for our students and communities. Ofsted is not. Our tests are rigorous enough to inform policy decisions about support needs. Ofsted is not.

If the problems Ofsted was meant to solve were variability and bias, it has manifestly failed to do so. All its creation has done is hand over control of the variables to political bias. If we want to imagine an alternative to Ofsted, it has to begin with reframing those aspects of school evaluation – its variability and its biases – not as weaknesses, but as strengths.

With regards to bias, different points of view strengthen external review, provided that support, not a summative judgment, is the desired outcome.

In respect of variability, communities and their schools thrive when their uniqueness is celebrated rather than erased.

It’s not hard to imagine an alternative to Ofsted if we take these ideas and build on them. It’s ambitious, but not impossible. Of course, it’s hard to see that when you’re locked in a box with a flask of poison.

Schrodinger’s thought experiment was meant to prove the absurdity of quantum mechanics. Instead, it became the standard example for explaining it. Ken Clarke’s experiment likewise was meant to prove the absurdity of decentralised accountability. One day soon, we will look back on it as the perfect example of why it is both necessary and good.

JL Dutaut is co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers' manifesto (Routledge). He is currently on a career break from teaching to research school accountability systems around the world. He hasn't found one he likes yet, and he doesn't think you would either

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