They should just admit it: school leaders have an Ofsted fetish.
Recently, I was delighted to discover that my school had a present for me. To be honest, it wasn’t just for me. It was, in fact, for all the teaching staff.
No, before you say it, it wasn’t an extra hour of PPA. It wasn’t an extra teaching assistant, to help with that class who just won’t do as they’re asked. And it sure as hell wasn’t a pat on the back to say, “Well done, you’re doing a great job.”
It was a mock “deep dive”: an Ofstedesque deconstruction and analysis of departments’ curriculums.
Intended to help
But it’s OK. Honestly, it is. Because these deep dives are, apparently, intended to help rather than reprove. This is according to the deputy CEO of our trust, anyway.
“All the schools and departments in the trust are having them,” he said on his once-termly visit to our school. “It’s a trust-wide initiative” – as if this is somehow supposed to put our minds at rest.
Now, I’m not usually a cynic – though, heaven knows, I’ve been at this game long enough to be one. But this announcement drew every inch of cynicism out of the tiniest recesses of my brain and laid them bare, for all to see.
It hasn’t taken long: Ofsted’s new rhetoric has seeped in to the school’s corridors.
The guard has changed. Terms such as “British values”, “numeracy in every lesson” and “a culture of high expectations” are marching towards the car park, saluting “cultural capital”, “curriculum intent” and, of course, the fabled deep dive on their way past.
We’ve gone from the age of foolishness to the epoch of disbelief.
Teaching children, not Ofsted
Not three months ago, I sat in an Inset session and senior leaders and trust representatives told us with the air of Dickensian caricatures, that “this is not Ofsted’s school”, and: “We teach for children, not Ofsted.”
Yet these deep dives have the pervasive stench of a “mocksted”: something Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman says should absolutely not be happening.
This heavy-handed approach of adopting Ofsted or the DfE’s buzzword discourse and mirroring their practices is nothing new.
When the Cameron administration announced they’d be rolling out more rigorous and challenging GCSEs, what was the reaction? The three-year GCSE. Who remembers, or even still has to endure that one? Thanks, Gove.
What was the next logical step after this? Oh yes: teaching GCSE skills and questions as far down as Year 7. Yeah, that did – and does – actually happen.
But these blunt-instrument approaches don’t come from a position of malice or disdain for teaching staff. They’re just symptomatic of wider problems.
They’re born of fear. A fear that the school will be slapped with a label of "inadequate". A fear that this will cost people their jobs. A fear for which Ofsted must take the bulk of the blame.
An Ofsted fetish
Ofsted are trying to change, they really are. This new framework was an opportunity to start afresh and lose the bands that have tied the teaching process to Ofsted dogma for far too long.
But still, true to form, school leaders are once again reverting to the heavy-handed approach that increases workload, stress and anxiety. They should just admit it: they have an Ofsted fetish.
Immediately after the mock deep-dive announcement, conversations began about whether teachers should just resign there and then, about whether we’d be publicly deconstructed for not marking our books for the fifth time in as many lessons.
We began wondering whether we’d been adhering adequately enough to the non-negotiables introduced by the trust CEO at the beginning of the year. A policy to “meet, greet, stand and seat” was one of them. It rhymes, so it must be good.
There were teachers queuing out the door, books piled high, ready to give a quick “tick and flick” to show how hard they’ve been working. It was chaos. A total mass panic.
I don’t have a problem with school leaders wanting to quality assure their curriculum. My problem is the speed with which they adopt – or attempt to adopt – Ofsted’s processes.
If mock deep dives were being genuinely carried out for the benefit of the children we teach, they would have been done consistently across the education sector before the term even left Ofsted’s mouths.
But, until the education sector stops dancing to Ofsted’s tune – or until Ofsted stops existing – this will go on ad infinitum. It will not change.
Schools will continue to anticipate Ofsted visits, leaders will still perform mocksteds – whether they call them that or not – and Ofsted’s rhetoric will still become part of the everyday education vernacular.
It just seems we are caught up in a perpetual cycle of self-punishment.
For me, Edmund Blackadder neatly summed up the contemporary education system when he said: “The eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr Brain has long since departed.”
Paul Judge is a secondary teacher working in the North East of England