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In a puff of smoke, school autonomy vanishes

While the DfE straitjackets schools, Ofsted makes them perform tricks – both lead to loss of autonomy, says this teacher

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While the DfE straitjackets schools, Ofsted makes them perform tricks – both lead to loss of autonomy, says this teacher

And so term begins again with the policy of school autonomy still on life support, but getting fewer and fewer visits from its family and friends. For the usual suspects who still care for it, this has been a sad summer. We still haven’t been told what’s ailing it, and by the time we get a diagnosis, it may be too late to save it.

Some accepted its death long ago. They have already begun to forget it. Like the myth of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, some say it never existed – that it was only ever a collective fantasy. A ghost of a policy. Mere rhetoric.

The evidence seems to support them.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of one of the driest summers on record, Ofsted managed to spring a leak. What we learned was that, although straitjacketed by the Department for Education’s accountability system and the Treasury’s ongoing austerity programme, schools would soon be asked to spread their arms wide to show inspectors how broad their curriculum is.

“Oh! And stay balanced as you do it.”

Interestingly, much of the criticism of Ofsted’s leaked plans for its new inspection framework hasn’t come from the teaching profession, but from the DfE itself. As per Hoggart’s Law of the Ridiculous Reverse, which posits that "if the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place", nobody will admit to wanting a narrower and unbalanced curriculum. At least not publicly.

Toxic facts

No, the DfE’s beef with Ofsted isn’t about vision, but about pesky facts. First, that undeniably, on the ground, in real schools across the country, the curriculum is narrowing. Second, that it can only go on narrowing under this government, even if accountability is entirely reimagined.

From the normalisation of the three-year key stage 4 to the pure-and-simple scrapping of creative and expressive arts, from interventions for favoured subjects during less-favoured subjects’ allotted time to artful blocking of GCSE options, myriad ways have been devised to meet government targets.

And to save money.

The DfE can’t be seen to accept these facts. It would be politically toxic. But nor can it maintain any credibility by denying it – not in respect of valuing a broad education, and much less with regard to school autonomy.

Instead, it seems to have made a high-risk play that involves militarising teachers’ now legendary distrust of Ofsted and weaponising the workload issue to force Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools to retreat. In response, chief inspector Amanda Spielman has indicated that she is not for turning.

And yet...

In June, Ms Spielman told the Public Accounts Committee that cuts to Ofsted’s resources have put the school system at higher risk of gaming. By last week, the same Ms Spielman, in response to a report by the same committee, was telling Radio 4's Today programme that Ofsted had found no evidence that budget cuts were harming children’s educational opportunities.

The last comment prompted NEU union general secretary Kevin Courtney to call for Ofsted’s abolition. Notwithstanding the next-level weirdness of seeing the largest teachers’ union siding with a Conservative-led, austerity-defined DfE in a turf war over control of the curriculum – weeks after it announced an insulting and only partly funded pay rise, no less – the very idea entirely exonerates the DfE on the workload issue at this stage, and could leave schools even more vulnerable to all manner of control-freakery.

A focus on mechanisms over causes

If you think the straitjacket feels tight now, wait until the schools commissioners get a hold of us. Because something has to replace Ofsted. Even the most ardent believer in school autonomy must accept the need for accountability.

Yes. If cuts to Ofsted – within the context of a totally gamified education system – have not harmed children’s educational opportunities, then there is surely no stronger argument for the organisation’s rapid and thorough reform. Perhaps even its complete replacement. Or the education system’s. Or both. Likewise if it has failed to see the impact of austerity on schools and classrooms.

This is the same Ofsted that is concerned about off-rolling, illegal exclusions and disappearing children. The same Ofsted that is revising its entire framework to tackle the narrowing curriculum – a problem that it identified! But it is evidently too focused on tackling the mechanisms to ask about the causes.

Yet, read the two headline statements differently and you could easily come to the conclusion that the increased gaming of the system hasn’t harmed children’s educational opportunities. If that is the case, then it is a terrible indictment of our entire education system. Our curriculum is already so narrow, our schools, teachers and students already so devoid of choice and agency, competition already so fierce and inequalities already so ossified that no amount of gaming can make it any worse. Or better.

It is, in fact, a perfect validation of Ms Spielman’s agenda.

Unfortunately, it is far more likely that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is simply playing politics. In mollifying the DfE by providing cover for austerity, she hopes to be given a pass on her new framework. All well and good if the framework has the potential in the long term to expose the effects of DfE policy, but that is highly unlikely.

Instead, a truce will be called between the DfE and the regulator. One will continue to put schools in straitjackets and the other to make them perform tricks.

And schools will dutifully continue to try to emulate the Great Houdini, who, incidentally, didn’t die from an escape act gone awry, but from appendicitis that was diagnosed too late.

As all talk of school autonomy vanishes from political discourse, I can’t help but think that the real escapologist of this story is the Treasury. As The Usual Suspects quote goes: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist.”

JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship, and co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers’ manifesto, published by Routledge

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