Is Ofsted on the cusp of its very own 'Ratner moment'?

27th January 2014 at 10:00


Dave Harris*, a senior teacher educator, writes:
Gerald Ratner ruined his Jewellery business in 1991 by admitting his goods were "crap". His shop’s gold earrings, he said, were "cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich, but probably wouldn’t last as long". Ratner became a tainted brand and never recovered. Such a gaffe is termed ‘doing a Ratner’.
Sir Michael Wilshaw is reportedly "spitting blood" at the comments of the right-wing think tanks Policy Exchange and Civitas, which suggested that Ofsted favours "child-centred" teaching and is far too "progressive" in its outlook.
Sir Michael has not quite ‘done a Ratner’ (yet), but the question remains, is Ofsted a tainted brand? His organisation is being attacked from the political left and right. He can’t convey his ‘brand message’ clearly, evidenced by this recent rebuke to inspectors: “I still see inspection reports, occasionally from HMI, which… irritatingly, give the impression that we are still telling teachers how to teach.” Six Ofsted reports were altered after publication this January to remove or change comments related to teaching style as a result. There’s so much confusion and misinformation that the classroom teacher has little to no chance of satisfying the spurious demands cited as what Ofsted want.
All children must show progress every 20 minutes, teacher talk should be no more than three in every 20 minutes, all pupils must show evidence of independent learning, there isn’t enough group/collaborative work taking place, no worksheets; only textbooks, no textbooks; only worksheets. Any sane teacher would be driven to a nervous breakdown when faced with such demands. 
The Ofsted brand is in big trouble, but one thing is certain. Teachers fear it. Tension runs high as senior managers wait for the call. Schools regularly run “mocksteds” and good teachers who don’t conform to some crazy ideal thought up by frightened managers (often informed by myth) are being pilloried and hounded – sometimes to the extent of leaving the profession.
The whole purpose of Ofsted, it seems, is not about supportive feedback and school improvement. It’s about judging quality and determining the worth of a school and its teachers. In effect, it’s become a privatisation tool. Ofsted scours the country for underperforming ‘business opportunities’ that can be taken over by academy chains using taxpayer money. It’s become an asset stripper’s scout, stripping the assets from local authorities. Ofsted no longer serves the interests of education. It’s a collection of multi-million pound private companies, such as Serco, Tribal and Prospects, vying for lucrative government contracts, much like the academy chains.
What’s particularly worrying, however, is that Sir Michael fails to see the irony of some of his responses to this latest attack. The right-wing critics, he argued in a Sunday Times interview (subscription required), knew little about schools and were peddling "extreme philosophies". Has he stopped to think what Michael Gove and his advisers actually know about schools, teaching or learning? How many of the recent changes in education are linked simply to Gove’s ideological and political goals rather than hard evidence of what works?
But it’s his comment on how his inspectors are treated that’s most deserving of a ‘Ratner’. “I have inspectors in my office in tears because of personal attacks on them.” He says, “they do not deserve this; that is why I am so angry.”
Teacher suicides have been linked to Ofsted inspections and there are many reports of excellent teachers breaking down or having to take time off work with stress-related illnesses because of Ofsted. It’s all well and good Sir Michael dishing out the criticism and telling teachers to "stop moaning", but when he’s the target, he demands an end to it immediately. 
Perhaps Sir Michael should stop moaning – or do a full Ratner and admit that the judgements of his inspectors are, as Professor Robert Coe from Durham University asserts, not valid and do little good, with no firm evidence that they lead to school improvement. If he did do this, it should be enough to kill off the Ofsted brand for good. Though I doubt many teachers would shed a tear.
*David Harris is a pseudonym. The writer works in teacher education in England and has chosen to remain anonymous to avoid his institution being labelled as a hotbed of leftist Trotskyites indoctrinating its students with "useless theory".


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