A masterpiece of coded codswallop

19th April 1996 at 01:00
To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggety jig. To market, to market, to buy a fat hog. Home again, home again, jiggety jog". This traditional nursery rhyme is a simple tale about buying and selling in the market. They don't write them like that any more.

Well, they do, actually. If you want to read a late 20th-century story about buying and selling in the market that lacks the innocent charm of the fat pig nursery rhyme, then just feast your eyes on this dazzling gem. I shall leave you to guess the context, but the first clue is that it is a letter.

The letter is about tendering arrangements and it begins "Dear Contractor". Any ideas so far? An invitation to Wimpey and Tarmac to bid for a new supermarket perhaps? Not even warm. Read on. I shall delete the giveaway phrases.

"As you may know, we recently invited the market to supply . . ., using competitive tendering." Any clearer? A delivery of widgets? A lorry-load of spigots? A few thousand litres of snake oil? No, still miles away. Try a bit more. In fact try a lot more.

"There was an encouraging response from contractors, but we still have a shortfall". (Surely it must be widgets. They can get terribly scarce at this time of year. No, sorry, have another go.) "We . . . intend to contract directly . . . We have fixed a 'rate for the job', which delivers value for money, which is attractive . . . but which will not disadvantage contractors seeking team members for . . ." (All right, teams of snake oil vendors then. It must be. Not quite, but you are getting warmer). "I hope this letter explains why we have had to take these steps for . . ., and how we intend to manage the process so that the market is not disadvantaged."

Give in? Right, I will tell you. It has nothing to do with spigots, ballbearings, catering-size cans of baked beans, or alternative supplies of gas. It describes the arrangements for school inspections, and it comes from the Office for Standards in Education, so in a way it is about alternative supplies of gas. It sees the world of education not as one inhabited by human beings, but as a market, full of contractors and tenders, grasping whatever loot they can wrest. Bring back the fat pig, jiggety jig. At least it rhymed.

This is only one of four peerless masterpieces about the school inspection market which I have read recently. A second gem from the tireless OFSTED fount describes a set of three-digit codes, each of which gives unsuccessful contractors (oops! slipping into the market jargon) some information about why their tender for a school inspection was rejected. I swear I am making none of this up, by the way. So 365, for example, means "beaten on price", while 366 stands for "well beaten on price". Presumably 399 indicates "absolutely pasted on price, and members of your team smell".

Intriguing codes include 342, "lay inspector(s) overunderloaded" (was their rucksack too heavylight?), and 309 "tender included subjects outside the scope of the inspection". In this last case, presumably the contractor wrote, "We are particularly looking forward to inspecting the mediaeval cosmology and Sanskrit translation courses in this infant school".

A third superlative missive from the OFSTED factory describes the quality control of registered inspectors. The interesting section reads: "We will cease grading registered inspectors. It will be incumbent on us to report on their fitness and competence to remain on the register, but that does not require a five-point grading system" Oh really? Could this letter be from the same OFSTED whose chief inspector Chris Woodhead has just sent out the fourth of the market masterpieces to come my way? This is the letter to headteachers explaining about the reporting on "very good and very poor teachers". Old Wooders is requiring these very same inspectors, who apparently do not themselves require a five-point grading system, to report to the head any teacher who gets a grade 1 or 2, or a grade 6 or 7. According to Wooders this will provide the head "with valuable management information".

Read the shabby, ill-conceived letter about reporting good and poor teachers if you missed it. On as little as two lessons a teacher could be labelled "good" or "bad". The teacher can complain about the inspector's conduct to OFSTED, but not about the professional judgment of inspectors. So you can write in if he breaks wind in mid-lesson, but not if he can't tell a squirrel from a hippopotamus.

If the inspector turns out to be a wally, then you may only complain to the head. You can offer the inspector "exceptional personal reasons" which may have contributed to the quality of the lesson. So you can mention your ailing granny and in-grown toenail, but not point out that the inspector may be a prat.

In theory that sounds fine. After all, OFSTED reports on individuals are only advisory, it is said. But four years later when OFSTED inspectors return, they will, of course, ask the head what has been done about those "bad" teachers, however frail the evidence at the time.

I can foresee nothing but trouble. The right-wing may feel that this is the way to rumble poor teachers. Would that it were. Wait until some traditionalist is given a grade 7 by a trendy inspector for spending too much time on spelling, and the system will not seem quite so apt. Anyone who knows anything about research into classroom skills can forecast what will happen. The lawyers must be rubbing their hands. Bags I the prosecution brief when inspectors are sued for inadequate judgments.

To market, to market, to fail a bad lad. Home again, home again, OFSTED's gone mad.

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