Big Brother's judgment day

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Chris Tipple says the Government's decision to name failing teachers after inspections has seriously sinister implications. In medieval Europe it was witches. In late twentieth century Britain it looks like "failing" teachers. It is well known that highly centralised societies always need to seek out scapegoats for their weaknesses, even if this now means merely professional expulsion rather than extermination. And a highly centralised society we have certainly become.

The fact that we do not have a dictator, nor an institution comparable to the medieval Catholic Church does not diminish the force of centralised power. Nor is it just a feature of the present government, though its long tenure has probably speeded the process up. As a wide range of political and economic commentators have clearly demonstrated, the centralising tendency goes back to at least the beginning of this century. Chiefly attributable to the maintenance of an outdated unwritten constitution, wholly inappropriate to the modern state, it also owes something to the European community, which has removed powers from Whitehall thus creating a vacuum which has been filled by sucking power and responsibilities from a more appropriate local level.

Education is but a part of this process. However it is a crucial part and some manifestations ought to make us very worried. One such is the proposal that from April 22 this year, Office for Standards in Education inspectors will identify failing teachers as part of the school inspection procedure. It ought, perhaps, to be christened "Black Monday".

In a less centralised and more humane state it would simply not be possible for the chief inspector of schools to identify about 15,000 allegedly failing teachers in one breath and then the machinery by which they will be rooted out in another. His efforts would not, moreover, be reinforced by a palpably inaccurate statement from a senior politician that 30,000 schools are failing, so that the whole punitive concept takes on a ghastly inexorability, driven from the centre.

How is this inquisition to be launched? All teachers, be they supply or part-time, are potential victims. Only teachers in training are excused. The draft code of practice governing this issue states that "all teachers must be observed teaching for sufficient time to provide the basis for valid and reliable judgments to be made of the quality of teaching. Some whole lessons should be observed where possible". So, if the inspector is under pressure, presumably selected parts of a few lessons might do. Where the quality of teaching is judged to be grade 7 (very poor) the code suggests that the registered inspector should also observe a lesson by way of "moderation". Can you imagine the scene? Can you imagine the stress and the artificiality of the event?

At the end of the inspection any teacher with a single grade 7 lesson or a grade 1 lesson (astonishingly, it need only be one) is to be informed orally and given a copy of the confidential report to be provided for the head. Interestingly there is not thought to be the need for the registered inspector to carry out a "moderating" lesson inspection where the quality is judged to be grade 1.

At the oral feedback the teachers involved can state their case. The draft code goes on to point out that information about such weak (or good) teachers is confidential to the head to be used as he or she sees fit. It anticipates, however, that it is likely to be shared with governors and explains that it is not to be used in isolation to justify action against a teacher. A teacher who wishes to challenge the judgment can use OFSTED's complaints procedure.

Of course, in practice such a judgment is likely to have a most damaging effect on any teacher and since the whole process has been mounted in order to identify and assist in the removal of allegedly failing teachers, this is not surprising or, one imagines, unacceptable to OFSTED. Moreover the complaints procedure is an internal one in which one part of OFSTED judges the actions of other parts with no external element. Hardly grounds for confidence.

But it is the principles that should concern us, not the details. Of course, children are entitled to the best quality teaching available and improvement is always possible.

It is however most likely to be achieved by support and encouragement, not by pointing to failure. In any case where are all these failing teachers? What have heads, governors, parents and LEAs been doing, or not doing, that has led to their concealment? In fact, in the vast majority of cases they will already be known about and something will already be being done, usually in a supportive way, by one or more of the parties concerned.

It is very hard therefore to avoid the conclusion that this new process is really a lever to get them out quickly rather than, as disingenuously suggested, simply a piece of extra management information gathering.

Second, adding this completely inappropriate function to the OFSTED procedure will vitiate the whole process. Inspectors really will be seen as inquisitors, and with some justification. The mere anticipation of the appearance of a grade 7 lesson will hugely increase existing stress levels, already unacceptably high. Many excellent teachers are far more confident with children than when under the scrutiny of other adults. The identification of any such lessons and individuals will overshadow all else in the outcomes. The many inherent weaknesses of the present model will be severely compounded.

For example, just how valid can such inspectorate judgments be? It would be a brave, not to say foolhardy inspector who made the judgment between a 6 and a 7 on technicalities. So a 7 will be blackboard jungle territory. Is it credible that such lessons can remain undetected until the inspector appears? Surely not. They will be the manifestation of the weaker teacher lacking confidence, one reduced to panic by the intimidating process. Is this how inspection is to contribute to improvement?

Third, notice how central control is to extend to the "how" and not just the "what" of teaching. When Kenneth Baker introduced the national curriculum he placed great store on leaving method free of central interference. But no longer. And while OFSTED's definition of quality is doubtless unexceptionable, who can now guarantee this will always be the case?

Finally, it is but a short step from judging how something is taught to controlling what is taught in those free areas within and beyond the national curriculum. Changing the rules is not at all difficult in the centralist state where anything is immediately possible. Remember how grant-maintained schools were originally to be funded on a "level playing field"? But that has changed. Remember how parental choice was to be central to the process of opting out? Under the "fast track" proposals that changed too. So, the naming of failing teachers on grounds of lesson quality can so easily, in the hands of this or any future government, become a tool for something much more sinister.

The proposals for dealing with failing teachers through OFSTED inspections are bad for the professional standing of teachers, and how that is perceived, bad for the inspection process itself, as a means of improving quality, and bad for a democratic state because of their potential to take us, just a few years late, to Orwell's 1984.

Chris Tipple is director of education for Northumberland, but writes in a personal capacity

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