Editorial - No nonsense, no notice, but no trust either

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Response to Ofsted's 'dawn raid' lays bare inspectorate's fractured relationships

If it's good enough for the police, customs and excise and the dope detectors who caught Dwain Chambers, it's good enough for Ofsted. We are talking dawn raids: no-notice, no-nonsense, random inspections (page 1). Coached staff, bribed children or hastily decorated classrooms will be no match for the unannounced inspector.

Unions protest that treating teachers as one would thieves, tax evaders and cheats is not only immoral but stressful and daft - the suspects may not be present. Ofsted could retort that advance warning has all too often led to skulduggery and that good schools should provide excellent teaching every day, not only when the inspector calls.

Both sides miss the point. The meaningful question is not, is this a sensible tactic? Rather, we need to ask what the resulting hullabaloo says about the contested and unsettled role of Ofsted itself. What is it for? Is it there to act as a watchdog for parents and politicians or as a pastor to the profession? Is it there to bite or to advise, to blame or to encourage? The inconvenient answer is that it has to do both. In its various guises since the Second World War, the inspectorate has at times nurtured the profession and held it accountable. It has never done both equally well simultaneously. To be truly successful, Ofsted has to reassure the public without undermining teachers.

This involves a bargain. At some point, politicians and the public have to accept that a first-class education system cannot be attained by demoralising and distrusting those charged with delivering it. To paraphrase Eisenhower, you don't get people to go where you want them to go by beating them over the head. That's assault, not leadership.

It should not be difficult to accept that teachers tend to know more about teaching than anyone else. As one wise education secretary famously said, politicians know "nowt". Journalists and most parents know less. Chefs would accept closure of their restaurants if cockroaches infested the kitchen. But they would surely protest if food inspectors turned away diners because the pork lacked thyme or the tablecloths clashed with the napkins. Ofsted should be far less prescriptive about what constitutes good teaching. One size does not fit all. An open mind would be more appropriate than a checklist; a sense of proportion more apposite than a kerfuffle over HR procedures or misplaced filing.

In return, teachers have to accept that society has a right to hold its schools and the people who work in them accountable. They must accept that that process, even if informed by the profession, should be external and at times uncomfortable. Arguably, the relationship between teachers and the inspectorate pre-Ofsted was too cosy. A word in certain ears and a nudge in the right direction were hardly adequate responses to persistent failure.

The distrust displayed over no-notice inspections is more revealing than the policy itself. The fractured relationship it betrays cannot be good for the public or teachers. We could do better.

Gerard Kelly, Editor, E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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