Editorial - Woodhead wants Ofsted closed down ..

12th February 2010 at 00:00
... and for once it's hard to disagree with the profession's most vociferous critic

Can you imagine Bill Gates deciding that, all things considered, the world would be a better place without Microsoft? Or Anna Wintour, when she finally surrenders her stilettos to another editor, thinking that fashion would benefit from the absence of Vogue? Or Ken Livingstone concluding that the problem wasn't Boris, London really didn't need an assembly or a mayor?

It isn't often that a former head of an organisation despairs so much of its work that they feel it might as well be abolished. But that is exactly the conclusion that former chief inspector Chris Woodhead has reached about Ofsted (pages 28-30). Now Professor Woodhead's views do not always meet with universal agreement, to put it mildly. However, his dissatisfaction with Ofsted, if not his conclusion, is shared by all the expert commentators we asked about the inspectorate - Tim Brighouse, Chris Keates, John Dunford and Kenny Frederick. If there is one topic guaranteed to unite opinion from libertarian independent school heads to radical union activists it is the perceived inadequacies, injustices and boneheadness of Ofsted.

Some of the complaints levelled at it are unfair; the over-sensitive reaction of professionals who bridle at being shown how they could improve, let alone where they are going wrong. And some of the nostalgia for its predecessor is misplaced - the relationship between schools and local inspectors was too cosy, the inspections too infrequent and the results too patchy. The flak it attracts is not unknown to its sister bodies in Wales and Scotland, which might tempt some to conclude that withering criticism goes with the job; to shrug and move on.

That would be a mistake, because Ofsted has clearly lost the respect of the profession it seeks to regulate. Its zeal for clipboard assessment would embarrass the most evangelical customer services manager. Its multiple, ever-changing objectives are confusing and demoralising. Its subcontracted inspectors lack credibility. Its remit is ridiculous. Its predisposition to distrust is insulting. Its obsession with procedure is mind-numbing. Its deafness to the rhythms that make a school tick is pronounced.

Most tellingly, as 95 per cent of Ofsted's verdicts confirm what the data already says, it is virtually redundant - an expensive folly, obsolete, superfluous, de trop, kaput. Its addiction to data, its mechanistic evaluation of performance has made its work almost entirely doable by machine - HMI, Robot.

What should be done with Ofsted? First, its inspectors have to be trusted and recognised as expert, which means reducing their number to a smaller, well-trained core confident enough to police teaching and stand up to politicians. Second, Ofsted should be reminded that its primary purpose is to make things better - advice and encouragement should leaven the punishment. Finally, it has to accept that a capacity to judge is not the same as the ability to decipher a spreadsheet - it needs more Solomons and fewer jobsworths.

Otherwise, if Ofsted is not reformed, then the profession might conclude that Professor Woodhead is right - it is neither use nor ornament and should be closed.

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

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