Forget Ofsted. What schools need is AA Gill

7th October 2011 at 01:00

As Sunday Times food critic AA Gill left the River Cafe in Glasbury-on-Wye, he tried to be funny. He said the food was disgusting. Bad joke, wrong place: distraught, the chef punched a (human) dishwasher, and ended up in court. Unsurprisingly, newspaper columns jumped on the story to ask why we need food critics if all they do is stir up trouble.

Gill wrote a piece in defence of his profession: "Our job isn't to be constructive, however much those who have been criticised whine. It is a fact that a collectively robust, unpartisan, argumentative body of critics improves and invigorates the medium it criticises." His robust justification put me in mind of school inspection. Inspection hasn't of itself raised standards in education - teachers and schools do that - but, though we dislike it, it has provided a push in the right direction.

I am in no doubt that it has lost its way now, however. In a fanatical quest for the Holy Grail of accountability, it has become over-complex, bureaucratic, inhuman. The stakes are high - with failure leading to the removal of governing bodies, the sacking of senior staff and school closures - so those on the receiving end have demanded judgments backed by terabytes of data. The result? Ironically, not sophisticated, reasoned findings. Rather, simplistic, formulaic conclusions in the blandest of language.

Such crudity is damaging, and it's spreading. Many heads nowadays define themselves by their school's banal Ofsted judgment. Can you imagine Heston Blumenthal proudly announcing to his clientele that the Fat Duck is "good with outstanding features"? Yet people describe schools in those terms with a straight face. My heart bleeds for them: the hard-earned praise of the "outstanding" label is so paltry, so cold, so grudging.

Such a judgment is almost meaningless, belying the countless human interactions that take place in schools day after day. It studiously ignores the aspirations, the fears, the frustrations and the achievements of individuals in these schools and demeans them by reducing the entire massive undertaking to a single grade. Accountability? Maybe. But does it any longer tell anyone anything useful? No. It's past its sell-by date.

An official inspectorate enforcing the Government's agenda (as it must) demands conformity. It cannot avoid putting pressure, however indirectly, on schools to follow a preferred "best practice" model or agenda. As such, over time it will inevitably negate what the Coalition claims as the benefits of freedoms granted to academies and free schools. It's the nature of the beast.

More broadly, the prevalent model of inspection of public services is under fire at present. In September, the health select committee complained that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) was too busy with paperwork to do enough inspections. Moreover, the recent, high-profile expose of abuse in care homes was achieved, not by the CQC, but by the BBC's Panorama team. And Ofsted itself failed to spot the systemic failure in Haringey that allowed the death of Baby P to occur.

So why don't we look through the telescope the other way and replace a cumbersome inspectorate with the AA Gill model? An experienced, civilised, cultured person, the educational equivalent of a food critic, would simply walk in and get a feel for the place. The report - with no agenda, and unconstrained by pseudo-scientific jargon - would create an elegant and vivid word-painting of the nature, ethos and feel of the school. Yet, if one of David Cameron's allegedly "coasting schools" tried to hide behind merely satisfactory data, a sharp-eyed critic would surely spot it.

I can already hear the screams of outrage at this proposal. "We can't have any old nutter turning up! What about professional expertise? What about objectivity?"

Hold on. What, other than a nutter, is the inspector who fails an otherwise good school because its fence is not high enough? What is professional about a "limiting judgment" that damns a school on a single aspect, however good the rest? And what else but lack of objectivity lies behind a framework driven by government obsessions of the moment? In comparison the school critic would be non-partisan, open-minded, objective - and extremely sharp-eyed, merciless with jargon or flannel. That's the nature of that particular beast.

Seeing through the smokescreens

The Government is obsessed with no-notice inspections. It wants to catch schools unprepared, so they can't ship out the naughty kids for a day or mount elaborate subterfuges to hide their weaknesses. But the inspectorate can't get its machinery rolling quite that easily and it needs the data: thus schools are seldom caught entirely on the hop.

By contrast, AA Gill accepts the reality that a show is put on for him: "The instant I am recognised in a restaurant everything gets worse. The wait between courses gets longer ... the chef goes 'Oh God, we're not serving him that. Make it again' ... Do you really imagine, having done this for two decades, that I don't notice?"

To be fair, there is already an educational equivalent to Michelin. I recently rediscovered the Good Schools Guide. It's grown. The 2011 version is of house-brick weight and costs #163;39.99. Its publishers aren't paying me to say this, but it is attractive and informative. In the manner of a restaurant guide, schools don't pay, but are invited to be included. Contributors, generally ex-heads, visit the schools. (Two years after they last visited me, I'm still portrayed as a recently arrived, noisy but amiable eccentric.) Their stated aims and strengths are critiqued and parental views are discreetly garnered. The result is entertaining, if slightly quirky. Admittedly, it's all a bit cosy, but the picture drawn is nonetheless vivid.

So remove that cosiness. Try my plan. Get the genuinely lone warrior in, the school critic. He arrives, maybe unannounced, maybe not. He samples. He sees through the smokescreens and makes a judgment. He departs. Don't listen to what he says as he leaves: you might be tempted to punch the deputy head. But the printed report will be measured, careful, critical where criticism is due, elegantly phrased, and, well, objective. Is it such a barmy notion after all?

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School. The views expressed here are personal.

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