Forgive them, Ofsted gods

3rd February 2012 at 00:00

Well, didn't the recent TES article about techniques schools use to cheat Ofsted cause a kerfuffle. Giving difficult children bribes to truant, hiring quality artwork displays, telling less-than-top-notch teachers to take sick leave, bringing in an advanced skills teacher for the duration of an inspection ...

The national press loved it, of course. After all, who's interested in knowing that the vast majority of teachers work exceptionally hard under increasingly trying conditions? It's more interesting to tell the world how good old Ofsted, that bastion of inspection integrity and fairness, is trying to raise educational standards in the face of frustration from these devious, conniving teachers.

Some information came from TES forums, and since teachers have a sense of fun, it's likely a bit of embroidery went on. Nevertheless, there's rarely smoke without fire and I know from discussions with colleagues that schools use all sorts of tricks to appease the Great God Ofsted. And it's not hard to see why.

What happens when the inspection call comes? As a booklet circulated by one local education authority's headteacher association put it: "However well prepared you are, your stomach will turn a somersault, your brain will instantly remember all the things that aren't up to date because you've spent time dealing with those funny little things called children, and your heart will thump mercilessly with fear."

The booklet was meant to be amusingly helpful, but I don't imagine many heads were laughing. Fear? Unless you're the sort of head who swans off on courses every five minutes and your school is sliding down the tubes, should the call really engender fear? Then you tell your staff, who will sense your panic and spend the weekend beavering away in their classrooms, dawn until midnight, checking that every possible faultline has been sealed and worrying about any that haven't. Throughout the inspection days, everyone survives on adrenaline.

Years ago, pre-Ofsted, schools were inspected very differently. Usually, inspectors from the local authority would visit at least twice a year. They would have a thorough working knowledge of the locality and its problems, they would get to know you and your school quickly, and they would be able to offer help and advice. Quite often, they would be able to organise a little extra funding, especially for new heads. Because they knew the schools on their patch well, they could point less experienced heads in the direction of a highly able colleague in a nearby school. Best of all, they had a personal interest in seeing the school do well and they were invariably encouraging and supportive.

The rationale for Ofsted borders on the insane. Create a system that inspects every school in exactly the same way. Use inspectors who might not have been teaching for years. Allow people who've only had secondary school experience to inspect the under-fives. Let retirees from other professions inspect schools after a couple of weeks' training. Judge a school on a mass of unreliable data. And if a school is found wanting, hound it to pieces. Is it any surprise that so many good, child-centred teachers have been driven from the profession?

And is it any wonder that real anger has motivated many schools to employ whatever means they can to survive this aggressive and demoralising method of inspection?

Mike Kent is a retired primary headteacher. Email mikejkent@aol.com.

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