It's all a load of Ofsted

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Ofsted is stunningly good, a shining example to the nation, deeply loved, the greatest success story of the 21st-century, salt of the earth, a comfort to all, a collection of saints, the finest body to be found anywhere in the universe. It's official.

So which bizarre assessor reached this impressive, if somewhat surprising conclusion, one quiet day in the first week in August, when heads and teachers were safely away on holiday, that peak time for serious public debate? Why, none other than Ofsted itself.

The TES headline read "Ofsted gives itself a glowing report". No serious weaknesses, good contribution to school improvement, good value for money, blah blah, glob glob. It was the ultimate in self-evaluation. "We are sensational" signed, Ofsted. The report should have been entitled "Flying Pigs".

As everyone knows, you cannot appeal against Ofsted judgments. Well I will.

I demand a recount. Could this be the same Ofsted that I would like to shut down, or is there perhaps a parallel universe, in which everything is the exact opposite of life on planet Earth? In this alternative mirror-image world, good is bad, high is low, left is right, and Ofsted is bloody brilliant.

Perhaps this reverse Ofsted really is different. When an inspection is announced in the parallel universe, teachers rejoice openly, some weeping with delight, many kissing the feet of inspectors on arrival.

Meanwhile, tell teachers here on planet Earth that Ofsted inspectors are coming and immediately a double line of panic-stricken people forms outside the staff toilets, stretching way out into the school yard.

Teachers who are normally kind and gentle in their daily lives are prepared to kill for a cubicle in these circumstances.

Ofsted does have some positive features, of course. At least there is now a regular cycle of inspection, the framework is published, there are excellent inspectors who have rescued inspection from its inherent flaws, and Mike Tomlinson and David Bell have been good chief inspectors.

What an irony it is that the very organisation supposed to be the official instrument of external assessment, should actually have the right to inspect itself, even in collaboration with an external body. According to the "no appeal" rules, if they say they are good, they must be.

A fair amount of the 180-plus page document is devoted to self-congratulation and self-justification. "The creation of Ofsted was a bold initiative that has come to have a profound effect." Oh yeah? Who says? Er, they do, actually, in the opening sentence of the report's conclusions.

Ofsted is terrific value for money. According to whom, pray? Yup, it's them again, seeing off their critics with an imperious off-drive: "Some commentators perceive inspections as expensive. There are, however, few good comparative benchmarks to support this conclusion". So that's OK then.

Just been charged pound;30,000 by a passing spiv to purchase the Tower of London? Sorry, your judgment that it was a ripoff is wrong, as "there are few comparative benchmarks to support this conclusion". The real question is: how many schools would shell out tens of thousands for that group of people to come and talk Ofstedese, if they didn't have to?

Are teachers apprehensive about Ofsted coming? According to the Flying Pigs report the explanation is simple: "There is evidence, however, of an association between weaker management of institutions and an adverse reaction to inspection by those whom they manage", i.e. any anxiety means the head must be crap.

Inspections have little effect? Easy peasy: "Many institutions . . . do not always follow up or make the best use of inspection findings". So it's obviously your fault.

What stuck most in my throat, however, was the conclusion that Ofsted had no serious weaknesses. Yes you do, Ofsted, you have dozens. Driven by profit-making businesses, your pattern has to be simplified and sanitised, so it is mechanical and formulaic, too dependent on the varying quality of inspection teams.

No one in their right mind would try anything novel: play it safe, is the rule. To counter this criticism, an inspector proudly told me that his team had failed a school for not innovating, which tells its own story. Ve hev vays of making you innovate.

You speak a language that should never have existed, turning humans into daleks. You come and go, like ships in the night, leaving schools that are bereft to sort themselves out. You are the state police, enforcing compliance. Inspectors were gexpressly forbidden to be critical of government policies like the literacy and numeracy hours. And the most serious weakness of all? That you exist.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who inspects the inspectors? To which, apparently, the answer is: they do.

And bloody fantastic they find themselves to be. Pigs are indeed flying - and no appeal against this judgment is allowed.

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