If Ofsted wants better results from schools, it needs to encourage and support teachers, not frighten them
The year is 2012. A headteacher, let us call him Mr X, has become the first to go on trial for failing to help sufficient numbers of pupils achieve five good GCSE grades.
He pleaded that he had done all he could to wring good grades out of a particularly troublesome year group, but to no avail. Earlier that year, the Conservative government, elected in 2010, had pledged to follow New Labour in acting tough on "underperformance" in schools.
Mr X received a six-month sentence, and a lifelong teaching ban.
The above might seem far-fetched. But, coming back to the real world of 2008, the latest punitive proposals from Ofsted are based on a similar assumption: that the way to get more out of teachers is, effectively, to frighten them into performing well.
Last month, the inspectorate published plans for a change in the way it operates. From 2009, its proposals say, schools that have a successful inspection might go six years before they experience the next one. But, crucially, those adjudged to be underperforming could face yearly visits. There will, then, be few hiding places for those deemed by inspectors not to be doing well enough.
The reason for this is the claim by Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, that education standards have "stalled". Asked what her evidence was, she reportedly said key stage 2 test results have been largely unchanged recently, at around 80 per cent achieving the Government's expected level.
There are at least three problems with the 15-page document that Ofsted published announcing its plans for a new inspection regime. First, the inspectorate's analysis of the justification for the change - the stalling of standards - is superficial to the point of non-existence.
In fact, the document itself offers no evidence on this. On Ms Gilbert's claim to reporters, it is true that test results in English schools have plateaued. But the chief inspector failed to give the background: that the expected level 4 was originally set at what the average pupil in England might be expected to achieve. In 1995, barely half of pupils gained level 4. To have gone from this position to one where more than 80 per cent achieve the benchmark is, on the face of it, a staggering achievement.
The question, of course, is whether the test results are reliable. But that is not an argument on which Ofsted can rely, since test scores are central to schools' inspection verdicts. If Ofsted is drawing on its own research to suggest that standards have stalled, where is the detail? And how can it truly offer a view on this? Its inspection methodology changed so dramatically in 2005 that a proper long-term analysis is surely impossible.
The second problem concerns the assumptions on which the plans are based. The notion is that a school deemed to be underperforming needs the pressure of more inspections to keep it on track. This is the logic that underpins the whole of the test-based accountability system - that teachers, left to their own devices, would simply fail their pupils. Schools just need more scrutiny from the inspectorate to up their game. Is this truly the case? Or do the plans risk setting up a dangerous divide between more successful schools, largely free of the damaging effects of a punitive hyper-accountability system, and those subject to it?
The third problem with Ofsted's plans is the lack of insight into what might be called the human dimension of inspections. Even to raise this difficulty might be seen to be weak-minded and overly sympathetic to teachers. But it has to be posed, as do some serious questions.
What are the effects on staff, for example, of an Ofsted visit, and do they have knock-on effects for pupils? A recent study by Cynthia Bartlett, an Oxfordshire head teacher, highlights research on how teachers react when their school is placed in special measures. One school was subjected to eight inspections in 18 months, which staff described variously as a "treadmill", a "living hell", and "a crazy cycle of working like mad followed by a period of near collapse".
Ofsted argues that its figures suggest schools improve following an intensive inspection regime. But surely the common-sense position is that this scrutiny would make it more difficult to attract good teachers.
It also needs to be more careful in its use of language: words such as "inadequate" are no way to sum up the performance of a school without much more substantial evidence than the current framework would appear to make possible.
All the conflict and anxiety surrounding inspections is justified because it is in the pupil's interest, the inspectorate would argue.
But even this argument has to be held up to closer examination. When I visited a school which was piloting a student-led inspection last month, the opinion of pupils about Ofsted was far harsher than those of their teachers. "Ofsted just brings fear", was one comment.
No one is denying the need to try to raise standards. But the move to ever closer scrutiny of the work of "underperforming" schools represents the inspectorate, and politicians, taking the easy way out: a knee-jerk reaction to "get tough" on failure.
Standards may indeed have stalled: two international reports last year suggested that gains in England's test and exam results in the 1990s were not reflected by improvements in ranking.
This country already has one of the most intrusive and punitive systems of accountability in the world, so the fictional example of Mr X could be seen as just an extension of a trend.
Is the solution to this problem more of the same? Ofsted's document offers little to suggest that the answer is 'yes'.
Inspections should revert to being much more of a rounded assessment of a school's provision, rather than focus so relentlessly on test and exam results.
More fundamentally, Ofsted and the Government need to start working with teachers, encouraging professionalism and supporting, rather than punishing, them for working with hard-to-educate children.
- Cynthia Bartlett's paper on tests, targets, league tables and inspections is available at email@example.com
Warwick Mansell, TES reporter and author of 'Education by Numbers'.