No prizes for popularity, but Ofsted has a point

26th June 2009 at 01:00
Focus on struggling schools challenges complacency surrounding disadvantage

It is easy to get worked up by Ofsted's new inspection regime (pages 5 and 20-21). You do not have to be a Reginald Perrin or a Victor Meldrew to rant about the increased weight given to parental views, let alone the appalling, if distant, prospect of malevolent pupils triggering unwarranted inspections. Stew a while over joint lesson observations - a Quisling's charter if ever there was one - and add a large dollop of suspicion that the department rather than the supposedly independent inspectorate is behind it all, and the blood pressure heads smartly north.

Of course, one could be mollified by the extra time for lesson observation and the more infrequent inspections promised to good and outstanding schools. Dawn raiding is out too - albeit because those blasted parents complained that it didn't allow them enough time to put their oar in. And seen in a different light, treacherous collaboration over observations could be interpreted as "useful dialogue" between heads and inspectors.

Just as the heart rate begins to subside, further reflection ramps it up. If crude formulae are to deny challenged schools the best grade even if pupil progress has been remarkable, isn't any inspection predetermined to mediocrity? Where is the justice in relegating context that cannot be changed while elevating raw exam results, which can be massaged by a little extra private tuition? Can huge social handicaps really be dismissed as "excuses"?

If at this stage - and by some miracle - a slipper has not been launched in the direction of the television or the cat, Reggies and Victors can fume over the difficulty of defining a simple word like "poor". According to Ofsted, a "poor" school is one that has not reached the 30 per cent threshold and whose exam results remain "significantly below average" for three years. Presumably, as schools claw their way over a fixed threshold their improvement increases the average attainment level, which then recedes into the distance like some unobtainable pot of gold. Is that what the department's rainbow signifies?

On the other hand, perhaps outrage should be reserved for the complacency that allows so many of the poor to receive a poor education. Ofsted isn't there to be popular - it is there to drive up standards. It makes sense to concentrate on struggling schools. Too many in the unions believe teaching cannot make much of a difference in the face of social inequality. They argue that will only happen when the revolution triumphscapitalism implodesDorothy returns to Kansas.

The disadvantaged cannot afford to be that patient or to accept such convenient conservatism. The "challenged" middle classes certainly don't. That is why God gave them Cognita. Why should the poor put up with less urgency or ambition? The truth is that education in this country did not improve for the poorest until political will forced it to change. Ofsted, whatever its inconsistencies and inflexibilities, at least recognises that good teaching can make more than a marginal difference. If only the same could be said for everyone in the profession.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E

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