Ofsted, not just its chief, must change

2nd July 2010 at 01:00

So it looks very likely that Christine Gilbert will not be at the helm of Ofsted for long. Who will be heading it up now? Or will the Government take this opportunity to examine the worth of this monumentally expensive, aggressive and data-driven inspection system that attempts to steamroller everything in its path, often causing untold misery?

"I wake up alert, heart pounding. I feel sick, tense and anxious ...".

This isn't somebody waking from a nightmare. It's a hard-working, conscientious head on the first morning of their Ofsted inspection, and I'm sure there isn't a teacher or school leader in the land who couldn't identify with him ("Diary of an Ofsted inspection", TES Magazine, April 23).

That we've come to this is shameful. Complain about your Ofsted experience? Well, you can try, but it's got that stitched up, too, and you'll encounter a Kafka-esque world of endless paperwork that ultimately achieves nothing. But you'd be hard pressed to find a teacher who doesn't think schools should be inspected. Of course they should. It's a question of how it should be done, and it's time for the Government to consider alternatives.

When I was shown into my first classroom as a young teacher, I was given little more than a blackboard, a box of chalk and three sets of textbooks. There was little in the way of a curriculum. The headteacher had designed an elementary one, for a semblance of progression through the years, but our curriculum wasn't necessarily similar to the one at the school down the road.

I knew my children had to learn to read, write, add up, and know something about their world, but much of the time I could teach what I liked, and the freedom was extraordinary. Yes, there were inspectors in those days, but they were generally dusty academics who weren't comfortable in a classroom. Provided the children weren't tearing the place apart, they didn't worry too much about what was being taught.

The national curriculum, introduced in the 1980s, changed the primary landscape completely, and it had my support. With the previous haphazard system, you could teach dinosaurs every year and avoid doing much maths if it wasn't your thing. At least now there was reasonable agreement about what young children should learn, and the criticism that some teachers found it constricting wasn't really valid; an inventive teacher will always find ways of teaching any topic creatively.

Therefore, assuming that inspectors know the basic curriculum they are inspecting, wouldn't it be better if local education authorities were allowed to recruit small teams of first-class educational practitioners to inspect their schools, accountable to an area leader, but with a view to encouraging difference and diversity? Who, after all, wants schools to be exactly the same?

There would be stringent requirements. Potential inspectors would have been excellent teachers and respected senior managers with considerable knowledge of the local area. They would be sympathetic and supportive to schools that needed it, a fount of good ideas for struggling schools, and they wouldn't give unnecessary time to schools already doing an excellent job. Resentment about inspections could disappear overnight.

A team member in one of my Ofsteds was a retired policeman. His brief was to examine and inspect the foundation stage. When I mentioned that understanding how very small children learn took years, he said, "Well, I've received some training, you know?" This logic implies that I could attend a thief-taking course for a few weeks, be deemed an expert, and then inspect the local constabulary. I suspect the boys in blue might have something to say about that. Which illustrates how ludicrous the current inspection system has become, and why it has to change.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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