Play safe, play dumb and keep on typing

10th March 1995 at 00:00
A friend who is a registered OFSTED inspector working for one of the private contractors was booking accommodation for his team when he was asked whether they would all be wanting baths every night.

A bit puzzled, he asked why. "They usually do," came the reply. "Really?" "Yes, it's such dirty work." So nonplussed was he to find that the hotel seemed to be familiar with the Framework for Inspection, that he didn't pursue the matter until some time later when it occurred to him that there must have been a misunderstanding.

It was scaffolders they were expecting, not inspectors. A different kind of framework, but equally dirty work.

We are going to hear a lot more from OFSTED. They are, after all, busy creating the biggest database of lesson observations in the entire solar system. Like NASA, they have to keep discovering things in order to keep themselves in business.

Just as the United States eventually tired of moonshots, so the public in this country will not be satisfied for long with a diet of schools requiring special measures. Ever more glamorous and unlikely missions will have to be devised.

There have been some discoveries, but they mostly turned out to be false alarms.

SCAA's chief executive Chris Woodhead obviously thought he had found the educational equivalent of the Voyager trip to Jupiter when he announced that since 25 per cent of lessons nationally were unsatisfactory, 25 per cent of teachers were incompetent. Since then, he's put his mastery of statistics to work in the crusade against "progressive" teaching. He clearly has the same ability to master a difficult brief that once marked out Ronald Reagan for high office.

What will he discover next? Well, the difficulty he faces is that the entire database is unlikely to reveal anything much worth knowing. It always used to be claimed as proof of some philosophical theorem that if you put enough monkeys in a room with enough typewriters, they would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. I have always been a touch sceptical about this and I still am.

But I have to admit that even if those monkeys haven't yet written any Shakespeare, they have certainly produced quite a number of OFSTED reports.

The problem is this. The first test of the validity of any system of evaluation ought to be whether it has the capacity to upset your expectations.

If, however, you sub-contract work to a tight specification, and that is what OFSTED does, all you are ever going to get is what you asked for. No surprises.

If you imagine that inspections are being carried out by fearless seekers after truth, then dream on, as my daughter says. What bothers OFSTED inspectors is whether they have fulfilled the small print closely enough to get the next contract.

Step out of line and the team gets it. Play safe, play dumb and keep typing.

Can OFSTED tell us whether appraisal is actually making any difference? Is it capable of finding that the new system for teacher training is rubbish when everybody has a vested (the loot) in concealing all its faults? Can OFSTED tell us whether coursework makes a difference? Can it tell us whether grant-maintained schools have fixed the rules? Can it tell us whether half courses are a good idea? Can it tell us anything we really want to know? When you threaten people you may get your way, but you won't get the truth. And the problem with stifling dissent is that you are always the last to hear. As with the Hubble telescope, all you get is a kind of blur.

That, then, is the real problem with dirty work. It leaves you with a lot of rubbish to clear up afterwards.

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