Screams at Ofsted's vice

21st November 2003 at 00:00
For two weeks recently I occupied the "hot seat" on the website of the National College for School Leadership. My assignment was to respond to observations about the Office for Standards in Education sent in by leaders of the nation's schools.

"Now are you going to use this as an excuse to have another gratuitous tilt at Ofsted?", I hear you ask. OK then, if you insist.

The topic was "Should Ofsted be closed down?". This is what is known in Latin as a "nonne" question, defined in the more scholarly grammar books as "a question to which the answer is a bleedingly obvious 'yes', so why waste breath asking it?". Or words to that effect.

There was unadulterated therapy on both sides, as headteachers and deputies climbed over each other to excoriate the hated state police. Biff! Thwack!

Pow! It was like reading a Batman comic. I just sat there agreeing with them, face wreathed in smiles like a happy halfwit. I have not had so much fun for years.

The serious issue, however, was why the most senior people in education, many saying their school had been given a positive report, were bitterly opposed to the peculiar form of inspection we have at present. There were numerous contributions over the fortnight and before long the predominant patterns became clear.

Many heads had experienced two or three inspections, sometimes in different schools. A number commented on the large variation between teams. The best were excellent, thoughtful and intelligent, making the best of a bad job, trying to humanise the robotic. The poorer ones were cretinous, sometimes downright rude or arrogant.

It is amazing that Ofsted has not been challenged more frequently in the courts. They would lose a whole hatful of cases if properly pursued.

All you need is a judge like Lord Denning, someone not afraid of offending the powerful in the interests of justice.

Take a simple example. Ofsted rules suggest that you may only query their procedures, but not their judgment. This means that if they failed to observe a single science lesson, but said that science was poorly taught you would have a legitimate gripe. But if they concluded, after careful observation, that the school's pet giraffe had a tiny neck, you couldn't complain. Utter bollocks. Of course you can complain.

Universities used to say that there was no appeal against their judgments, because their rules stated as much. Then came the Roffey versus Aston university case. The court decided that natural justice permitted anyone about whom an injurious judgment was being made, to be given a hearing. Now universities have an appeals procedure. You may not deserve to win, but you must be allowed to appeal.

Another concern was the flinty process. "They've been here four days and nobody's even cracked a smile" was one head's verdict. It is not at all surprising that those who terrorise, albeit unwittingly, are themselves terrified. It is a high stakes event. The less relaxed inspectors fear that they may give the impression they like something early in the week and then regret it, so they are ashen-faced throughout.

Others complained about what they saw as strange behaviour. One inspector quizzed the head extensively about the Data Protection Act. Asked if there was something amiss, he said there was not. As someone who ran a business he just wanted to know more about it. Another showed great interest in one particular aspect of the school because his wife was a teacher and he wanted to be able to take home ideas.

I receive many messages from Ofsted inspectors who are very uneasy about what is going on. Some of those who have been along to training in the new inspection framework are alarmed. They have been told to concentrate on the weakest teachers. But surely this will distort the overall picture, they observe. No reply.

They are shown a video. The school seems reasonable, decent values, "generally sound". No, it must be failed, they are told. It is a cruising school. The whole process is being geared towards failure, no argument is brooked. But then, remember that Ofsted inspectors were expressly forbidden to be critical of national strategies. It is a compliance model, and compliance is expected of those who enforce it.

So a good fortnight was had by all during the Ofsted-bashing hot seat, except the poor beggars who will still be put through a process that defies justification. Philip Hunter, former chief education officer of Staffordshire, even found that schools undergoing Ofsted improved less than those not being inspected.

When future generations look back, they will ask why were there no riots.

Because we're British, that's why. In any case, how can you riot when your willy is firmly locked in a vice and someone is about to turn the handle?

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