Spawned by the dodo duo

14th May 2004 at 01:00
"Ofsted failing its staff", said The TES headline. I have no time for the Office for Standards in Education in its present form, but the news was no cause for rejoicing. Just because the inspection process itself is rotten does not mean that the poor beggars who work in its headquarters should be badly treated.

Ofsted has now become a generic term, like Elastoplast, or Sellotape.

People contemplating a new style of inspection in other professions, or other lands, say "we don't want an Ofsted". The term invades the education lexicon, meaning anything crude, pervasive, mechanical: "Stop behaving like Ofsted", "In Ofsted language", "I felt I had just been Ofstedded".

The TES report that two-thirds of Ofsted staff felt unable to speak freely at work, were so stressed it was damaging their work, and complained that objectives changed so frequently they could not do their job properly, reflected an awful national malaise.

People working in education feel exactly the same, because of this chilly climate, of which, ironically, Ofsted is a central part. If teachers and heads were animals, the RSPCA would be down on Ofsted like the proverbial ton of bricks. Prodding your pet pooch with a stick is not allowed.

I blame the Government for standing sponsor to what Tim Brighouse has called a reign of terror. It all goes back to the Conservatives' endemic hatred of teachers, which shows no sign of going away, however skilful the cosmetic surgery, and Labour's pathetic determination to be "tough" when entering office.

The tough, tough, tough image can be traced back to the Prime Minister's own close advisers. Before the 1997 election Peter Mandelson wrote a book in which he proposed that children who misbehaved in school should be prevented from going to a football match on Saturday afternoons, the Genghis Khan solution. "You talking? Right, that's no Mongolia Rovers game for you then."

Equally wretched was the Stephen Byers' "name and shame" strategy.

Ironically, the person most named and shamed eventually was Byers himself.

A chapter of accidents included: turning up to open British Clothing Week wearing a foreign suit, revolutionising the multiplication tables by announcing that 7x8 was 54, and the "good day to bury bad news" fiasco.

For those who hope that the latest Ofsted story will be the final nail in its coffin, there is bad news: Mandelson and Byers are still close to the Prime Minister. These two political dodos have been skilfully resurrecting themselves as great intellectual thinkers. Byers has gone even further and crafted a Mother Teresa image.

They remind me of the daft pheasant which walks up our drive in front of the car. If you sound your horn it turns straight into your front wheels, but by the way it struts around it is obvious that it thinks it is a bloody genius.

Even worse news is that these twin bozos are actually drawing up the election manifesto, so don't expect it to contain a better form of school inspection. Indeed, don't expect it to contain any imaginative ideas. On past evidence it will be pure hologram, tough, tough, tough all the way, empty of substance.

The Conservatives' ill-thought- out "passport" agenda is equally vacuous, nothing more than the return of the hopelessly unrealistic elastic school, capable of being infinitely expanded or contracted at the push of a voucher. They would be far too terrified of the Daily Mail to reform the inspection system.

Guess who wrote this, about what, and when: "It turns the inspectors into a set of registering clerks, with a mass of minute details to tabulate . . .

It is as if the generals of an army . . . were to have their duties limited to inspecting the men's cartridge-boxes. The organisation of the army is faulty: inspect the cartridge-boxes! But the army . . . is moving to the left when it should be moving to the right: it is going to a disaster! That is not your business; inspect the cartridge-boxes!" It was Matthew Arnold, author and HMI, writing about the notorious "payment by results" system in Fraser's Magazine in 1862, except that he used the word "cartouche" instead of "cartridge".

Despite Arnold's eloquent protests, that particular reign of terror lasted 35 years, until the weight of evidence against it finally led to its burial. On that timescale Ofsted will be closed in 2027. Hurrah! Only 23 years to go.

Unless, of course, someone has the guts to recognise that the only solution is to shut Ofsted and make a fresh start with an inspection system that is actually aimed at improving teaching and learning, not just treating teachers and learners as if they are objects.

With Mandy and Dandy in charge of policy-making, the chances of that are zero. Roll on 2027.

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