Why we're at war with Ofsted

25th March 2005 at 00:00
It's no wonder inspections are like military operations, says Mark Edwards

I discovered the other day, almost by chance, that one of Ofsted's providers is part of a larger company that builds warships for a living, and has done so since the 19th century. The company supplies these and other military equipment all over the world and is cited as a major player by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. It has, according to its website, been allocated a full quota of inspection contracts.

In the light of this knowledge, phrases such as "doing battle with Ofsted" and "setting targets" take on a different hue. There is nothing technically wrong with what this company is doing, but it feels unsettling. The Government has long sought a partnership between the private and the public in education, but when this idea was first touted it was generally assumed that they meant local hardware businesses and suchlike, not arms manufacturers.

It seems state education is rapidly becoming an industry with potentially rich pickings for anyone who cares to play their hand. Never mind values or ethics, or even believing in something; education can now provide a healthy share dividend for investors.

The success of an inspection team presumably depends on the quality of its inspections, but do we know the criteria for awarding contracts to particular companies? The company in question haggles with the Government for contracts to supply army and navy helicopters to the UK; does it offer to bung in a couple of school inspections as part of the deal? Of course not, because the two wings of the company are separate. But it is a concern that their primary motive is to make money.

In the old days, when standards in education were low, schools were inspected by HMIs appointed by the Government. These were usually people who had had a substantial career in education. They were answerable to Government, which was responsible for delivering the education system, and that was that. Now we have private companies whose primary concern is to create an attractive portfolio for investors; as a result, the inspection process must surely be distorted.

Add to that the fact that the supply of arms and the supply of education services are being carried out under one umbrella. So the same education and training wing that inspects schools has recently been involved in the training of troops heading for Iraq. Again, it is unlikely that the people involved in this training are the same as those carrying out the inspections. But how do we know?

It is an observable reality that the values and beliefs held by those in power will make themselves felt throughout an organisation. Walk into any school and you will quickly detect an "ambience" or "ethos" which is not created by any policy, but by the mysterious way in which the values and beliefs of the headteacher make themselves felt.

It is this that makes me uncomfortable about schools being judged by companies that supply weapons to the Middle East. I don't like arms dealers being involved in the education of our children. It is not just the issue of profiting out of state education; it is quite possible that monetary gain and education are not mutually exclusive. No, the main concern is a subtle transmission of militarist values into education.

The pastoral aspects of schools are being sacrificed to an obsession with driving up "standards". The word "rigorous" peppers many an Ofsted report, and it fits nicely with the disciplined, highly structured world of the armed forces. So if your school complains of being "invaded" by Ofsted next time it is inspected, I suggest you check out exactly who is doing the inspecting.

Mark Edwards is a former headteacher. He now works as a counsellor and freelance writer

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