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'What if we all boycotted Ofsted inspections?'

Ofsted is a dark cloud over our education system – what if we just refused to partake in inspections, asks Mary Bousted

Teachers in Northern Ireland are refusing to participate in school inspections - and it hasn't done any harm there, says Mary Bousted

We’ve seen an avalanche of blogs from leading educationalists calling for the end of Ofsted, arguing that enough is enough. The watchdog casts too dark a cloud over schools, which should be joyous, liberating, positive places to work.

No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers and leaders, but ours is suffering because it’s become too hard to stay in teaching. More than one third of teachers now leave within five years of qualification. Nearly a third of school leaders leave within three years of being appointed.

Schools are struggling under this constant churn of staff. Newly qualified teachers are promoted to positions of responsibility too early in their careers because their more experienced colleagues have left. Not surprisingly, given responsibilities for which they have neither training nor adequate support from more experienced colleagues, they also leave.

So much talent, dedication and hope is lost when this happens. And it is the children who suffer because there are not enough teachers, and not enough leaders, to educate them.

It does not need to be this way.

Let me ask, what if?

What if school leaders and teachers took their courage in both hands and decided enough was enough?

What if, after years of dancing to Ofsted’s tune, they determined that they would not put up with it any more?

What if they told Ofsted that its inspections are damaging the quality of education in schools?

What if, when Ofsted inspectors called at their school, they were asked if they would kindly leave?  

Fantastical as this might sound to English ears, that is just what has been happening in Northern Ireland since January 2016.   

Faced with rising workloads caused by demands for more and more "evidence" of pupil achievements, teachers and school leaders in Northern Ireland have hindered the Education Inspectorate’s (Northern Ireland’s equivalent of Ofsted) ability to conduct inspections.

Boycott of inspections in Northern Ireland

When the inspectors in Northern Ireland enter a classroom, the teacher instructs the pupils to stop what they are doing, to open a textbook and to read silently.   

As a result, the inspectorate is unable to gather data through lesson observations or through book looks, or through conversations with teachers or leaders. The only judgement that the inspectors are able to make is on the school’s safeguarding arrangements.

And the standards of education in Northern Ireland have not declined one jot. Judged by exam results at GCSE and A level, results have improved.

Teachers still teach, leaders still lead. Parents still have confidence in their schools. The sky has not fallen in. The system carries on as usual.

What has changed is the working lives of teachers and leaders. On a recent visit to Northern Ireland, teachers spoke to me of their satisfaction in being able to concentrate on what they felt was important to improve their teaching and pupil learning.  

They spoke of their relief that they were able to exercise choice in the focus of their work. They said that they were able to manage their working hours and make time for family, friends, sport and hobbies.  

They were able, actually, to lead normal lives in which there is a reasonable balance between work and rest.

There is a different statutory basis for the Northern Ireland Inspectorate and Ofsted – which means that, under the union laws, we can’t legally ballot for a boycott. But what if?

What if school leaders and teachers decided, collectively, to stop the madness of the current accountability system in England by acting collectively to refuse to participate in Ofsted inspections?

Mary Bousted is the joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union

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