When Ofsted takes on MATs, doublethink reigns

Ofsted isn't climbing down in the row over three-year GCSEs – but it will. The MATs aren’t right, but they’re not wrong. Bernard Trafford raises an eyebrow

Bernard Trafford

Two gladiators, in the arena

Commenting this week on the Priti Patel bullying scandal (I think it qualifies as one), education campaigner Fiona Millar tweeted: “These people hold schools to account for how heads and teachers deal with bullying. 

“Rather than provide exemplary role models, they show us how it is done.”

She has a point. The behind-the-scenes puppetmaster pulling all the Tory government’s strings – the democratically unaccountable, unelected Dominic Cummings – sets the tone for ministers. It’s almost a boast that he terrorises his teams of advisers and civil servants, firing some, driving others out. 

According to reports, Cummings’s regular end-of-week parting comment is “See you next week. Some of you.” 

And, in his advertisement for “weirdos” to work with him, he’s happy to say that if these brilliant misfits he seeks don’t fit in, he’ll bin them. It’s bullying, under the flimsy figleaf of “getting the job done”.

Performing contortions

Naturally, the PM declared his support for Ms Patel, saying he was “sticking by her”.

Momentarily, I dared hope it was the kind of statement of “complete confidence of the board” that used to herald the sacking of a football manager. So far at least, that hope has proved unfounded.

In fact, Number 10 bent over backwards – performed contortions, indeed – to back the home secretary without damning the senior civil servant driven out of his job, Sir Philip Rutnam. 

Indeed, in the Commons, Michael Gove was at pains to describe Sir Philip several times as “distinguished”. (Meanwhile, “government sources” rubbished Sir Philip’s work and listed a litany of failures in his “distinguished” career through unattributable quotes to the right-wing press.)

George Orwell would immediately recognise this contradictory posturing as what he termed doublethink

Attitudinal gymnastics

This is relevant here, because the Department for Education appears to be indulging in similar attitudinal gymnastics over the continuing row between Ofsted and a number of leading multi-academy trusts, who reckon their schools are being penalised for running GCSEs over three years and shortening key stage 3.

What renders this spat interesting is that the trusts in question have been doing unquestionably great work in challenging settings. Their CEOs have fallen out with the inspectorate because they reckon children from underprivileged backgrounds need those three years to produce great GCSE results

By contrast, Ofsted wants to have its cake (its new framework, demanding a broad and balanced school curriculum for the three years of key stage 3) and eat it (the excellent GCSE results it expects). 

Into the fray stepped the right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange. It reckons Ofsted overstepped its brief by attempting to develop educational policy through its “de facto preference” for that three-year key stage, damned by the MATs as “a middle-class framework”.

According to Tes reporter John Roberts, chief inspector Amanda Spielman is expected to receive a ministerial letter telling her that exam results matter. Roberts reckons she’ll reply that she knows they do.

The leopard won't change its target-hitting spots

That’s OK, then: for a second I feared the government’s rottweiler might be going soft on results. It was hard to picture that particular leopard (to mix animal metaphors) – famed for ending the careers of leaders whose schools don’t hit the required target – changing its spots.

Policy Exchange wants Ofsted to rewrite that bit of its handbook. But it looks as if the DfE won’t insist on that. 

In what appears some mutual peacemaking (or fudge, if you prefer), Ofsted won’t be characterised as climbing down, merely ironing out issues in the implementation of its new framework.

When an influential thinktank flexes its muscles, it appears things suddenly start to happen. Ofsted isn’t setting policy instead of judging outcomes, even if it is. It’s not climbing down, but it will. The MATs aren’t right, but they’re not wrong. 

What’s in a word? Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, whose Through the Looking Glass world reflects UK politics in so many ways, famously declares that words mean precisely what he chooses them to mean, “neither more nor less”. 

In this uneasy truce, the fundamental questions raised over the purpose and future of inspection are ducked.

Everything as normal in educational Wonderland, then. It must be the rest of us who are mad. 

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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