Ofsted inspector (OI): Well, Socrates, our inspection is complete. As you know, under the new framework, we’re focusing more on scrutinising curricula, and ensuring they’re "knowledge-rich". I’ve found no evidence that you’re teaching anything that could be described as "knowledge". Therefore, I’ve decided that you "require improvement".
Socrates: What a shame! But I bow to your superior knowledge.
OI: I appreciate that, Socrates. Our new framework is very evidence-based and you can trust our judgements to be objective.
S: That’s reassuring.
OI: Yes, we’ve looked at examples of excellent practice and from there defined what makes an effective school.
S: I see. Does Ofsted judge a school to be good because it’s good, or is a school good because Ofsted have judged it to be so?
OI: Well a school is good because it accords with the research that shows what counts as good.
S: An esteemed personage as yourself will be aware that research often contradicts other research. How do you decide which to follow?
OI: Well, it’s fair to say that there is broad consensus on many issues.
S: So we’re back with the original dilemma: does the research consensus approve of a school because the school is good, or is a school good because the consensus approves of it?
OI: I’m not quite sure what you mean.
S: I’ll give an example: you’d say there’s a consensus that a “knowledge-rich” curriculum was a good thing, yes?
S: But you’d not say my curriculum was "knowledge-rich"?
OI: I’ve seen no evidence you even have a curriculum.
S: How do you define "knowledge-rich"? Can a school have a knowledge-rich curriculum which is taught well, but where the students still don’t learn anything?
S: So a curriculum is only knowledge-rich if students learn from it. It cannot be knowledge-rich in itself.
OI: That seems fair.
S: How do you establish whether the students have learned anything?
OI: I see your trap. You think we need to resort to exams to know if a student has learned anything! We don’t. Exams are not the only methods. Education research is a young science but over time we will develop a more reliable set of measures.
S: How will you know those methods are more reliable?
OI: How do we ever establish which method of measurement is more reliable? Surely, for example, you would agree that measuring the length of a table is more accurate if I do so with a ruler, rather than my hand-span?
S: I agree that we’d have less to quarrel about if we used a ruler. Then a measure is more reliable if it gives us less cause to quarrel?
OI: That’s not a bad place to start. We must find methods of measuring knowledge that will entail less disagreement.
S: OK, so we agree on a method of measurement: we hold a ruler against the table and read off the mark. Then what?
OI: We can apply that measurement elsewhere. We establish whether the table will fit in the space under the stairs, for example.
S: How do we apply this analogy to knowledge? What “stairs” are we trying to fit these knowledgeable children “under”?
OI: Presumably, we want these children to fit into society?
S: So your measurement of knowledge is in fact a measurement of how well students fit into society?
OI: That seems fair. Would you disagree with that? Is that not the aim of education, to lead students out into society?
S: Well, being described by the oracle as knowledgeable, I was once sentenced to death by society. Was I in possession of the wrong knowledge? Was it not powerful enough? Fitting into society doesn’t seem quite the same as being knowledgeable.
OI: OK, perhaps fitting in is not a good definition, but surely if we don’t provide students with the knowledge they’re entitled to then they won’t have the opportunities they are entitled to. This would be unjust. Is not the purpose of education justice?
S: Ah now I would agree we could not call someone who was unjust truly knowledgeable.
OI: We have a conclusion then: an education system is just if it provides opportunities.
S: To summarise, a school is good only if it has a knowledge-rich curriculum. And a school has a knowledge-rich curriculum only if it makes the students knowledgeable. And the students are only knowledgeable if they have opportunities.
OI: Yes. That seems very fair.
S: So, a slave cannot be knowledgeable, and must have gone to a rubbish school. Yes, I understand.
OI: That’s sophistry Socrates and you know it! You know precisely what we mean by knowledge-rich!
S: Please, don’t be cross, inspector. Remember, I’m obviously without any expertise. You told me that I require improvement. It’s just that whenever you attempt to describe education in terms of its purpose for something else, we end up feeling that our means of measurement are somehow lacking. I don’t know whether we’re measuring the table with the ruler, or the ruler with the table, so to speak.
OI: I accept schools must be allowed to teach according to their own values, their own ends. But surely, we can establish whether the methods that the school are using are likely to achieve those ends?
S: I dare say that someone as well-informed as yourself might be able to make such a judgement. Am I allowed to hold any such values I like? Can one of my values be having a “knowledge-lite” curriculum?
OI: Within reason.
S: Whose reason? Society’s?
OI: We’re going around in circles.
S: Indeed, we are. I am none the wiser as to how you know what a student is entitled to know, nor how you know whether they know it!
OI: At least I’m trying! You’ve not offered any alternative methods of judgement.
S: I’m not sure that’s true. Clearly, since you have judged my teaching to require improvement, you initially perceived yourself to know some things?
S: …yet when questioned, it appears you don’t know quite what you thought you did.
OI: Perhaps things were more confused than I thought.
S: Are you wiser now, or were you wiser before this conversation?
OI: Now, I suppose. But only insofar as I no longer fancy that I know something that I don’t.
S: Then I’d give myself an outstanding. Lesson objectives achieved, progress made!
Bernard Andrews is a secondary school philosophy teacher