When did we start to scare so easily?
It’s a serious question, but also a paraphrase of a line from one of my favourite TV shows. When writer Aaron Sorkin finished working on his magnificent West Wing, he created a new project, The Newsroom. It’s a behind-the-scenes narrative of jaded, cynical cable news anchorman Will McAvoy and the savvy, fast-talking team of journalists around him. They give the news to the American people.
Watch on YouTube the opening scene in which McAvoy and others are asked by a student what makes America the greatest country in the world. His fellow guests utter predictable, lazy platitudes about freedom, diversity and opportunity.
Pushed by his interviewer, McAvoy finally says what he really thinks, to gasps of disbelief from his young audience. America, he says, isn’t the greatest country in the world. People sit open-mouth at his treachery, before the music swells and he says this:
"Once we stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars."
He says one more thing: "... and we didn't scare so easily".
I like that: ‘We didn’t scare so easily’.
I think of this when I think of Ofsted. Because given that some 89 per cent of schools have been judged as "good" or "outstanding", it seems unfathomable that the inspectorate appears to promote such fear across the profession.
You sometimes sensed, in its earlier incarnations with rather more self-consciously macho chief inspectors, that this was part of the unspoken aim – to keep us hapless teachers in our place.
But now Ofsted is under new management and chief inspector Amanda Spielman could hardly be more outward-facing, attending conferences and teach-meets, and national director Sean Harford presents a reassuring online presence of an organisation intending to be more constructive.
So why do we let Ofsted scare us so easily?
And – as the inspectorate prepares to unveil a bold new strategy – isn’t it time we put it back in its box, regarding it as a necessary regulator that’s doing the equivalent of those food hygiene inspectors who check that canteens won’t poison us but hardly merit big blue banners outside proclaiming their ratings?
Couldn’t we, in other words, stop scaring so easily?
'Ofsted needs to get a sense of perspective'
We need Ofsted, first of all, to fully regain its own sense of perspective. In focusing – as it is at the moment – on the curriculum, it needs to beware any pronouncements on what it deems an effective curriculum.
That isn’t its role, though it might choose to publish some insights into principled curriculum designs that suit the students in a range of schools. In this way, it would be feeding intelligence into an atomised school and college system.
Instead of assuming that a particular course on the curriculum is a sign of the school "gaming" the system to nudge itself further up the league tables, or assuming that a three-year key stage 4 is by definition a bad thing, the role of inspectors should be to ask questions and not furnish answers.
So if I were designing a schedule for inspectors, I’d insist that they asked a small number of nationally relevant questions that reaffirm that it’s up to school and college leaders, with their governors, to decide what’s right in their own context.
I’d want inspectors to ask questions like these:
- What is distinctive about your curriculum? How does it match the needs of the young people in your community? How effective is it? How do you know?
- How do you, as a leadership team, ensure the professional development of your teachers?
- What do you do to try to ensure that good teachers stay in teaching?
Questions like these focus on what matters most in school. They are framed not with some pre-packaged notion of a correct response, but instead with a genuinely inquiring spirit that reaffirms that there is no simple template, no right answer, plus an acknowledgement that leadership at its best focuses relentlessly on what matters most – a principled curriculum that meets the needs of all learners and a commitment to helping teachers to constantly improve.
Such focus, supported by an intelligent accountability system predicated on helping schools and colleges to improve, would help to move our education system into its next phase of improvement.
And it would help us to ensure that, collectively, we don’t scare so easily.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton