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A worrying wonderland

In a recent letter to TES, a reader felt that fighting the government on pensions was now a lost cause and wouldn't generate public sympathy anyway. He asked why the unions had not tackled Ofsted instead, because the aggressive and data-led machinery of inspection did not benefit the profession of pupils or parents. To answer this question, we need to consider how the current style of inspection has evolved.

Forty years ago, local authorities appointed their own school inspectors. They had usually been successful headteachers who would have an intimate knowledge of the area they were appointed to. This was important.

The needs of a school such as mine, in a deprived area of London, were vastly different from those of one in a leafy suburb. When I was appointed to headship, my inspector popped in regularly. He was supportive, helpful and often able to find extra funding for projects I needed to get my school up and running. Once he saw that things were progressing nicely, he simply left me to it and gave his time to schools that needed him more.

Occasionally I was visited by an HMI. These were highly trained and exceptionally astute inspectors who travelled the country and usually only stayed for a day. At the end of one in-depth visit I remember an HMI saying: "Mike, your school is marvellous, but your room is a tip. It's the first port of call for visitors and doesn't create a good impression." He was absolutely right.

In those days, primary schools had enormous freedom and they could create their own curriculum. This was liberating for teachers but it also created many problems. The government eventually imposed a national curriculum and parents knew what their children would be learning, and at what age, wherever they went. Then, in the 1990s, the government decided that all schools should also be inspected in the same way, and Ofsted was born.

At first, inspections lasted a week. A virtual army of inspectors had to be recruited, and although some were good, the abilities of many were questionable. Schools were put under frightening pressure by briefly-trained people who had no knowledge of local conditions and often didn't know what they were talking about. The chief inspector attacked staff, good teachers often succumbed to stress and there were even suicides. But teachers aren't militant people. They were simply shell-shocked, and few schools complained or fought grossly unfair inspections, then as now, which has allowed Ofsted to survive.

Today Ofsted changes its practices on a whim. Inspections are data led, often giving a false view of what a school is really like, and there is still no proof that this inspection system has benefited anybody in any way. The general public, however, has been cleverly persuaded that there are only two ways to judge a school: by looking at its data and by reading its Ofsted report. Hence, unions would find it enormously difficult to change anything, even though stories of bullying are legion.

Last week I spoke to a talented teacher who had just been inspected. She was told that her lesson was superb but that she could not be given an outstanding because every child behaved impeccably and the inspector was not able to see how she would deal with a troublesome child. Real Alice in Wonderland stuff. Says it all, really.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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