Ofsted – a retired headmaster’s view

“Ofsted has been my biggest hobby horse for about fifteen years and was a significant factor in me retiring at 57 instead of a more normal age!”

I received this article after my Tweet and post regarding the fallibility of the Ofsted process. While I have had nothing to do with the organisation myself I am deeply suspicious of the way they and other similar bean-counters operate. I keep meaning to post an article by Demos that argues a similar case. I must dig it out. In the meantime everything this person says confirms my suspicions and reinforces my view, particularly as it is informed by long personal experience and not a little frustration.

The underlying philosophy of this and similar organisations should be resisted.

Here it is in full with the authors permission.

“Ofsted has been my biggest hobby horse for about fifteen years and was a significant factor in me retiring at 57 instead of a more normal age!

If I try to be objective:

a) it was not set up to help schools improve like the previous system of inspection by HMIs. It was part of the package of changes (I won’t dignify them by calling them reforms) started by Kenneth Baker in 1990 when the curriculum was nationalised and teachers lost their prime function of writing curriculum for children.

b) the mood at the time was accountability for public money (and still is) combined with finding something which would enable governments to prove beyond doubt that schools had improved in their term of office. What better than performance data?

c) thus the job of Ofsted was not to help and encourage, but to ‘tell on’ schools so that the local community who had no means of understanding what their local school was up to (?????) could know which of the schools in the area was the ‘best’. At a stroke, we lost the notion of the catchment area school and fed the great God of parental choice which was always a dubious one, in my view. I remember a parent coming to me in Retford who said “I’m shopping around ” to which I replied “I think you’ve come to the wrong place”.

d)the brief of Ofsted was to inspect things which could form part of a national comparison bank and phrases like ‘broadly in line with national averages’ became the new currency. This meant that they only reported on things which all schools did. Of course, the long liberal tradition of both primary and secondary schools had been a pride in things they did which other schools didn’t do! Thus it was very discouraging to find that your prize project was dismissed in a couple of lines if it was mentioned at all. Ofsted reports were meant to compare what was similar in schools, not what was different.

e) and then, towards the middle 90s (I remember so well writing to the miserable Gillian Shepherd about it) came the biggest goof of all: the introduction of target setting and performance data. Inevitably, the private sector responded with organisations which knew all about data and how it could be applied to schools and we have now reached the point where every child in the country is on a data bank from the minute it enters school. Its future is mapped out to the age of 16 based on SATs scores and if at some point it fails to achieve a target, it will not be because of a parental divorce, a bereavement, an attack of adolescence, the dog being run over etc. – it can only be because of bad teaching and Ofsted’s job is to root it out. Thus, technically, a school Ofsted report could be written before the inspectors arrive simply by comparing the data expected with the data achieved. Many schools believe this is what happens. And like all data in all walks of life, it is an unhealthy mix of potentially interesting with the straightforward misinformation.

f) not the least issue is the question of who Ofsted inspectors are. It was a new national body and they had to get people from somewhere. In the main, they came from two unhealthy sources: professional colleagues who had been employed in county councils doing a valuable support job who were squeezed out by falling budgets (the situation we are now in where most schools are no longer run by county councils did not begin with Gove – both the Tory and the neo-Tory (Blair) governments have been running down local councils for nearly a quarter of a century in order to centralise power in Westminster). These people were forced to take on a job they didn’t approve of or want to do but had to choose between Ofsted or unemployment. Many were idealists who felt that they might be able to domesticate Ofsted and still be a help to schools but they were often disillusioned. The other source was of teachers who were frustrated by their lack of promotion in school and saw a route to a more satisfying way of nursing their grudges and gaining power over heads. and, of course, there were some perfectly decent souls who did as well as they could in a very tight straitjacket. The challenge of the ‘lay’ inspector threw up some interesting eccentrics, many of whom knew next to nothing about schools or worse, thought they knew a lot about them. Telford College had in their team of inspectors a lady who was not ashamed to admit that she had never set foot in an FE college before.

g) finally came the problem of Ofsted being the gun by which the DfES fired its bullets. If on a Monday morning, the Prime Minister decided that schools should be doing a lot more about citizenship or sex education, a school inspected on Thursday was immediately probed (and of course found failing) on these topics – which they may not have known about if they had not been followers of Prime Ministerial announcements. When a government nationalises the curriculum and packs it so full that teachers are up till eleven every night, it is hard to add something new several times a year when you don’t take something away!

As you can see, I am fairly indifferent to the subject!

I probably lost my hope of being objective somewhere along the line. I always referred to Ofsted as a terrorist organisation and worked actively with staff to find ways of subverting them. I even once produced a set of a dozen school brochures with a different set of aims and objectives in for their reading matter. I hated them. I can’t put it more clearly than that.”


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