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Education matters: Geoff Barton discusses a think tank’s criticism of Ofsted

PUBLISHED: 11:10 19 March 2014

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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Geoff Barton responds to criticism of Ofsted published by the Policy Exchange think tank

I did try – honest. I made a promise to myself that this month I would write an education article that didn’t mention Ofsted.

Instead, I thought I’d write about real education – the stuff that goes on in school classrooms day after day, and which isn’t simply a performance designed to satisfy the tick-box mentality of some passing inspector.

So I did everything I could not even to think about Ofsted.

It’s a bit like that scene in the BBC’s classic series The Singing Detective. Suffering from a chronic skin condition, Michael Gambon has to use every bit of mental self-discipline he can muster in order not to get excited as a nurse rubs lotion into his flaking flesh.

He brings to mind every tedious, disconnected image he can to keep his thoughts away from thinking about what the nurse may be doing to him: “A Welsh male-voice choir, wage rates in Peru, Elvis’ birthday ... “ he repeats to himself, striving manfully to distract himself.

I seem to recall that in an act of utter desperation he finally imagines Tony Blackburn.

So we all begin with good intentions. Then reality kicks in. And it’s proving harder to be Ofsted-free than I had hoped.

Because on Monday this week, the right-leaning think-tank established a few years ago by Michael Gove published a policy document suggesting that Ofsted isn’t fit for purpose.

That thought alone sent the teacher-based margins of Twitter into a kind of gleeful meltdown.

The Policy Exchange report is called ‘Watching the Watchmen’ and it calls for radical overhaul of Ofsted. Inspectors, it says, are too inconsistent; they cost too much; too many don’t have appropriate experience or qualifications; and, crucially, lesson observations don’t really tell us about the quality of teaching. They should therefore be scrapped.

All of this – in a thoroughly readable and well-argued pamphlet – was more than we might expect on a March Monday morning.

No more inspections of lessons? No wonder the teachers loved it.

But I’m not sure that most parents will agree with that recommendation.

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A few years back at our school we had a pretty bland Ofsted inspection. It felt to us that anything we showed the lead inspector – lessons, sport, music, a fabulous art exhibition – was seen as a distraction.

You sensed that really the inspector just wanted to be back in an office, gazing at the flickering screen of his laptop, and probing another page of interminable figures.

After he finally delivered his verdict on our school, I said something I probably shouldn’t done: “You might as well have stayed at home and phoned this in.”

That’s what it felt like – as if everything the inspector wanted to say about the school could be lifted from a desktop exercise looking at results. The inspection didn’t say much more than you could read in the performance tables.

Now, I believe that schools are about much more than numbers on an Excel page. Of course results and test scores count. But so do other things – relationships, courtesy, behaviour, the crucial extra-curricular provision.

I’d never send my own children to a school that didn’t have an orchestra or debating society or science club; where the head was never seen on the corridors; or where lunchtimes resembled the OK Corral.

That’s because schools, for me, are about the older generation passing on our values and beliefs and expectations to the younger generation.

And if inspection is designed to help us to improve our schools, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t want inspectors looking at our core business – visiting classrooms, noting the relationships, seeing teachers at work. This is where you see the lifeblood of any school.

So I agree with Policy Exchange that Ofsted is looking increasingly dysfunctional. It’s not clear that all the money and endless tinkering has led to genuine impact in schools. Instead, in too many, it has generated a climate of fear.

But let’s not therefore reduce inspections to something even more mechanistic and data-driven than it already is.

A good inspector would surely think it unthinkable not to be visiting classrooms and seeing how the school’s end-results are generated. A good headteacher is likely to feel the same.

If we’re serious about overhauling Ofsted, then we should expect it to value things that are hard to measure, and not just catalogue those things easily dissected, quantified and served up on yet another soulless spreadsheet.

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Sixth Form joke:

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