Abolish Ofsted!

Hank Roberts reviews Support Not Surveillance: How to solve the teacher retention crisis, by Dr Mary Bousted, published by John Catt.

Dr Mary Bousted’s commendably short book, at just over 100 pages, packs an incredibly powerful punch. Its concise, well-structured prose and blistering logic are a forensic analysis and demolition of the hardly credible incompetence of Ofsted.  As each new structure is shown to be completely flawed, it is replaced by another which in turn is only shown to be equally unreliable at what it purports to be – accurate and fair measuring. Each change, with regular monotony, finds that the richest catchment areas have the best of results and the poorest have the worst.

It is, as Bousted says, an “evidenced polemic”.  She points out that England tops the OECD countries for teachers’ working time outside lessons – almost 32 hours primary and 33 secondary.  Within five years of qualification 31.4% have left, within ten years, 40.8%!  England comes third from the bottom of the OECD league tables on whether schools allow teachers to be actively participating in school decisions.  And 40th out of 48 for teacher involvement in the school management team and a shameful second in the league of teachers’ stress. 

And the major driver of all this?  Yes, it’s Ofsted.  The fear and pressures of failing an Ofsted inspection puts huge stress on all staff and especially heads who fear losing their jobs.  The government’s British Skills and Employment survey concluded “no other large occupation has shown anything like this degree of work intensification.” The survey also showed a decline in job security.

Bousted says that when Ofsted was first introduced in 1992, Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, said he wanted Ofsted to be a “weapon of fear and terror.”  You had its mission from the horse’s mouth – and he succeeded.  As an instrument of fear and terror, it has now lasted as long as the 30 years’ war.

As Bousted continues, “Ofsted is a regulatory agency despised by the profession it regulates.  When asked what should happen to Ofsted 86% of NEU teachers and leader members said it should be abolished.” That Ofsted is still fulfilling Chris Woodhead’s mission statement, is confirmed by Dame Alison Peacock, Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, when giving evidence to the Times Education Commission in 2021: “Teachers are constantly looking over their shoulder, whether it’s about Ofsted judgements, whether it’s about attainment, whether it’s about workload … Ofsted, frankly, it’s a reign of terror.”

Is this system valid and reliable?  If it was, it wouldn’t have changed the framework five times in the past nine years.  The notice, that is, forewarning of inspection, changed from lengthy periods to one day. But this has meant only that you are on permanent notice in suspense and anxiety. A “permanent battle readiness”, as Bousted calls it.  “Shockingly the inspectorate has no evidence to support its assertion that the grades it awards are an accurate reflection of the quality of the education being delivered in a school, because it has no evidence of the extent to which its inspection practices measure quality.”

The National Audit Office (NAO) in its 2018 report on Ofsted said,“Ofsted does not know whether its school inspectors are having the intended impact: to raise the standards of education and improve the quality of children and young people’s lives.”

Every experienced teacher, indeed, sensible person, knows that on average children who live in a wealthy area and come from a wealthy background are going to do better educationally than those living in a poor area and coming from a deprived background.  Degree of poverty is a proxy for Ofsted grading.  Low achieving schools are caused by ‘poor teaching’ which ‘must be punished’ frequently by being forced to become an academy. 

Curious this – because previously, high achieving schools were given academy status because of higher results (schools were also bribed to become academies).  You get the clear objective – and if you don’t, previous attempts to simply forcibly turn all schools into academies – dropped in the face of ferocious opposition from schools, parents and councils – is now back on the agenda.  Ofsted is the political vehicle for academisation.

However Bousted, very astutely, I think, does not really enter this arena.  She demolishes forensically the Ofsted system on its own terms and its own practices.  And what a demolition job: game, set and match. 

A chapter on the nature and impact of child poverty and its shockingly huge increase is enough to make one weep.  The full facts and figures accompany the heart-breaking exposition.  Further, not surprisingly, the attainment gap is growing!

There is a chapter entitled ‘The Short History of Government Incompetence in Education Policy Making’.  I’ll leave you to discover the astonishing sagas that make Mr Bean appear like a world expert. Finally, in the last chapter she gives us a clear, workable and logical way forward.  The chapter heading is ‘A Better Deal for Teachers Starts Here’. 

Though it is a brilliantly clear exposition of all that is wrong and gives a simple number of straightforward proposals that could be implemented to get significant improvement, simply pointing this out will not be enough.

This is where we, the profession, and also the parents and the whole working class come in.  We will have to unite and fight harder to get the better education system our children and we so urgently need and deserve.

Buy the book, learn more and be better prepared for the struggle ahead to abolish Ofsted.

Hank Roberts is an active education trade unionist based in Brent, northwest London. His autobiography Rebel Without a Pause was published in 2019.

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