Another preview from the Spectator Christmas special: Dennis Sewell looks at Ofsted and argues that the Chief Inspector of Schools must revamp his power-crazed organisation. Subscribe for just £73 for a whole year — including full print and digital access, as well as a £20 John Lewis voucher.
What’s up with Sir Michael Wilshaw? The chief schools inspector was once seen as a pillar of common sense and an enthusiastic partner of Michael Gove in pragmatic schools reform. Now, he stands accused of trying to enforce a particularly toxic form of political correctness as his inspectors mark down a succession of rural English schools for being insufficiently multicultural — or as some newspapers inevitably framed it, for being ‘too white’. Some critics go further and say that Ofsted suppresses as much good teaching as it fosters and is now poised to present young people with a warped version of our national values. Sir Michael, in other words, stands accused of going rogue.
He has certainly had a most erratic year. Back in January he revealed himself to be startlingly touchy, throwing a public hissy fit upon learning that two think tanks were preparing reports critical of Ofsted. Claiming to be so angry he was ‘spitting blood’, HM’s Chief Inspector of Schools denounced what turned out to be an entirely imagined conspiracy against himself and his organisation, supposedly involving the two think tanks in cahoots with government special advisers.
Although Michael Gove acted quickly to hose down his overheated chief inspector, relations never quite recovered. Another spat followed in the summer, when Sir Michael misremembered the former education secretary’s views on no-notice inspections in a Newsnight interview and was forced into a humiliating climbdown. After Gove had been reshuffled, a government memo surfaced in the Guardian showing that the previous autumn senior officials and ministers had become worried about the slow progress of internal reforms at Ofsted. Sir Michael’s rhetoric shot back up the paranoia scale with more talk of a government ‘smear campaign’. Many of his former supporters in Whitehall now don’t know what to make of him. It’s like a clock that has just struck 13 — people are both nonplussed by what he’s saying now, and doubtful about what he has said before.
As headmaster of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney from 2003 to 2011, Sir Michael pioneered many of the approaches that this government has gone on to champion, demonstrating that a combination of excellent teaching, unwavering attention to academic standards, firm discipline, high expectations and inspirational leadership could transform the life chances of all children, even those from deprived backgrounds. Ethnicity, social class, economic deprivation, English as an additional language — all the old excuses why a child should fail at school — were shown by Mossbourne’s success to be problems that could be overcome.
Wilshaw was brought into Ofsted first to fix the organisation, and then to apply the lessons of Mossbourne across the country. That Ofsted needed fixing was not in dispute. Ever since the coalition government had come into office, good and trustworthy head teachers, men and women of similar stamp to Sir Michael, had been saying that it was severely dysfunctional, that its judgments were inconsistent, even capricious. Its inspections were felt to be vulnerable to the personal prejudices of inspectors, some of whom lacked the experience or the competence to do the job.
Ofsted is a peculiar empire. It employs around 150 full-time, properly trained HM Inspectors in its schools division and also uses hundreds more inspectors who work freelance — and generally part-time — for three private-sector suppliers, Tribal, Serco and CfBT. Each of these three enjoys a regional monopoly. Shortly after taking over the organisation, Sir Michael told Department for Education officials that he reckoned around one in five of his inspectors weren’t up to scratch and would have to go. He also argued that Ofsted needed to undergo a thoroughgoing culture change.
Most people are familiar with how, under the last Labour government, Ofsted grew to become very powerful and extremely intimidating. It can wreck a head teacher’s career in a single grading judgment and its arrival in any school causes huge stress to classroom teachers. Its loudest critics have been on the left, particularly in the unions, and for that reason Conservatives have tended to discount that criticism as the special pleading of producer interests. This gave rise to the rather simplistic view, widely held on the right, that Ofsted represented rigour, and those who didn’t like it most probably had something to hide.
But a small group of teachers, often using pseudonyms, have used social media to set out the less well-known story of the malign effect Ofsted has had as the enforcer of a progressive orthodoxy in teaching practice. It has penalised traditionalist methods, championing group work and discovery learning, while condemning ‘teacher talk’ and ‘didacticism’ and driving traditionalist teachers either underground or even out of the profession. Many inspectors adopted a narrow, prescriptive approach requiring teachers to use an ‘Ofsted-approved’ lesson structure, imposing the official teaching style both directly and by proxy through schools’ management teams. As these techniques proved unsustainable in terms of getting kids through exams, a kind of Potemkin pedagogy developed, with teachers keeping some Ofsted-compliant lesson plans handy for when the inspector called, but dismantling the scenery and returning to more direct methods as soon as the caravan moved on.
For two years, Sir Michael Wilshaw tried hard to stop these practices, declaring that Ofsted was now neutral between teaching styles. He made speeches, issued instructions, changed the inspection protocols and rewrote the manual. He announced that he would not contract out Ofsted’s work, and would bring all the inspectors in-house. And he has worried about the effect of his inspectors’ judgments, pleading with them in a letter: ‘Please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.’
But as one teacher and blogger, Andrew Old, has shown through assiduous scrutiny of the wording of Ofsted reports, the inspectors just aren’t obeying Sir Michael’s orders. Another teacher-blogger, David Didau, actually caught one part-time inspector hiring himself out to schools to advise on inspections. His customers were told to ignore what Sir Michael was saying because inspectors would be carrying on in the old way regardless. As Old has noted, ‘The more entrenched problem, of inspectors who still believe the old values were the right values, and the old expectations were the right expectations, clearly has not gone away. Until we start hearing of inspectors being sacked for ignoring the guidance and the handbook, schools will continue to expect the same underlying attitudes from inspectors on the ground, even if somebody does take a blue pencil to the reports after the first draft.’
The problem now is that the very same people who still believe in the old ‘progressive’ values now have the job of policing the promotion of ‘British values’ in schools. Unsurprisingly, they are taking a prissy, liberal-intolerant approach. One of those British values is supposed to be ‘tolerance’, and implicit in the word ‘tolerance’ is that one should not have to like or approve what is tolerated. Yet we have already seen a school criticised for not ensuring different sexual orientations are ‘valued’, which means something else entirely.
Ofsted says that it wants to ‘actively promote diversity’, a phrase open to a wide range of interpretations — some sensible, some downright absurd. On past form, the downright absurd cannot be ruled out. One clue as to how Ofsted might go about promoting diversity is provided by its recent criticism of a Lincolnshire primary school for failing to provide children with ‘first-hand experience of the diverse make-up of modern British society’. And just how was it supposed to do that, if 97 per cent of the village population is white? Soon we may witness the grotesque spectacle of country kids being bussed to edgy, inner-city schools where children of diverse racial heritage will suffer the indignity of being put on show like exhibits in an ethnographic museum.
As a dry run for its move into the perilous territory of ‘identity politics’ and national values, Ofsted recently bulldozed its way through the faith school sector, unsettling (‘traumatising’ was the word one parent used) Orthodox Jewish girls with questions about boyfriends, gay relationships and how it was possible to live without a mobile phone. A Catholic school in Suffolk was told that it wasn’t doing enough to warn its pupils about the dangers of radicalisation. Ofsted later withdrew the criticism but what were they thinking? Opus Dei? The Latin Mass Society? Guido Fawkes? The Church of England’s inclusively named education chief, the Revd Nigel Genders, put it with consummate Anglican tact: ‘Ofsted is increasingly being required to make nuanced judgments about aspects of school life where there are few, if any, guidelines. This is an unreasonable expectation to place on the inspectors.’
With his Catholic background and his experience as a faith school headmaster before Mossbourne, at St Bonaventure’s in east London, Michael Wilshaw is well qualified to draft some guidelines. But if he wants to prevent Ofsted being held up to public ridicule every week in the tabloids for ‘political correctness gone mad’, this time he will have to make sure his inspectors do what he says.
Hardly a month goes by without someone or other calling for Ofsted to be abolished. The National Union of Teachers has done it, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers has done it, and in September even a right-leaning think tank did it. But it is hard to see why any party leader would oblige. There is no conceivable political gain to be had. Parents genuinely do find those inspection grades useful.
We need a better Ofsted and our best bet of getting one remains Sir Michael Wilshaw. He will not be intimidated, so he must be wooed, cajoled and supported to complete the reforms he has begun, and given the funds to hire the best quality inspectors and to train them properly. All other options are worse.