John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of writing and spelling.
After my recent comments on Ofsted, I was pleased to receive a personal invitation from Sir Michael Wilshaw to attend the presentation of his final annual report. On the way, I thought of a late and highly-valued colleague at Hackney, whose son had attended Mossbourne Community Academy, and was now at Cambridge. Several former pupils were present at a gathering that was a celebration of a career spanning almost fifty years, and which Sir Michael rightly saw as part of a process of educational reform that began with James Callaghan’s speech at Ruskin College in 1976.
The report’s messages were blended with Sir Michael’s personal views. Things are better now than when he had started in the seventies, when London schools in particular were “dire”, with many as bad as those that had made national headlines. There are more good schools now than when he had started as HMCI in 2012, and in Coventry, the number of good primary schools has more than doubled. But there are also serious weaknesses, including a threat to the supply of teachers, a growing North-South divide, inadequate Further Education colleges and technical education, and a threat from extremists under the guise of unregulated schools, an issue on which his specialist team of inspectors was “struggling to cover the ground.”
I asked Sir Michael if this was not true of all of Ofsted’s specialist teams, and, if so, if the judgement that a school was good was grounded on sufficient evidence. I had in mind the pupil I wrote about in my last posting, whose school had been rated good despite a significant weakness in maths, not to mention the scandalous mis-teaching of German. My question was preceded by one from FE Weekly, who pointed out that some colleges had not been visited by Ofsted for ten years.
Sir Michael said that he wasn’t surprised at the question, as he followed this column. He tended to find that a school that was good or bad in one subject tended to be good or bad in others, and that what mattered was leadership.
A senior Ofsted official added that my insistence on specialist inspection of subjects was no longer needed, as things had improved so much, and that to spend money on it was “silly.” “Silly,” did not answer the underlying question – if Ofsted has not visited a school and observed teaching and learning in detail, can we rely on its report? And if not, should it be producing a grade for these schools at all?
I showed the official an example from Sir Michael’s report. A school had been reported as doing “especially well” with its most able pupils in a subject in which I’m interested. When I’d rung the school to discuss the work, they asked me to help them fix it, as the subject was, in fact, a weakness. When the official asked me how I knew that the able pupils were not doing especially well, I replied that I’d been there and observed the work. Ofsted had not.
And what of the German issue? The official said that such abuse was so widespread that Ofsted could not comment on it without criticising all of the schools. But that is the point – data on languages are corrupt, and inspection based on corrupt data is worthless. Ofsted needs to find out what is really happening, and tell us.
All of this leaves a headache for Sir Michael’s successor. He agreed with my suggestion that Ofsted was “running on empty” and said that the budget had been severely cut under the coalition, to £120m. Education alone has a budget of £85 billion, and Ofsted has other services to inspect. Allocating such a tiny amount to quality control, at a time of major change, has been a mistake on the part of the government, and has made it impossible to nip potential scandals in the bud.
Sir Michael is not responsible for the system set up by Labour under the 2006 Education and Inspections Act, and he, like his predecessors, has done his best to play the hand he has been dealt. Ms Spielman needs and deserves better. Ofsted must be put in a position to do its work properly once more, and Labour’s botched 2006 Act should be repealed.