John Bald, an independent educational consultant, and blogger gives an insiders account of the fall of Ofsted
Chris Woodhead’s resignation as chief inspector of schools (HMCI) was followed by a difficult period while New Labour got its man in place. Mike Tomlinson, who had been responsible for quality control in the
organisation and had built its reputation for tough-minded but clear and generally accurate reports, was a professional inspector and not a politician – Sir Mike remains the only professional inspector to have
been HMCI, and would probably figure in the top three school inspectors in our history (Sheila Browne and Matthew Arnold would be my other nominations).
Unfortunately, Chris Woodhead’s appointment as an outsider with party sympathies – he was seen to attend a Conservative conference fringe meeting – set a precedent for New Labour to do the same thing. The letter of the law was invoked to force Sir Mike’s “retirement” at 60 and David Bell, a former Headteacher turned Labour local government executive (Newcastle and Bedfordshire) who had trained as an inspector but had done very little inspection (no details of his inspection experience have ever been published) was put in place.
Mr Bell’s indiscretion, reported in the Sunday Times, was to attend New Labour’s victory party in Downing Street in 1997. Ofsted was quickly signed up to promote Blair’s idea of “joined up government”, and its motto, “improving education through inspection”, was changed to “better education and care” (the Institute of Education followed suit shortly afterwards).
Huge changes were made to inspection, based on five principles (emotively titled Every Child Matters), only one of which mentions achievement. A raft of new HMI were appointed, all of whom had to write essays on HMCI’s pet subject, “the management of change”. Inspectors no longer inspected subjects, reflecting advice to New Labour from Professor John White of the Institute of Education that subjects did not reflect the government’s purposes. Professor White, incidentally, is still at it – see TES, 21 January 2011 and the attached comments.
Not only that, they barely inspected the school at all. I trained as an inspector under these new arrangements, and got through by keeping my mouth shut when a “trainer” – not an HMI – told us that it was perfectly possible to inspect a school without seeing any teaching at all. “Year zero” for the new regime was 2005.
When I went on an inspection, the HMI in charge announced to the head and senior
management of a large secondary school that “we haven’t got time to inspect teaching, we have to go on what you tell us”. He then let the school set the agenda for the first day’s inspection (we only saw
lessons for a day and a half). Lo and behold, everyone we were sent to see had been graded excellent on the previous inspection. He didn’t open the parents’ questionnaires until the morning of the second day,
when it was too late to follow anything up – the parents’ meeting had been abolished, as had the questionnaires to pupils, who had tended to be very critical about standards of behaviour.
An unsatisfactory grade to a history lesson was ignored because history was not part of the focus of the inspection. By the time the HMI had decided that we needed to see teachers rated average by the school in classes which had gifted children, he couldn’t find any on the timetable, and so sent me to see an English class for pupils predicted to get grade D at GCSE “which might have some gifted children in it”.
This inspection was not untypical – I’ve read dozens of reports in which no teaching was observed, where praise for provision for special needs was handed out on the basis of paperwork rather than children’s progress, where serious shortcomings, such as failure to mark books, were mentioned in passing with no requirement to take action, and where subjects in crisis, notably languages, were not inspected at all, and where inspectors gave good reports on behaviour when they were not in school long enough to know whether it was good or not.
Headteachers began to lose their jobs on the basis of test results that were the object of suspect and often inaccurate marking, and interpreted on the hoof by dubious “contextual value added” results – a savvy primary head makes sure there are not too many high grades for seven year olds, as this sets too high a benchmark for progress at 11, hence risking their job. Strange that Ofsted should give headteachers, with the moral and social responsibilities they bear, such a perverse incentive to hold children back.
At the same time, failure to complete paperwork on child protection became an immediate hanging matter, and Ofsted set out on its disastrous series of inspections of everything in sight, whether or not it had the skills necessary to do the work. It became farcical when one of its elfnsafety fanatics tried to ban a rescued West Highland Terrier from a school on the grounds that it might lick children’s hands. The organisation’s reputation hit rock-bottom with the appearance of the current HMCI – another former Labour local authority executive with little or no inspection experience - before the commons select committee, when she claimed not even to know the name of the inspector who had carried out the first inspection of Haringey.
Since then, Ofsted has begun to claw its way back. Heather Brown, HMI, wrote an excellent final report on the Haringey scandal that defeated the lawsuit of the former Director of Children’s Services, and recent reports on mathematics, English and foreign languages that have reminded us that we still have some proper HMI, to whom we can listen with respect and from whom we can learn. Ultralight inspections, little more than a cup of coffee with the head, have been replaced with something closer to the successful short inspection format used before the New Labour takeover, and some inspectors have started once again to make judgements on the evidence before them and not on dodgy test results.
The government proposes further improvements in the White Paper and is, I believe, considering reintroducing the questionnaire for pupils, which gave more insights into the real pattern of behaviour in a school than any other single piece of evidence.
Still, councillors and school governors are in a difficult position. Ofsted has huge authority, and its findings are often reported uncritically by local papers, who do not always have the skills or the patience to probe the basis of a report. The best of the new reports are incisive, clearly argued and based on full consideration of the evidence.
Reports written between 2005 and September 2009, are not properly grounded in first hand evidence and are suspect – many of the inspectors who wrote them are still active, and many still believe in the 2005 agenda. The only safe and honourable approach is to know the school or other area of responsibility well enough to be able to judge whether a report is accurate or not, and then to have the courage to reject an unjust finding.