First some good news. Sir Thomas Allen, opera star, Chancellor of Durham University and inspiration for the film Billy Eliot, gave this excellent speech to graduates of the Royal College of Music. Born in the mining village of Seaham Harbour, and with a childhood that he has described as “something out of a Catherine Cookson novel,” Sir Tom’s talents took him to Durham cathedral and the Royal College, where, never having heard of Mahler, he found himself singing in the Symphony of 1000, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
Music, he tells the students, is a tough business, but they also need to retain a sense of curiosity about everything else, not least the scientific world of their neighbours at Imperial College. The talk echoes Sir Anthony Seldon’s pleas for balance alongside achievement, and Sir Tom has followed the path himself, not least by giving Peter Allis a thorough going-over (according to Allis) on the golf course. He would make an excellent addition to the Order of Merit.
Further good news from Peterborough, where the gap between its test scores and the national average is narrowing thanks largely to an emphasis on literacy teaching in the third year of primary school and the involvement of the National Literacy Trust.
Year 3, which many of us will remember as the first year of junior school, used to be a Cinderella year, and a popular place for heads to park their weakest teachers. On the black day of Blair’s first election victory, I was on an inspection team not far from his constituency, and was roundly criticised by my colleagues, all ex-heads, for giving a very low grade to teaching in that year. “You’ve got to put them (your weakest teachers) somewhere,” said one. “I’ve done it myself.”
The truth is, of course, that we can’t afford to have weak teachers anywhere, but the third year is very important indeed for children who make a slower start in literacy. In the case of Peterborough, where an unusually high proportion of pupils do not speak English at home, Year 3 gives them an opportunity to consolidate their use of phonics and to build the vocabulary they need to succeed in the rest of their school work. Much of the work is based on Anthony Browne’s The Tunnel, a book about a brother and sister who don’t get on, but who come to understand each other after a disturbing adventure. The work, which would go well with Ros Wilson’s and Alan Peat’s approaches to writing, should be extended across the country.
Ofsted’s petulant response to criticism from the select committee brings us back to earth. The committee’s most forceful criticism, in terms that may be familiar to readers of this column, is here:
“Ofsted’s inability to identify problems at some Birmingham schools on first inspection when they were found shortly afterwards to be failing raises questions about the appropriateness of the framework and the reliability and robustness of Ofsted’s judgements and how they are reached. Either Ofsted relied too heavily on raw data and did not dig deep enough on previous occasions or alternatively the schools deteriorated so quickly that Ofsted reports were rapidly out of date, or it could be that inspectors lost objectivity and came to some overly negative conclusions because of the surrounding political and media storm. Whichever of these options is closest to the truth, confidence in Ofsted has been undermined and efforts should be made by the inspectorate to restore it in Birmingham and beyond.” (Paragraph 41)
Ofsted’s response, that they inspect “without fear or favour”, answers the second part of the criticism, but not the first, which does not question their integrity, but how they set about their work. The move to inspection based on data was one of Labour’s worst mistakes, and it has still to be put right. One reason for its persistence is that, with the exception of Sir Michael Tomlinson, chief inspectors have been recruited from the ranks of headteachers and administrators rather than Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. Inspection experience is discounted – in the recent cull of inspectors, it was not counted as experience at all – and one thing an inspector needs to learn is how to get at evidence that a school would prefer to downplay, if not to conceal. Headteachers know their own schools, but are much less equipped than experienced inspectors to get beneath the surface of another school’s presentation and find what is really happening.
The 2005 framework, and its successors, do not give inspectors time to do this, and a national service cannot be run on the basis of the second wave of Birmingham inspections, which sent in Ofsted’s equivalent of the SAS and got to the truth. Ofsted’s recent remodelling of its workforce has marked a further move against inspection and subject experience and retiring national subject inspectors are not being replaced. One result is that Ofsted has no evidence to offer in the current debate on modern languages. The remodelling has been carried out, yet again, by a person whose successful experience lies in the field of headship rather than inspection, and has resulted in the exclusion of at least one inspector who is the only person accredited to inspect their subject. “They don’t care how good an inspector you are,” one told me. “They just want more heads.”
Sir Michael Wilshaw has been talking about retirement. His successor should come from the diminishing ranks of Her Majesty’s Inspectors, and the inspectors must be given the means to do a proper job once again.