Ofsted’s latest report, Key Stage 3 (pupils aged 11-14), The Wasted Years?, is dynamite. After ten years of sanitised inspection, based on unreliable data rather than direct observation, HMI have returned to their roots, looked hard at what is actually going on, and got to the truth. Almost half of the 70 languages lessons observed were “not good enough”, as were two in five history lessons and one in three geography lessons. This is the highest proportion of sub-standard work reported by Ofsted since its inception. Of 100 headteachers interviewed, only one in ten had plans to ensure the best progress from their most able pupils. One pupil’s comment on maths sums up the attitude – “I don’t think they know what we did in primary, so we just did it again.”
Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was quick to express his disappointment. Unfortunately, he was not disappointed with the sub-standard work, but with Ofsted for exposing it. Speaking personally, I’m a good deal more than disappointed – I’m hopping mad, both at the fate of the pupils I help who are receiving this rubbish week after week, and that the cover-up, put in place by Labour in 2005, has taken ten years to become fully exposed.
There are more examples than I can count. A fourteen year old I taught had so little idea of geography that he could not pick out a single continent on a map of the world, and thought Australia was Spain. Educating Cardiff last week had a similar dialogue between two pupils – “Where’s Switzerland?” – “New Zealand.” A 12 year old relative has spent a year supposedly learning German without composing a single sentence, orally or in writing – all she has been given is vocabulary, with no textbook. This pupil’s brother was told that he would be learning Spanish, and I started to teach him some. When I asked him after his first week how he’d got on in Spanish, he replied, “It’s a language that’s a bit like Spanish, but it’s not.” The school had switched him to Italian, without informing his parents. The Italian was taught by a Spanish teacher who didn’t know Italian, and was teaching it from a textbook, learning as she went along. The exercise presumably allowed the school to say in its prospectus that it offered Italian.
A pupil from another school, rated outstanding by Ofsted (by letter, without benefit of a visit) was told in July by the deputy head that he’d have a choice between Spanish and French. He chose Spanish, and, once again, I started to teach him some. When he got there, the school had decided that all new pupils would do French. This may or may not have been connected with a bad set of GCSE results in Spanish. His geography lesson did not inspire confidence. He had copied from the board a discussion and tables showing how economic activity could by (sic) characterised. The only thing he had written himself was a summary , which ran thus “I have learnt that cotan plants are real”. I asked him what cotton was – “Wool”. His mother pointed out that wool came from sheep. Where did cotton come from? Shrug of shoulders. He had not understood that cotton came from a plant after all. A hard-hitting HMI report of 1979, Aspects of Secondary Education, had similar examples of pupils copying things they did not understand, while their own writing contained thoughts such as “Farman is wer you hav crops and you neb pllt land for the grops…” We have not made much progress.
How have things come to be like this? Sir Michael Wilshaw commented that heads were primarily concerned with exam results, and so put their best teachers in examination classes. This, though, has always been the case. However, until 2005 Ofsted inspectors were required to take a balanced approach to the work of a school, sampling pupils’ work in all year groups, reporting on standards in each phase, talking to pupils, and indeed using a questionnaire to find their own views on work, discipline and behaviour. These were often highly critical, and so were dropped – as, to my disgust, were the short “cameo” reports on excellent teaching. Labour was not interested in excellence except as part of a slogan.
Even the term “outstanding ” was based on spin. To make the state sector look better, Labour combined the two top grades, very good and excellent, into one, to which it attached a synonym for excellent. Result – an instant improvement in the proportion of schools with the top grade. Inconvenient evidence could be ignored. On the one inspection I took part in under the 2005 Framework, the lead inspector told the school that he didn’t have time to inspect teaching, but had to go on what they told him. He decided that an unsatisfactory lesson (in geography) could be ignored as it was not part of the focus of the inspection. I was told while “training” for these inspections that it was perfectly possible to inspect a school without seeing any teaching. That kind of thinking allowed the perpetrators of Trojan Horse to continue unmolested, and we now see that is has had even wider consequences.
Sir Michael has complained recently of television programmes showing state schools in a poor light, on the grounds that this will hamper teacher recruitment. He is wrong to do so. It is not broadcasters’ job to show schools in a good or bad light, but as they are. It is up to the authorities, all of them, to make sure that situations like those we have all seen are kept to a minimum and dealt with effectively when they arise. This report is an important step in the right direction, and must not be the last.