John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Jess Phillips, the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence, said this week that Ministers have “dropped the ball” on sexual violence in schools, and that the government has “not taken seriously this issue for too long”
She picked the wrong government. The decline started in 2005, when Labour slashed Ofsted’s capacity to inspect schools properly, forced the retirement of the excellent Michael Tomlinson, and imposed its place-man, David Bell, who had famously attended Tony Blair’s victory celebrations in Downing Street and later became Permanent Secretary to the Education Department.
Bell’s changes threw away over a hundred years of experience of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools (HMI), replacing them with the New Labour Dogma of “Every Child Matters,” in which achievement, one-half of five categories, counted for only ten per cent of the judgement on a school. Indeed, Labour went further, by giving a new examinations agency, Ofqual, authority equal to that of HMI, even though it lacked the educational knowledge that underpinned the inspectorate. This error continues to haunt us.
One casualty of these “reforms” was a confidential questionnaire for pupils, given out and collected by inspectors. Pupils’ responses often indicated that more than half felt that the school was poorly disciplined, and that nothing was being done about it – an embarrassment to the government.
Its acolytes in Ofsted responded by abolishing the questionnaire and so cutting off the evidence at source. Nothing new here: Labour’s response to the Bullock Report into falling reading standards was to abolish the test (NS6) that had identified the problem. We have not had a standardised national test since.
Inspectors under Sir Michael – the only professional inspector to be appointed to the post of HMCI – had time to talk to pupils, and to follow up indications that things might not be as they seemed. This was not always welcomed. In my tim as an inspector, one of my teams found a pattern of systematic abuse of women teachers by male pupils, including an incident in which one was sprayed with hair lacquer by a pupil after she pleaded with him not to, since she was allergic to it.
The mentor for newly qualified teachers told us that he always came to an interview with box of tissues, and a female inspector, who was also a magistrate, collated this evidence to support our judgement that behaviour was unsatisfactory.
The governors responded with fury, complaining to Ofsted (their complaint was rejected) and sacking their newly-appointed headteacher, who had immediately understood the situation, and shared the view of the inspectors. I was astonished that even female governors were prepared to go along with this, but they did.
The problem is still with us. While writing this article, I had a social media communication from a teacher who had tried to stop a group of boys from taunting a girl and calling her a slag, because she had gone out with a pupil from another year group. They laughed at her.
Her point – that she could not fight a culture of ignorance and abuse on her own – was correct. One teacher can be a rock, but the tide will flow round it. In Michael Wilshaw’s schools, or those that have picked up his torch, such behaviour would have drawn an immediate and lengthy detention at the very least, and so would not have happened. (Sir Michael was a head teacher before becoming Chief Inspector of Schools during the Coalition years.)
Too many headteachers, however, refuse to use the powers that Conservative Ministers have given them, and so have allowed the problem to fester. Those who stand against it face abuse from parents who think their children are entitled to behave poorly, and even to assault staff. Some, such as Barry Smith, have the courage to face up to it, at whatever personal cost. Most go with the flow, which only goes in one direction.
It is neither reasonable nor possible for Ofsted to cleanse these Augean stables. Amanda Spielman, who is showing herself a worthy successor to Michael Tomlinson, is carefully rebuilding the quality and reputation of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate.
She is not afraid to give the government bad news, and the quality and incisiveness of reports is improving. What she and her colleagues can’t do is investigate every aspect of a large school with a handful of inspectors over a couple of days. Efficiency is one thing, inadequate provision another.
The Government has been too slow to correct Labour’s errors, and has actually worsened the situation by not inspecting supposedly outstanding schools – the teacher I referred to above teaches in one.
“Every headteacher captain of their own ship,” has its appeal, but alongside Captain Hardy were some, like Kirby and Wade, who would not fight their ship, and then there are the likes of Captains Bligh and Pigot.
A realistic response to the present scandal might be to require each headteacher to prepare a report to their governors and publish it. Parents could then see whether matters had been properly investigated, and whether appropriate action was being taken, and only complain to Ofsted if they were not satisfied. The Government could then rectify the situation by giving Spielman and her colleagues the time and resources they need to do their job properly once again.