The government and the teaching unions both want to see the education watchdog Oftsed reform itselfby John Harris / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
The academy’s work to raise students’ awareness of the risks of extremism is inadequate… Students are not taught citizenship well enough or prepared properly for life in a diverse and multicultural society… During a recent academy fête, raffles and tombolas were banned because they are considered un-Islamic…”
On and on they go: scores of observations, long since streaked across the media, from five Birmingham schools that were recently placed in so-called “special measures” at the height of the “Trojan horse” affair—that spectacular drama centered on allegations that, perhaps thanks to a plot, an array of non-faith state schools in England’s second city were pushed into embracing conservative practices based on religious dogma. At the heart of it all, clinging on to ideas of fairness and due process while controversy simmered away, there sat the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), founded by the-then Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke in 1992, and currently at its all-time peak of visibility.
Between March and May, Ofsted inspected 21 schools alleged to have been subject to Islamification (see p64), passing judgement on them in early June—though some people still wonder if it should have been involved at all. Among them is Tim Brighouse, the Chief Education Officer in Birmingham from 1993-2002, and subsequently Commissioner of Schools for London. His basic contention is simple: “You don’t send in inexperienced people who have probably never looked for [radicalisation and extremism] before. Ofsted should have said, ‘We have no experience of doing this, and we’re not equipped for it.’”
Having worked as an English teacher and secondary head, Michael Cladingbowl was until recently Ofsted’s National Director of Schools, and is now charged with leading wide-ranging changes to its work. When we talk about the Trojan horse story, he guides me through a couple of the relevant Ofsted protocols, and then sounds a contrasting note of hardened confidence. “If there’s a serious concern about leadership or safeguarding in a school, we will go in and inspect it,” he insists. “The inspectors did their work using our normal procedures, and we found a number of schools that were doing things really well, and a number of schools that were doing things really badly.”
Ofsted’s inspections in Birmingham were followed by an announcement by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education(until 14th July 2014), that its role in exposing extremism would be boosted by no-notice inspections that the press characterised as “dawn raids” (something Ofsted has long had the power to do, though no one seemed to notice). At that point, the story took a very familiar turn. During an interview on Newsnight, Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw claimed that he had proposed such visits by inspectors two years before, only for Gove to overrule him. The following day, the Department for Education (DfE) insisted that Gove had repeatedly advocated the policy Wilshaw said he had opposed, and Wilshaw conceded that it was he himself who had decided against no-notice inspections.
This did not suggest the most harmonious of relationships—and the differences between the two men’s responses went much deeper. Wilshaw suggested that DfE’s oversight of academies had been an issue. He also urged the government to “provide much greater clarity to all schools (including academies and free schools) on what should be taught in a broad and balanced curriculum”—an explicit challenge to the freedoms Gove believes are central to the two kinds of school at the heart of his personal project. Not for the first time, the abiding impression was of two men who have developed the capacity to drive each other mad, at the same time as unprecedented changes are happening within the English education system, and the theory and practice of schools inspection has probably never been so controversial.
The current phase of Ofsted’s 22-year history is brimming with tensions. Education policy is couched in terms of letting thousands of flowers boom, but it is also more dependent than ever on edicts and judgements passed down from the centre. The people who oversee England’s schools evidently think that complacency must be avenged and staff kept on their toes, but teachers say that schools now do their work within a culture of fear. Ofsted and the DfE sometimes blur into each other, and plenty of people think the former too often enforces the latter’s agenda. But fundamental differences of opinion between Wilshaw and Gove are apparent, and the Education Secretary’s supporters have been rattled by negative Ofsted judgements on some academies and free schools. On both left and right, the debate about education in England tends to be framed in terms of primary-coloured positions and goodies versus baddies; when it comes to the politics of school inspections, the truth is that everything is complicated, and getting more so by the month.
Ofsted is currently in the midst of an all-encompassing review. The details will start to become clear in the autumn, but it has already led to announcements of some very significant changes. The Trojan horse affair has given its work new urgency and controversy. If you want a sense not just of where education policy might be headed, but an indication of the future relationship between society and the state, Ofsted is a very good place to start.
For most teachers, Ofsted remains a byword for low-level anxiety that can instantly explode into full-blown panic. “Ofsted phone one day and come in the next,” one teacher told me recently. “And it’s horrible. Not that long ago, we knew we were due an inspection, and every morning it’d be, ‘Ofsted might phone today.’ That went on for nine months. It’s completely wearing, because it’s so high-stakes. You could see people visibly wince every time Ofsted was mentioned.” She went on: “They’ve got to phone by one o’clock. And there’s almost a collective sigh of relief in a school that’s due an Ofsted visit, when they get past one o’clock and there hasn’t been a tannoy for a staff meeting: ‘They’re not coming!’ Or there is a tannoy, and it’s, ‘Oh. My. God. They’re coming.’”
Among other things, Ofsted inspects and regulates child-minding, children’s social care, and teacher training—as well as local authorities’ arrangements for what it calls “school improvement,” a responsibility it acquired in 2013. The core of its work, though, is its direct oversight of England’s schools: within the state sector, 16,788 primaries and 3,329 secondaries, which together educate around 8.3m pupils. Ofsted also has the power to pass judgement on around 1,200 fee-paying institutions which are not members of the Independent Schools Council, which has its own private inspectorate—though plans are afoot to subject all private schools to what DfE briefings call “Ofsted-style inspections.”
Ofsted’s verdicts are built on four possible ratings—“outstanding,” “good,” “requires improvement” and “inadequate”—which are given in the categories of “achievement of pupils,” “quality of teaching,” “behaviour and safety of pupils” and “leadership and management,” and a single overall judgement. With the air of a Soviet commissar passing judgement on a collective farm, Ofsted’s overall rating is often enough to either send a school into miserable introspection—and, if it is still run by a local authority, reinvention as an academy—or a huge burst of euphoria, commemorated on the front page of the local paper.
As the Trojan horse case shows, the Department for Education can summarily send in Ofsted whenever it likes. On the whole, schools rated “outstanding” cannot just hang out the bunting but can also consider themselves effectively exempt from routine inspections, unless annual “risk assessments” that begin three years after the last inspection suggest otherwise. A “good” rating means that inspectors will probably not visit for at least three years, and probably five. By contrast, if a school “requires improvement” it will be monitored and fully inspected again within two years. An “inadequate” rating entails either monitoring and another inspection within 18 months, or—if a school is placed in the dreaded “special measures” category—up to five monitoring inspections over an 18-month period, and another full inspection within two years. Because of its association with failing school leadership, this latter category often involves the departure of senior staff—and if the school is run by a local authority, forced exit from those arrangements and reinvention as an academy.
Those are the facts; just about everything else concerning Ofsted’s role in the English school system is surrounded by great clouds of debate and disagreement. Moreover, if its work often seems to kick up no end of controversy, that may well be the way that Wilshaw likes it. With the exception of the notoriously outspoken Chris Woodhead (who, in 1995, claimed that there were no fewer than 15,000 “incompetent teachers”), most of his predecessors have been measured and careful operators. But Wilshaw—who made his name as the headteacher of two east London secondary schools, St Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate and the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, and was appointed to the role of Chief Inspector by Gove in 2012—is clearly minded to jangle nerves whenever possible.
Wilshaw gives interviews, delivers speeches and writes op-ed pieces at a frantic rate. Just before he began the job, he looked back on his time as a headteacher and claimed that “if anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low, you will know you are doing something right.” Recently, he has torn into what he sees as the malign legacy of educational fashions that peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, and floated the idea of errant parents being fined if their children fail to do their homework.
On the face of it, this seems to be in full accord with the kind of exacting, back-to-the-future thinking one hears from Gove. But on the right there is a rising chorus of voices (who, according to Wilshaw, may have been “informed by people at the Department for Education” and “possibly” Gove’s special advisors) claiming that Ofsted is actually more in league with the progressive, “child-centred” approaches that Gove is seemingly on a mission to wipe out. Sometimes, this is phrased in terms of high philosophy, as when David Green, Chief Executive of Civitas, the right-leaning thinktank, sounded off about Ofsted’s supposed failures in January. “Ofsted’s approach is based on a narrow theory of human nature, which assumes that individuals are self-serving and must be motivated by external sticks and carrots,” he wrote. By way of something a bit less abstract, he then took against a negative Ofsted judgement of an unnamed free school, rated “outstanding” for everything apart from its teaching, which had merely merited a “good.” Green complained: “When the head asked the inspector why, he was told that some of the teaching was ‘too didactic.’ Whole-class teaching [where a teacher teaches the entire class the same lesson, designing it for the average pupil] was frowned on before 2010, but it is no longer supposed to be an Ofsted-proscribed activity. And yet, the Ofsted inspector was enforcing the theory that lessons should be pupil-initiated and not teacher-led.”
At Ofsted HQ, Michael Cladingbowl, Director of Inspection Reform, affects to swat this away. “Ofsted does not have a preferred teaching style,” he insists. “We’re no more likely to advocate exclusively didactic teaching as exclusively child-centred learning.” But do their inspectors perhaps have preferences somewhere between those two extremes? “Absolutely not. I’m a teacher. I’ve taught in all sorts of ways over the years… you’ve got to allow teachers to teach, and give them the freedom they need.”
Some on the right, I remind him, now support a different Ofsted framework for academies and free schools, so as to give those committed to didactic methods a break. “I’m on record as saying that’s one of the most ludicrous suggestions I’ve ever heard,” he says. “I cannot believe that anyone in their right mind could seriously advocate that we inspect a free school or an academy in a way that’s different from a maintained school. It doesn’t make sense.”
And so to those on the left of the education debate, who regularly make the claim that Ofsted has too often acted as an enabler and enforcer of the policy agenda pursued by Gove and, before him, Labour education secretaries—particularly when it comes to the conversion of council-run community schools into academies. On this score, plenty of stories scattered around England are cited as evidence, and many have the same basic details. Some schools report being contacted by DfE academy brokers before Ofsted verdicts have even been published; some of the same schools, and others, have suggested that inspectors have put them in special measures—sometimes after previous “outstanding” judgements—as a brazen precursor to conversion into an academy.
Earlier this year, there came news that Ofsted was at least aware of some schools’ alarm about brokers jumping into action before reports had even been published, and reviewing a protocol about sharing information about inadequate schools with DfE. That does not wholly answer a very deep set of concerns, although it may be a start. But there still remain real worries about politicised inspections, and Ofsted effectively using its operations to push schools towards academy sponsors.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Cladingbowl. “We are fiercely independent of government. We wouldn’t criticise government as often as we do if we weren’t… We are not in cahoots with anybody. No inspection judgement is made on the basis that it would help turn a school into an academy.”
I bring up the high-profile case of Downhills Primary School in Tottenham. In January 2011, it was inspected by Ofsted and given “notice to improve.” A subsequent monitoring inspection acknowledged that the school was making “reasonable progress.” At that point, Gove announced that the school was to be closed and re-opened as an academy, sparking no end of opposition from teachers and parents. He then ordered another Ofsted inspection—whereupon a team headed by the same inspector who had led the previous visit came to a much more swingeing verdict, and put the school in special measures. In 2012, Downhills was replaced by a new school run by the academies federation founded by the Tory peer and carpet magnate Philip Harris: another primary school to add to its handsome collection of secondaries. Parents and teachers had long since concluded that something deeply untoward had gone on, and it was not hard to see their point.
“You can see why they would put two and two together and come up with five,” says Cladingbowl. “And that’s exactly what they did do… There’s absolutely no evidence, and no way, that Ofsted inspectors would arrive at a judgement because it was what the Secretary of State wanted.”
Some things highlighted by the continuing suspicions of collusion between Ofsted and the Department for Education are simple enough. One is to do with the eternally limited British understanding of such quaint notions as the separation of powers and checks and balances, and an apparent belief that it is enough to come to gentleman’s agreements and repeatedly insist that two obviously linked parts of the state are actually completely independent of each other. For as long as Ofsted’s leaders are appointed by the Education Secretary, all this will be problematic, and people at the receiving end of Ofsted’s decisions will often smell a rat. Of late, one news story in particular has demonstrated that politicians are not nearly as sensitive to all this as they should be: at the time of writing, the alleged favourite for the role of Ofsted chair (made vacant when Gove chose not to renew the contract of the Labour peer Sally Morgan earlier this year) was David Ross, the colourful founder of the retail chain Carphone Warehouse, a donor to the Conservative Party, and the chief benefactor of the David Ross Education Trust, which now runs over 20 academies. Speculation about his chances was replete with a sense of conflicts of interest; if he were to be appointed, the questions asked of Ofsted and the DfE would surely carry far into the future.
A second problem for Ofsted is bound up with what happens if a Chief Inspector gets into the habit of making opinionated pronouncements: teachers (and parents) detect an agenda, and the more controversial aspects of school inspections appear to fit with it. Yet within recent memory, Ofsted has been run in a much more emollient way—something of which I’m reminded when I speak to David Bell, the Chief Inspector between 2002 and 2006 (he served under Estelle Morris, Charles Clarke and the long-forgotten Ruth Kelly), and now the Vice-Chancellor of Reading University.
Bell is a careful, measured voice in the education debate, recently heard warning Gove about too many “yes men” in the DfE. What he says to me points up the potentially explosive nature of what Ofsted and its inspectors do. While he was in charge, he felt that “the inspections system had to be aligned behind the government priorities of the day, on the grounds that in the end, the inspectorate is a creature of government. But it had a particular role to play based on the independence of its inspection judgements.”
That sounds reasonable enough, I suggest. But it implies a very delicate walk. “In a funny sort of way, it never felt delicate on the front line,” he replies, “because the clear instruction I gave to inspectors was to judge the quality of education that they found.”
During his time at Ofsted, accepting such words at face value was perhaps that bit easier than it is now, given his sparing approach to the media and sensitive treatment of teachers—compared to some people, at least. Wilshaw, I remind him, has been a very vocal Chief Inspector indeed. “It depends on the style of individual chief inspectors,” he says. “My own personal view was, I was most likely to have most impact if I spoke principally from the evidence… Various chief inspectors judge what their head-room is, and whether they want to go beyond the evidence base. The media likes the Chief Inspector to do that, and you have a platform. My view always was that you use that with care.”
Aside from the question of whether its boss should shoot from the hip, Ofsted faces another big question: in an age of precise metrics and endless data on pupil attainment, why does it not behave in a much more targeted, light-footed way?
As it happens, Ofsted may be moving in this direction. In March, Wilshaw announced that full inspections might soon be reserved for struggling schools, and those coming close to being rated “outstanding,” with schools rated as “good”—now 60 per cent of the total—no longer subject to full routine inspections. In May, he also called time on school inspection contracts signed with Serco, Tribal and the education provider CfBT—a move seemingly aimed at addressing suggestions of erratic verdicts.
These changes are part of a much bigger review of what Ofsted does, led by Cladingbowl, who is keen to talk about an environment “where teachers can flourish, and heads can take risks—where schools aren’t afraid of innovating.” This might be interpreted as a response to criticisms that Ofsted has used oppressive means to bring about conformist ends and stifled creativity; Cladingbowl, not surprisingly, casts the changes as a response to his organisation’s own success. “Everything is of its time,” he says. “If we were to replicate what we were doing now, it would be out of kilter. Schools are now better places than they were, basically. Eight out of 10 schools are now good or outstanding.”
Provided individual schools are rated as such, most inspections will be shorter, often based around a single inspector paying a school a visit once every three years, talking to some of the staff and then writing a letter to parents to assure them all is well. Inspectors will have a broader focus—as Cladingbowl sees it, on not just dry academic factors but “how well children are being prepared for their future lives, and their personal development.” There will also be an attempt to draw together the inspection frameworks that cater to particular phases of schooling and sectors of the education system. Everything will start in earnest this autumn; the plan is to implement the changes by September 2015.
To take the most optimistic of view of what the changes might mean, here might be a rare example of a branch of the central state acknowledging its failures and flaws, and pushing itself towards a much more sensitive and nuanced way of thinking. But there remain plenty of people who think that Ofsted’s most negative aspects are so deeply ingrained that only drastic changes would root them out.
Tim Brighouse reckons that Ofsted’s problems have largely been traceable to two very familiar factors: what soldiers call mission creep, and also simple hubris. “Ofsted could never resist the invitation to do more and more things,” he says. “It’s also had at least a couple of very inexperienced chief inspectors, and they have found it impossible to resist the temptation to try and change the world. I want to change the world, but I don’t think I’d go and run Ofsted.” As well as Chris Woodhead, this is clearly a reference to Wilshaw. “I actually like Michael,” Brighouse says. “He is a super, super guy. But he doesn’t realise the complication of being a remote leader. Which is that you win or lose the opinion of thousands of people in a large organisation by your public utterances.”
Thirty or so seconds later, Brighouse goes back to the Trojan horse affair, and sounds a note of real alarm—cutting across the more sympathetic projections of Ofsted’s future, and going back to arguably the central question of not just education policy, but modern government: whether, even at its most fretful, the state should so easily become panicked and punitive.
Here, it seems, is one person who will take a lot of convincing before he drops the idea of Ofsted as a clumsy, micro-managing force, forever prone to overreacting. “I once called Ofsted the Reign of Terror and compared it to the French Revolution,” he says, with a mischievous snort. “But now Wilshaw is saying they’re going to give no-notice inspections, it’s the Spanish Inquisition. That’s still my worry: that they’re looking for heresies.”