Ofsted: Gove’s Trojan Horse

For some time now it has been clear that Ofsted functions as the political instrument of central government.   Until recently this instrumentalization was mostly manifest in general terms; for governments intent on scapegoating teachers for the many failings of British society, Ofsted’s inquisitorial inspection system constituted a useful blunt instrument for intimidating and bullying schools, subjecting the entire education system to factory-style production quotas and markers of achievement of the type that Stalin would have approved of.

Initially introduced by John Major as a means of empowering parents, Ofsted has become a tool of both Labour and Conservative governments, enforcing and imposing constantly shifting educational targets and criteria that too often appear designed either to gain political kudos for raising ‘standards’, on one hand, or for ensuring that schools fail and fall short in order to justify the further privatisation of schools and the dismantling of the state education system.

Under the Coalition, Ofsted has essentially acted as a battering ram for the government’s academy/free schools program.   In 2010 new inspection criteria introduced under Michael Wilshaw resulted in an exponential increase in the numbers of schools downgraded or placed into special measures, and a concomitant decrease in the numbers labelled outstanding.

This system has had an extraordinarily destructive impact, which I have seen here in my own town, where two fine schools were savaged by recent Ofsted inspections,   one of which was placed into special measures.       From the government’s point of view, all this has been extremely convenient, because the more schools fail, or are seen to fail, the more it can present academies and free schools as a solution.

This has been the essential project of Michael Gove, one of the most blinkered, ideological, egocentric and incompetent education secretaries in modern times.   Gove is a man who has spent much of his time peering at the world through a very narrow keyhole, who despises the state education system and anyone who disagrees with him – a category that includes a lot of people.

In Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw, a former academy head teacher, he appears to have found a more-than-willing accomplice.   Like Gove, Wilshaw is clearly an ambitious man who cannot be accused of a lack of self-regard, and he has generally done what the Education Secretary expects him to do.

This collusion   was blatant enough even before the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ scandal, but the events of the last week have comprehensively destroyed Ofsted’s claims to be impartial and free from political interference.     As a result of Gove’s wildly over-the-top response to a hoax letter concerning   a purported Islamist plot to take over Birmingham schools, Ofsted re-inspected 21 schools, six of which have been placed under special measures.

Two of the schools it downgraded had been previously found to be outstanding. These reassessments were not based on educational criteria, but on the supposed promotion of a conservative religious agenda in Muslim-majority schools – an agenda that Ofsted, like Gove himself, has mindlessly and dangerously conflated with ‘extremism’.   Not only has Ofsted avoided any attempt to define what exactly constitutes ‘extremism’, but it has admitted in its own report that it did not find any evidence of it.

What it did find was somewhat inconclusive evidence of some attempts to promote/impose a religious education into some of the schools inspected, that included a school trip to Mecca and Medina, a statement rejecting evolution, and an attempt by some school governors in one primary school to ban same-sex swimming classes.

There is certainly an argument to be had here about the role of religion in the state education system – particularly in its more reactionary manifestations, whether Islamic or Christian, and also about the undue influence that school governors may have on particular schools.

But this is not the discussion that Gove and Ofsted are interested in having.     Long before Gove assumed his gimlet-eyed grip on the education system that we have all come to know and love, he was a British neocon, who echoed the ‘moral clarity’ idiocies emanating from the likes of American war on terror ideologues like Richard Perle and William Bennett.

In his book Celsius 7/7, Gove warned of a ‘widespread reluctance to acknowledge the real scale and nature of the Islamist terror threat’   in Britain, which he attributed to ‘ the failure to scrutinise, monitor or check the actions, funding and operation of those committed to spreading the Islamist word in Britain’.

For Gove, and for those who think like him, the ‘Islamist word’ is a fairly broad category, which enables him to imagine a seamless conveyor belt that starts with segregated classrooms and swimming classes and ends up with suicide bombers.   Like Melanie Philipps or Bat Ye’or, Gove imagines ‘Islamism’ in essentially conspiratorial terms, and is certainly not the type to look skeptically at allegations of an Islamist ‘trojan horse’ – especially if uncovering such a conspiracy is likely to further his political ambitions.

To its eternal discredit, Ofsted and Wilshaw have done everything possible to help make Gove’s fantasies real.   Like so   many managerial bullies, Wilshaw likes other people to fail, not himself.   In his letter to Gove he is at pains to point out that culture of fear and intimidation has developed in some of the schools since their previous inspection.’ One of those schools is Park View academy, which Wilshaw personally visited in 2012 when Ofsted rated it ‘outstanding.’

Wilshaw was fulsome in his praises of the school declaring ‘ If a school like this does well, why shouldn’t any school do well?’   Now Park View has been placed in special measures, and one of its governors Tahrir Aram- who was also present during Wilshaw’s 2012 visit – has been singled out for promoting this ‘culture of fear and intimidation.’

Having exonerated himself from any involvement in this outcome, Wilshaw goes on to indict everyone else in accordance with His Master’s instructions.   Yet despite the excessive Islamism that Wilshaw attributes to certain governors and schools,   which has mysteriously sprouted up since he last visited them,     Ofsted has found no evidence of extremist behavior amongst any pupils or staff.

Knowing that this won’t be good enough for Gove however, Wilshaw nevertheless indicts Birmingham’s schools for having failed to protect students from ‘the risks’   of radicalisation and extremism.   In Oldknow primary, Wilshaw declares that ‘ pupils and staff are poorly equipped to understand, respond to or calculate risks associated with extreme or intolerant views.’

Birmingham City Council, on the other hand, is accused of failing support schools ‘in their efforts to keep pupils safe from the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism.’   What are these ‘risks’ or ‘potential risks’?     And what makes Ofsted qualified to assess them?   What in fact does Ofsted understand by ‘radicalisation and extremism?’

Ofsted doesn’t say and clearly has no interest in finding out.   Instead it merely parrots the empirically-dubious conceptualisation of Islamist ‘radicalization’ that seeks to explain political violence in terms of inherent cultural or religious practices.   It also assumes that the government’s ‘Prevent’ program is the antidote to such radicalization, without any attempt to assess whether these strategies are even effective.

Even the Gracelands nursery is accused of being ‘unaware of local authority or government guidelines on the prevention of extreme and radical behavior.’     Given that the pupils at Gracelands range from three to five years old, more rational observers might   conclude that preventing extreme and radical behavior was not a high priority.

But when the pupils are Muslims, it’s clearly a different matter, and Wilshaw, like Gove, appears to assume that without due vigilance these kids would probably be bowing down to their dark cult or strapping on toy explosives.   In the same way Wilshaw worries that the inspected schools ‘ do not ensure that a broad and balanced curriculum equips pupils to live and work in a multi-cultural, multi-faith and democratic Britain’ and that ‘children are not being encouraged to develop tolerant attitudes towards all faiths and all cultures.’

Is that a problem in these schools?   Maybe or maybe not, but I really doubt Ofsted’s ability to assess the matter dispassionately one way or another.   And in any case these criticisms have a very different weighting when applied to Muslim-majority schools.   My daughter, for example, when to a Church of England-aided primary.     During that time I don’t remember any attempts to ‘encourage’ the children   to develop ‘tolerant attitudes towards all faiths and all cultures’, though I do remember a fair amount of Christianity.

But ‘intolerance’ whether real or imagined, always has more sinister ramifications when Muslims are involved, at least according to Gove and Ofsted.   And now,   the antidote to their intolerance is a good dose of ‘British values’ in order to help Muslim children prepare to live in a multicultural society; the imposition of a new policing regime based entirely on Gove and Ofsted’s limited understanding of terrorism and terrorism-prevention; and yet another recasting of British Muslims as cultural aliens and the enemy within.

So Ofsted and Wilshaw must surely be congratulated for contributing to this outcome.     They may not have found a Trojan Horse, but no one can fault them for trying.   And the rest of us can only think ourselves lucky once again that the nation’s education system is in the hands of such wise, thoughtful, and enlightened men, who will always put the public interest before their own.


Three Cheers for Jess Green

Anybody who is or has been a teacher in the UK, or is living or married to one, will recognize the reality depicted in Jess Green’s searing and witty indictment of Michael Gove that is currently picking up thousands of hits on Youtube:

And anyone who cares about the future of the country’s education system should see it too.   Because Green’s mini  tour de force isn’t just a stinging indictment of one of the most repellent politicians in the Coalition’s gallery of ghouls: it’s also a brilliant and passionate corrective to the endless attacks on the teaching profession emanating from the government and its mouthpieces.

For decades now, teachers have become scapegoats for pretty much every failing in British society.     No other single profession has been so relentlessly attacked by the political class,   and no other profession has been subject to such relentless contempt from people who know very little about what teaching actually entails or what happens in a classroom.

Both Labour and Conservative politicians have approached the whole subject of education from the starting point that a) they know more about teaching than teachers themselves b) without their interventions and reforms the education system would collapse c) teachers are not to be trusted d) any teachers who complain about their endless tinkering with the education system are merely defending their own mediocrity,   ‘making excuses for failure’, or pushing some ideological agenda etc.

The belief that teachers are inherently untrustworthy, lazy and unprofessional has resulted in the imposition of the primitive and bullying micro-managed inspection regime of Ofsted – a hateful organization which has effectively subjected the entire profession to a culture of bullying and fear in an attempt to ‘drive up standards.’

Ofsted’s management style is embodied by its chief inspector Michael Wilshaw, an arrogant, smug and self-regarding Tory apparatchik, who, like Gove himself, interprets any criticism from teachers as a sign that he is doing everything right.   In 2011, shortly before Wilshaw became chief inspector he delivered a valedictory speech from the Mossbourne Community Academy where he had been headteacher, in which he quoted from a letter written to him by an ‘underperforming teacher’, describing   him as   a ‘crude and inconsiderate’ man, with ‘the manners of a guttersnipe’,   who had been a ‘disaster’ for the school”s once happy teachers.

For Wilshaw, such accusations were a source of pride. ‘The lesson of that,’ he crowed, ‘is that if anyone says to you that “staff morale is at an all-time low” you will know you are doing something right.’

What a jerk.     Wilshaw is a strong supporter of performance-related pay, who has said that teachers who are ‘out of the gate’ at 3 pm shouldn’t be promoted or paid well.   Of course Wilshaw knows perfectly well that most teachers who are ‘out of the gate’ don’t stop working just because they aren’t in school, but he would rather reinforce the public stereotype of whinging teachers swinging the lead

In January this year Wilshaw insisted ‘ there is a difference between a professional with a legitimate criticism and a serial complainer with another moan. One tends to be listened to; the other does not,’ in a speech describing the fact that ‘nearly 40 percent’ of new teachers leave the profession within five years as a ‘scandal.’     Whose fault is that?   Naturally,   according to Wilshaw, its was the quality of teacher training, not the institution that he heads – a problem that he promised to resolve by ensuring that Ofsted would ‘get tougher’ on training providers.

The evidence emanating again and again from the teaching profession is that Ofsted has got tough enough.     At its 2012 conference, even   the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) voted by a massive majority in favour of the motion:

‘Successful careers are damaged or destroyed on a daily basis as more schools are put into categories. Fear reigns and confidence wanes as Ofsted waves its stick. We must stand up to the bully-boy tactics of Michael Wilshaw. We deplore his negative rhetoric which is demoralising our members and is creating a climate of fear in schools.’

I have seen the destructive impact of these ‘bully-boy tactics’ twice in the last few years in my local town.     In 2011,   the local secondary school that my daughter attends was threatened with ‘special measures’ on the basis of new data criteria introduced by Ofsted’s chief inspector Ofsted in 2011.   That inspection was preceded by the kind of fear and dread that would have made Kierkegaard seem chilled-out by comparison, and its report describing the school as ‘inadequate’ was a massive kick in the teeth for the staff, children and parents.

That same academic year the school   achieved   a 99.6% A level pass rate 60% of results at grade B or above, in addition to 70% of students earning 5 A*-C grades at GCSE.   In September 2012 the school was upgraded in a follow-up inspection to ‘good’ – a category that is as meaningless and arbitrary as Ofsted’s earlier verdict.

Then last year my daughter’s former primary school was placed in ‘special measures’, and this year its headteacher – the same one who was there when my daughter attended the school – was suspended after a group of parents wrote to Ofsted calling for her to be sacked.

During this time I read the utterly ignorant description of both schools as ‘failing’ schools in the local press – and in the latter case on the BBC.

I did not always see eye-to-eye with that headteacher when our daughter was in the school, but it is shocking and lamentable than a woman who has dedicated her whole life to children and her local community should have been forced to end her career in this way.

That schools should be inspected and improved is beyond dispute, but the idea that the education of the nation’s children depends on the imposition of this culture of fear, intimidation and public humiliation is a travesty.     Most teachers accomplish more in a single day than your average silk-tied politician achieves in an entire lifetime.

Instead of blame, bullying and intimidation, they deserve support and help, so that they can do their job better.

Michael Gove: Failure is an Opportunity

Downstairs on the living room table, the envelope containing my daughter’s GCSE results sits unopened, awaiting her return from Edinburgh later today.   We have resisted the temptation to fling ourselves upon it – or steam it open and take a surreptitious preview – because an agreement is an agreement.

As the moment draws near however, I feel for those children and their parents who have seen their aspirations crushed by the arbitrary redrawing of the GCSE grade boundaries that has transformed C grades into Ds and resulted in the first fall in overall pass rates in the exam’s history.

Whatever my daughter’s results, they will not be affected by the changed criteria in English, for the simple reason that she took her English GCSE in January before the changes were introduced.

The kids who took their exam in June had no way of knowing that the goalposts had been moved in order to make it harder to achieve a C grade, and no wonder they and their teachers are angry – and not only with the exams regulator OFQUAL.

A number of teachers and headteachers have pointed the finger of blame at the ghastly Michael Gove, and attributed the first fall ever in GCSE/A Level results to political pressure from the government.

John Townley, the head of two academies in Leeds and one of Gove’s favourite headteachers has condemned the boundary changes as ‘butchery’ and said that he and other heads are ‘ incredibly angry on behalf of the children.’

Unusually, Townley has promised a united response from academies and other schools that may involve mounting a legal challenge to the results.     Meanwhile one of Gove’s senior advisors has declared that ‘It’s difficult to avoid the assumption that there’s an orchestrated campaign going on somewhere [to reduce pass rates].’

Both Gove and OFQUAL naturally deny these accusations, and insist that the changed criteria are a natural and legitimate attempt to prevent ‘grade inflation’ and ensure that pass rates are in line with previous years.     Such denials can certainly be taken with a pinch of salt.

It may be that the changes were intended by the exam regulators to avoid the usual criticisms that rising pass rates signify not rising achievement, but an overall process of ‘dumbing down’.

But the introduction of the changes so late in the day and without warning – coupled with the fact that some pupils took the English GCSE in the same year under very different criteria – is so blatantly unfair and obviously geared towards a certain outcome – that it is impossible to avoid the suspicion of direct or indirect political interference from a government that plainly loathes the comprehensive education system and is always looking for an opportunity to dismantle it.

Such interference is difficult if not impossible to prove.     But there is no doubt that a fall in grades is likely to be privately welcomed by the toad-of-toad-hall-like figure who occupies the position of education secretary, for whom any evidence of failure – whether genuine or artificially engineered – invariably adds to the pressure to transform schools into academies.

Already the changes in Ofsted’s assessment system have   resulted in a rise in the number of schools categorized as ‘inadequate’ or placed in special measures. This year’s reconfigured results are likely to be used as further grist to the mill for Gove and Ofsted’s Chief Inspector and hitman Michael Wilshaw.

Because in this country, if schools score well in their exam results, it’s because exams are too easy; if they score badly then their results are proof of failure.   Either way the government – and not only this one – will find evidence that schools are not doing well enough, the better to open them up to ‘market forces’.

Even the Olympic Games were dragged in to serve the government’s anti-comprehensive education system agenda, as the preponderance of medal winners from independent schools was presented as evidence of an ‘all-must-have-prizes’ culture in the comprehensive system that supposedly discourages competition – a fantasy that ignores, among other things, the huge discrepancy in sports facilities between the two systems.

Gove will undoubtedly seek to use this latest debacle for similar purposes.   But the crude and clumsy manner in which the boundary changes have been introduced without regard for the thousands of children who have had their life chances pointlessly blighted –   means that he may not succeed.

On the contrary,   the general outcry has now cast a harsh spotlight on the would-be gravedigger of   comprehensive education, and it may well be that it reveals more than he or the public are able to bear.