Notes From the Margins…

The curse of Ofsted

  • November 23, 2011
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How do I loathe Ofsted? Let me count the ways.   Last month inspectors from the  Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services visited  Highfields, the local comprehensive school that my daughter attends.  Like most parents I know, I think the school functions very well.   Despite the constraints of the national curriculum, it does its best to provide pupils with a rounded education, with teachers putting in their own time to organize folk groups and frequently moving and inspiring musical performances throughout the year.

My daughter has always been very happy there.  She likes most of her teachers and some of them have been inspirational.   In terms of exam results, 63 percent of pupils got A-C grades at GCSE and A level pass rates averaged 98 percent, with 57 percent of grades in the A-B category.   Some pupils have gone on to Oxford and Cambridge.   Though not without challenging pupils, the school manages to provide an environment in which kids can learn and thrive, and most of them clearly want to.

Could it improve?  Certainly, what school couldn’t?  But such improvements could have been achieved without the damningly negative report delivered by Ofsted after its two day inspection last month.   On the first day of the inspection, the inspectors informed the head that they were working on the hypothesis that Highfields should be placed in the dreaded ‘special measures’ category, on the basis of new criteria introduced in 2009, which focussed on data concerning pupil progress as a yardstick of  school achievement.

Within a year of these  changes being introduced, the numbers of schools rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted had halved and the numbers in ‘special measures’ had nearly doubled.   For a school like Highfields  to be placed under the ‘ special measures’ regime would have been a total travesty.   When the inspectors went on to actually inspect the school, they made  a number of favourable observations on the quality of teaching, pupil behaviour and learning etc.

They also received  an overwhelmingly positive endorsement of the school from most of the parents they spoke to, but their final report  declared Highfields ‘inadequate’ and gave it a final verdict of ‘notice to improve’.

This is a real kick in the teeth to the teachers, pupils and parents who have made the school what it is, and its impact was compounded by dim and ignorant coverage in my local newspaper.  Already some parents are talking about taking their kids out of the school and sending them somewhere else, and parents considering sending their children to Highfields may well think again.

But this is what Ofsted does.   It constantly moves the goalposts, branding schools with its empty categories and and inane jargon. Intended to ‘raise standards’ it has forced public education into a rigid straightjacket, that stifles individuality and creativity and ignores the particular circumstances of individual schools, terrifying heads and teachers with the prospect of a drop in league tables and a negative verdict that will lead to falling rolls,  and whipping unquestioning parents into a hysterical rejection of schools that need their  support.

Of course schools should be  inspected – but Ofsted’s inquisitorial regime  is another matter.  Now this dreadful institution has  just delivered its annual report, and has found that ‘teaching in two fifths of schools is not good enough, with pupils subjected to unproductive and dull lessons.  In some cases, schools rely too much on worksheets and a narrow range of textbooks.

Coming from Ofsted, this beyond satire.   Could these ‘unproductive and dull lessons’ have anything to do with the regime imposed on comprehensive and primary schools by….Ofsted?   Or the endless tests and exams introduced by Gradgrinding politicians who take their views on education from the Daily Mail and would be happier if the entire comprehensive system could be sold off and privatised?

No doubt.  But don’t expect any such admission from an essentially  philistine institution designed to enforce the arbitrary targets established by equally philistine politicians, and which  should never have been able to accumulate such destructive powers.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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