Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ofsted and the psychosis of failure

An incurable optimist who harboured the illusion that the new head of Ofsted, Christine Gilbert, would usher in a new era of peace, love and understanding would have been shattered by her presentation of Ofsted’s annual report. It inspired the grisly tabloid headlines that 40% of schools (including over half of secondary schools) are now deemed to be ‘inadequate’.

Previously those schools in special measures or serious weaknesses were judged to be failing. Now Ofsted in seeking to ‘raise the bar’ have combined them together with ‘satisfactory’ schools to create the new category of ‘inadequate’. So in Ofsted ‘newspeak’ satisfactory is the new rubbish.

What does this do for the morale of dedicated teachers who spend their careers in tough schools with difficult classes? After all that investment of time, emotional and intellectual energy they’re branded as ‘inadequate’.

The only way to escape this tag is to jump through the hoops, vault all the hurdles and negotiate the assault course of an Ofsted inspection and emerge as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

Ofsted’s main judgement is by utilising crude test results, yet I know some ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools that are dull, lifeless exam factories staffed by stressed-out automatons who could squeeze out any love of learning from the children who enter the school gates.

And just to prove that their relentless focus is on failure for ‘outstanding’ schools Ofsted has introduced a ‘light touch’ inspection. An early example of this was at William Allitt secondary school in Derbyshire where one inspector visited for one day and some of the lesson observations lasted for only ten minutes.

Ofsted rarely make any concessions to social context or deprivation. Research by the London School of Economics found that out of 180 schools deemed to be failing in 1999/2000, 90% were in disadvantaged communities. Schools in the leafy suburbs rarely, if ever, fail.

As the Local Education Authorities shrink into virtual invisibility and obscurity there is no outside agency to give continuing support to schools. We have the ‘falling off the cliffs’ scenario, where only spectacular failure will bring monetary investment or outside assistance.

Of course Ofsted claim that by giving some schools a good beating it helps to straighten them out – a similar argument was advanced for corporal punishment. However, the House of Commons Education Select Committee noted that failure could send schools into a spiral of decline. Some 43 schools judged to be in serious weakness in 2001/2 had declined further and were placed in special measures the following year. They noted that some schools were, “unable to attract high-achieving pupils or well-qualified staff, making improvement more difficult.” Of those schools placed in special measures between 1995 and 1997, 40% subsequently closed.

It’s no surprise that hundreds of schools have to re-advertise or struggle to find a head teacher. Is there a sane person or anyone with an instinct for self-preservation or survival that would want to be a head teacher of a school in “challenging” circumstances?

Ofsted justify their inspections by claiming that they are ‘thorough’ and ‘rigorous’. But they completely failed to spot Bromley’s Imelda Marcos – Colleen McCabe. She embezzled £500,000 from St John Rigby College between 1994 and 1999. She spent the money on shoes, exotic holidays, cosmetics and a Crystal Palace season ticket. Yet 18 months after she began to use the school funds as a personal bank account Ofsted reported that McCabe provided “strong, sensitive and skilful leadership”. Financial planning was “good” and the auditor’s report was “excellent”.

Just to prove that this wasn’t an isolated example in 2006 the General Teaching Council found head teacher Mark Braine of Avon Valley School, Warwickshire guilty of unacceptable professional conduct and of abusing, bullying and humiliating staff between 1992 and 2005. However, an Ofsted report in 2004 was extremely complimentary about his leadership skills.

It’s a legitimate question to ask – how have Ofsted got away with it for so long? The paradox is that teaching is one of the most highly unionised professions – over 90% of teachers are members. Yet there has been a collective failure to deal with this 800 lb gorilla rampaging through our education system, trashing schools and demoralising teachers. Apart from passing the customary vacuous conference resolutions what have the leaders of the teachers’ unions actually done to stop Ofsted in its tracks? Answers on a postcard to Chris Keates, Mary Bousted and Steve Sinnott.

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Have your views on Ofsted changed at all recently Mr Read or do you consider yourself to work in a lifeless exam factory staffed by automatons (who you've also previously described as spineless jellyfish)?
Hi Mr Read,

Excellent writing style , love it
honest, brave and accurate.

I'd like to get in contact, there aren't so many nifty writers around on this issue.You avoid a rant but are direct and entertaining for something beneath contempt.
I'm trying to get something together to sell- so if you wish to collaborate ,
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