Brave new inspectors who cower behind contracts

It is time Ofsted officials asserted their independence and spoke out about the real causes of failure in schools, says Richard Bain
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The Independent Online
In Brave New World Aldous Huxley describes a "lesson" at the Neo- Pavlovian Conditioning Centre. The classroom is set out with flowers and beautiful picture books, which a class of nursery children is encouraged to touch and explore and enjoy. When the children are fully involved, the teacher pulls a lever that sets off flashing lights and a shrieking siren. At the peak of the children's terror, the teacher reinforces their learning with a mild electric shock, proudly boasting that he can electrify the whole strip of floor. The sirens and the power are switched off and gradually the children's bodies stop twitching and convulsing and their maniacal screams fade back to cries of "ordinary terror". The books and flowers are offered to them a second time, but now the children respond with fear and revulsion.

It is interesting to reflect on what Ofsted would make of this:

The children are able to understand the relationship between flowers and books and sirens and electric shocks. They respond appropriately to a range of stimuli and express their responses clearly. In Ofsted terms, standards of achievement are very good.

The children are co-operative and eager to learn. They are quick to respond to a range of positive and negative stimuli. They express their responses appropriately using physical and verbal means. They make clear and measurable progress in their learning. In Ofsted terms, the quality of learning is very good.

The teacher's preparation is thorough. Books and the flowers are imaginatively selected and resources are well laid out. Timing and pace are excellent, and there is good use of dramatic effect. Whole class teaching is appropriate and effective. The use of an electric shock to consolidate learning represents effective deployment of appropriate technology. The lesson is well planned and there are specific, measurable learning outcomes. In Ofsted terms, the quality of teaching is very good.

The point is that our much-vaunted inspection machine is fundamentally amoral and (to coin a term) "a-educational". If the national curriculum required children to develop a hatred of books and flowers, Ofsted would inspect the efficiency of schools in instilling this hatred, but it would never question the morality or the educational value of doing so: it has no mechanisms to enable such analysis.

Take some practical issues. There is a hypothesis that the Government's rejection of coursework and its obsession with pencil and paper tests has led to a loss of breadth, a loss of motivation and lower standards at key stage four. While there is often evidence to support such a hypothesis, there is no mechanism within an Ofsted inspection for that evidence to be reported.

There is a hypothesis that the breadth of the national curriculum leads to insufficient emphasis on literacy and numeracy in primary schools. Inspectors report on whether or not the national curriculum is being delivered, but have no brief to assess its impact on standards.

There is a hypothesis that inadequate funding is leading to large classes and a decaying infrastructure, and that this is damaging children's education. The Ofsted framework allows inspection teams to criticise the way schools manage the resources they are given, but gives inspectors no opportunity to criticise the level of funding. Ofsted reports highlight key issues for schools, but make no reference whatever to key issues for central or local government.

Criticisms of the education system itself are made not by inspectors, but by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. This might be acceptable if independent inspectors were consulted and if the interpretations were transparently non-political.

Pronouncements by HMCI, Chris Woodhead, supposedly based on evidence gleaned from independent inspection teams, are bizarrely unrelated to the day-to-day experience of Ofsted team inspectors. His use of inspection data is highly selective, his interpretion is idiosyncratic and he makes no attempt to consult the views of independent teams. And without wishing to be unduly cynical, his conclusions seem curiously aligned with current Tory political dogma.

In the bad old days, there were HMIs: centrally controlled, but independent, commanding a high level of respect and capable of analysing and criticising failures in the educational system. In the brave new world of Ofsted, we have the paradox of nominally independent inspection teams which are so constrained by a blinkered framework that they are unable to make any analysis of the system. Although their observations are selectively interpreted by an overtly political central machine, they make no protest because they are frightened they will lose contracts.

It is time, and past time, for independent inspectors to start asserting their independence: to find mechanisms to communicate their analysis of the system; to insist on consultation before their evidence is interpreted for them; and to insist on educational values rather than on political dogma.

Schools deserve inspections that are genuinely independent and that address the root causes of educational success and failure instead of tinkering with the symptoms.

The writer is an Ofsted team inspector.