As you preside over the bewildering and nonsensical inconsistency of mask-wearing in schools, I thought I might distract you with another matter of great importance: the behaviour of Ofsted inspectors.
As all of us involved in schools in England know, we work in a territory policed by a triumvirate: Ofsted, the league tables and the Sats results. There are no Covid-like press conferences where representatives of these three stand at lecterns being quizzed by journalists. Why not? After all, at key moments in the year (like GCSE Handwringing Day or International Performance Comparison and Sneering Day) education in schools is presented as if it were a pandemic of decline.
Perhaps we are supposed to believe that the three parts of the triumvirate work independently of each other, doing good, in the manner of Oxfam, Christian Aid and Children in Need, though with you at the helm. But if you had wanted to invent a set-up that was as undemocratic as possible and as unrepresentative of the people working in it, you’d be hard pushed to beat it.
Right now Ofsted is causing particular concern. Did you see last week’s Guardian article, ‘I can’t go through it again’: headteachers quit over brutal Ofsted inspections, and the readers’ letters that followed? If you missed them, please take a look. They paint a picture of a profession in distress. Headteachers say Ofsted inspectors are refusing to take into account the effects of Covid on schools. The head of Lancaster Royal grammar school, Dr Chris Pyle, says that some recent Ofsted reports “exclude all specific references to the pandemic”.
As I’d hope you would acknowledge, the impact of the illness itself, the absences, the casualties, the lockdown and the online teaching has been a trauma felt acutely by school communities. Of what benefit can it be for Ofsted to turn up at a school and trample over people who have experienced such high stress and, in some cases, loss and bereavement?
The fact is this high-handed approach is bred by the structure and terms of reference of Ofsted. The idea that a judge, prosecution and jury arrive one day at a school, at short notice, conduct a trial and then leave is a poor way to run education. In my school visits these days, I also rush in and out – though usually I give them a bit more notice of my arrival! But I’m not inspecting teachers, I’m doing that very non-Ofsteddy thing of coming in to support teachers and pupils. While I’m there, I often hear from teachers about Ofsted visits. The one theme I hear over and over again is that they feel the inspectors were not sympathetic to the specific conditions of the school. It’s as if inspectors come briefed with a notion that teachers are bad people making excuses for their own incompetence. So the report that some inspectors don’t want to hear about the experience of Covid came as no surprise to me.
One headteacher told me an Ofsted inspector complained that the Year 6 results were showing a significant decline. The headteacher pointed out that the dip in scores coincided with the sudden arrival of a cohort of refugee children, none of whom spoke English. In other words, the composition of the class had changed between one set of scores and the next. Though the refugee children had made huge advances in the few months they had been here, the effect on the data was that the scores were “low” in an absolute sense. What did the inspector say to the headteacher? That it was “no excuse”. In Ofsted’s world, data can exist independently of the people being measured. Please, Mr Zahawi, listen to the teachers and headteachers in the Guardian article and the letters. The system is not benefiting teachers, pupils or families, and it’s all predicated on the idea that the only way to improve education is through top-down hectoring.
How interesting to see that your government is trying to cope with Covid by encouraging people to choose the right path, whether that be the wearing of masks, getting vaccinated or holding parties. This approach is much preferred, I’ve heard ministers saying on the radio, to making such measures compulsory. And yet when it comes to education, you and your colleagues drop this libertarian approach and opt for the big stick. Tell us: why should education be excluded from your libertarian methods?
We really do have to make our minds up whether we think education should be about consent or coercion. Here we are, in the midst of two crises threatening humanity: disease and climate change, and the best we can come up with for schools is the authoritarian triumvirate. Does it ever give you pause for thought that a coercive system might not be the best way to foster creative and questioning minds, the kind of minds we desperately need to solve humanity’s problems?
Yours, Michael Rosen