Ofsted, Politics and Primary Schools

We’re not aware of any government minister who’s tried to tell solicitors or barristers how to work with their clients. We’re not aware of any politician who’s tried to tell doctors and surgeons how to treat the sick. When it comes to education, however, many politicians think they have the right to talk down to teachers and school managers and to tell them in considerable detail how to operate within their professional work.

Broadly speaking there are two types of political interference in education. The first involves interference in the structures that support the work of schools – in governance, in systems of accountability, etc. The second involves direct interference in how and what children learn – in pedagogy, in the teaching of literacy, in the curriculum, etc.

There are legitimate and illigitimate forms of political interference in both of these aspects of education. Illigitimate forms include forced academisation and targeted Ofsted inspections which are instigated by politicians and/or their henchmen for purely or mainly political reasons.

Of course the most recent Education Act legitimised these powers for the Secretary of State to intervene in schools that the “independent” Ofsted deems to be failing. This legislation, however, is a far cry from ethical legitimacy – the legitimacy that respects the integrity and capability of educational professionals to know what is best for the children in their care.

Throughout this blog we’ve written about the interference of politicians in education. We’d rather not deal with these issues, but we, like so many other parents and education professionals, can’t avoid dealing with the malignant effects of politics on education. Our previous posts on this subject include

Politics and the Primary Teacher – Posted on November 23, 2011

Politics and the Primary Teacher 2 – Posted on January 14, 2012

Pedagogy and Wellbeing: A Political Issue? – Posted on February 6, 2012

Still Seeking Answers to Social Mobility and School Improvement – Posted on October 24, 2012

Today we’re drawing attention to John Harris‘s excellent article in the Guardian yesterday:

Why is Ofsted lashing out against primary schools?

Swingeing reports by the inspection body are forcing primaries into academy status and tarnishing its independent reputation


We urge anyone who cares about the future of education to read this piece, which includes these paragraphs:

Back when New Labour was in its pomp and pushing the first incarnation of the academies programme, there were rumours about inspections being cooked up for political purposes. I first heard them when I was covering an attempt to turn a secondary school near Doncaster into an academy, despite loud local opposition.

The former Downhills school in Tottenham was turned into an academy despite huge local opposition – some of which was focused on Ofsted inspections that saw the same inspector change her verdict of “improving” to “failing”, thus sealing its fate.

Inspections are contracted out to three private companies: Serco, the Tribal Group and CfBT, all firms with a vested interest in the onward march of private companies into state education. On occasion, more direct conflicts of interest have been uncovered: late last year, for example, the BBC found that at least four advisers working on the DfE’s push for academies were also Ofsted inspectors. In general, though, the apparent harmony between government policy and Ofsted’s work may be traceable to a much simpler matter of mindset: its head, Michael Wilshaw, is the former head of the Mossbourne academy in Hackney, and prone to sound as if he has imbibed a huge draught of whatever the education secretary, Michael Gove, is drinking. Small wonder that one teachers’ union says its members now see Ofsted as “an arm of government”.

Ofsted claims to be independent of any political agenda and tends to cite the tightening of its inspections framework, which has already led to 111 schools losing their “outstanding” status. But its detractors say that does not explain sudden crashes into special measures, and bemoan how little they can find out about how and why Ofsted’s verdicts are reached.

When it comes to the observations and opinions that feed into finished reports, individual teachers can make freedom of information requests relating to their own work, and headteachers can do the same for a whole school – but what comes back is often heavily redacted. Outsiders have no such rights, so compiling sets of documents to compare and cross-reference is pretty much impossible. Ofsted and the DfE hold all the cards, and with the government having served notice that it wants to create 400 primary academies, it’s pretty obvious why suddenly swingeing inspections have become such a big issue.

The apparent irony is glaring: under the auspices of a policy supposedly designed to free schools from the dead hand of government, the state’s clunking fist seems to be falling all over the place with impunity, opening the way for a policy decided at the centre. The argument about academies and free schools is one thing, but this runs much deeper: even if they support what the government is doing to schools, people could be forgiven for expecting consistency, transparency and a model of government whereby ministers might understand that supposedly independent bodies have to be seen to be so, and that even the appearance of collusion can be toxic. Fat chance, it seems: the last lot thought they were above all that, and so do their successors.

It’s evident through heresay, through personal experience and through media reports that the schools quoted in this piece are not isolated cases. We would be interested in hearing from others who’ve had similar experiences.

We shouldn’t underestimate or undervalue the uniqueness of every primary school. Stealing their identity through academisation or federating is ethically corrupt and totally devoid of consideration for the pupils and the parents as well as the teachers in a school.

See also Russell Hobby’s interview in Guardian today and the NAHT campaign for a new inspection called “Instead” – a system of peer inspections in which headteachers are  responsible for inspecting schools.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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