We have an Ofsted outstanding school near to us. Every inspection says the same. Its students get among the best results in the county. Not the very best, admittedly, but in a pure numbers game more of its pupils gain the required set of five GCSEs, A* to C in old money, than most of its rivals.
Not fellow schools, but rival schools.
Because, like pretty much every other educational institution in the country that school is in a constant fight for students, and the money they bring. It is not alone in celebrating its outstanding status. A large banner sits outside of it, implying to every passing person that getting their child through its gates will set them up for life.
It does not really need such advertising, because the school is so over subscribed that it could fill its places five times over. Yet still the drive for success goes on. And that means exam results, exam results and exam results. Never mind Tony Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ it is the bluntest outcomes that matter.
But read beneath the headlines, and a slightly different picture emerges. Standards of teaching require improvement said some recent inspections, classes often contain close to forty students, many young people fall by the wayside as they strive to keep up with an unrelenting regime of homework and stress. If, by sixth form, that stress has begun to catch up and a student begins to fall behind the expected top grades, they are out on their ear. Outstanding.
The school is a grammar school. Entry requirements exceed those of Eton and Harrow, and all but the most extremely selective independent schools in terms of academic potential. These are students who really should attain their top GCSEs and A levels – most do; around 70%. But that is surely letting down the other 30%? Still, it is good enough for Ofsted. Outstanding.
It is no wonder that those who fail to achieve a place feel there that they are consigned to a third-class institution. With all the problems that brings. Labour wants to get rid of OFSTED; the party feels that the inspecting body is overly favourable to middle class schools. Well, while it is not right, such schools do tend to get better exam results and since, whatever political claims might be made otherwise, this is the benchmark against which key judgements are made, Labour is, on this occasion, right.
Clever schools play the OFSTED system. My own first proper headship was in a failing primary; the local authority had placed it in special measures, although it really wasn’t that bad. Again, this judgement had largely been on SATs – exams – scores, but in small schools like this one, a ‘weak’ year can alter the picture hugely. Still, there was work to do.
As OFSTED time approached, my deputy and I played the system. We checked the criteria and ensured that we met the top level wherever possible. Certainly, our SATs scores were much improved (a couple of ‘strong’ years are just as influential as a weak one) and the school was popular, but we were more outstanding at OFSTED than an outstanding school. I am not apologetic about our behaviour. Getting ‘Outstanding’ made the school more attractive; that meant more parents registered their children and so our income went up. That allowed us to do more for our students. Playing the system is not right but looking after our kids is.
The latest PISA tables suggest that OFSTED might have contributed, finally, to a broad raising of standards in English and Maths. But at what cost? Primary students being force-fed a curriculum that is fundamentally just English and Maths, albeit sometimes presented by another name. Some secondary students making their GCSE option choices at the end of Year 8, when they might still be just twelve years old.
Students stressed out by the work expectations with which they are presented; a huge narrowing of the curriculum; a focus on the restricted outlook of what OFSTED, or its political masters, think is right. Or, expedient.
So, yes, OFSTED’s time is up. Unless we believe that education is just about exam results, and then mostly in the narrow field of English, Maths and a couple of sciences. Plus one. It is hard to reach any other conclusion. Or is it?
Surely, as professionals we should expect to be exposed to scrutiny for the work that we do. Surely, it is good that everyone in the profession has standards to meet. Many people of my age will have been exposed to the pseudo-child-centred approach of the 1970s (unless they went to grammar schools, in which case no doubt their Latin has stood them in good stead throughout their lives). In my case, this meant the poor teacher listing individual work tasks for each member of the class. Every week. Of course, thirty individual lessons were impossible, so teaching was abandoned, and we just got on with work from exercise books. My mate and I realised that we were set the same tasks; he was good at maths and science, and did those, while I completed the English based subjects. Then we swapped books, made a few ‘deliberate’ errors so we weren’t accused of cheating and by Tuesday morning our work for the week was done.
We spent the next 80% of our learning time playing games and doing ‘projects’ down the local shops. Neither of us made any progress for two years; nor did the majority of our peers. That would not happen today.
The problem is that OFSTED is used as a political football. Many voters have children, and all have a view on education, having been through some form of it themselves. That makes the subject a hot but influential potato in the political popularity stakes. Let’s be honest (with apologies to New Labour) but we have not had a Government that is left of centre, or even left of mildly right wing, since the late 1970s. That pre-dates OFSTED, unluckily for some, by thirteen years.
Thus, the organisation has, throughout its life, been overseen by parties who believe that education should be judged by league tables; hence competition, with wins and defeats decided by exam results.
Most teachers believe that this is wrong, but most politicians care little about that. Nor, to be fair, does the media. It likes things to be simple; posh schools good, poor schools bad. OFSTED grades suit it down to the ground.
So, we might conclude, there is a place for OFSTED if it can operate outside of political influence, with its conclusions no longer simplified in the media. Let us be honest; that is not going to happen.
Education is about students, and what is best for them. Most teachers will agree that getting a four in maths is not the be all and end all of life, despite what successive education Secretaries of State might claim. And therefore, all in all, the reality is that OFSTED can work in theory, but never in practice. Thus, it needs to go.
1- More good and outstanding schools than ever before, but is Ofsted still failing?
2- How can we improve Ofsted’s role in school improvement?
3- Key findings from Ofsted’s annual report
4- Ofsted blames school leaders for teacher workload
5- Less than 1 in 5 teachers think Ofsted is ‘trusted and reliable’