That Ofsted – he a bitch, no? He occupies every third sentence leaking from the gaps in your head teacher’s pearly whites. He’s the justification for almost every directive dropped on you like a bag of cement. And, just in case he announces that he’s crossing your threshold tomorrow, you may want to consider taking your pie-jams and duvet to work with you. For, come the call and the senior team’s sudden embrace of the TENA oeuvre, you shouldn’t expect to see your home until it’s all over. Possibly.
Ofsted’s political independence has been the subject of much questioning in the years since its creation, and so it remains. To what extent, its critics ask, is its new inspection framework about raising standards? Has it been designed more to ensure the spread of academisation? Some schools (primaries, in the main) that have been forced to become academies after – occasionally inexplicable – downgradings possess strong reasons for believing that the latter drives the inspectorate’s current agenda.
A school of former acquaintance, with which I still have links, was given the once-over by Ofsted this autumn. It would be easy and, perhaps, expected to get vexed about the verdicts that have demoted this formerly ‘outstanding’ school to a ‘good’ establishment and then, most recently, one that ‘requires improvement’. Changes in management can reshape the character of a school fundamentally, as has been the case here. If we are to believe the staff whose length of service enables them to make comparative judgements, Ofsted has not only hit the proverbial nail on the head every time; its most recent judgement hasn’t given the place enough of a hammering.
Two days is a very short period in which to get the measure of a school, even a small one. So the seeing-everything-but-permitted-to-say-and-do-nothing employees have been impressed that this inspection team possessed enough perspicacity to spot: a) the contradictions between the school’s professed vision and its practice; b) the paucity of real leadership; and c) a bar set so low for each of the aforementioned that an arthritic hedgehog, returning from a lost weekend, could have cleared it with little difficulty. All this despite the blithe belief in the power of a cover-up that had led senior managers to frantically drape scuzz in what they thought were still the tick-box patterned checks of the season.
This is not to say that the inspectors’ judgement was correct in its entirety. Attributing staff departures to promotions and maternity leave evinced a degree of gullibility in those who must know how fancy gloves can be used to ensure that there’s never, never a trace of red. As I’ve stated elsewhere, the narratives spun around staff changes tend, conveniently, to focus on destinations. But places are being left with deliberation, and it wouldn’t be amiss to consider the impact of their working practices on departees’ decisions to move.
Similarly, the inspectors’ positive assessments of behaviour and safety appear to have been based largely on paper policies rather than on the glorious inconsistency with which they are applied. Those in the know have argued – rightly – that the school’s provision is as compromised in this area as it is elsewhere, due to a pattern of nepotism I won’t elaborate here (no, Mrs Allardyce hasn’t been running an extortion racket with impunity, the scant evidence thereof being the weekend mansion and the Jensen Interceptor on its sweeping driveway), but have divulged elsewhere [cue ‘Muttley’ laughter track].
Most of the school’s workforce has shrugged its shoulders and accepted that the drubbing is deserved. The senior team has sought to wipe the oeuf from its visage by misusing some big words and bombarding parents with post-hoc bits of paper: letters and action plans that collectively shout “Look at us! We’re doing stuff, we are!” in the manner of laddies that do protest too much. Harnessing the mistrust around Ofsted’s motives, those with whom the buck supposedly stops are questioning the competence and integrity of the inspection process.
But only where it hurts. Unsurprisingly, disproportionate emphasis has been placed on the single area in which the school ‘passed’, gliding over the other four in which it was declared insufficient. That staple of post-Ofsted wound-licking, the ‘Polaroid’ argument, has also been trundled out with predictable illogicality. Yes, all those critical judgements are based on a snapshot of the school. But so too is the more complimentary – minor – part of the inspectors’ report that is being cited as indisputable truth. The same camera, the same shutter speed.
Schools – or, rather, the few people whose decisions determine how they function – need to learn how to take criticism as easily as they do praise. Ofsted must ensure that the quality of its inspectors is far more consistent, and that confidence in its impartiality is restored (no more Tribalism, please), if its judgements are to be regarded as credible and constructive. And Sir Micky has to exercise a good deal more circumspection about the frequency with which he goes teacher-clubbing.
Because unless all of the above are achieved, these current adversaries will remain unnecessarily locked together in an embrace of scarlet billows.