Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure.
John McIntosh, the former head of London Oratory, is a key member of Michael Gove's curriculum review team. Unlike most of Gove's appointees, he has actually worked in schools, and he knows whereof he speaks. His warning that Ofsted inspectors are “taking the soul out of school” and “forcing teachers to deliver robotic lessons” must be taken seriously. He may overstate his case slightly: England still is still blessed with many teachers who have the sense to teach normally once the door has closed behind the inspectors. But all too often, teachers take the safe route and do as they are told.
But for being on the government payroll, McIntosh might well have gone further. There is little evidence that Ofsted inspections raise standards, especially in failing schools. More to the point, Ofsted is the fount of all bullying in our schools. As one inspector bragged to me, “Teachers are afraid of us”. You don't have to read the Guardian or the Times Educational Supplement to appreciate the delicate understatement here. Ofsted bullies heads, who in turn bully their senior managers. By the time this gets down to the classroom, even our dimmest kiddies have figured out the score - hence, teachers get bullied from above and below.
Needless to say, the teaching unions aren't exaggerating when they bang on about teachers' resentment. After all, many if not most Ofsted inspectors are former teachers who got out of the classroom because (take your pick)
- They couldn't control their pupils
- Ofsted pays a lot better than teaching
- They aren't accountable for anything more demanding than ticking boxes
- Their mistakes never come back to haunt them
- They don't have to work unpaid overtime
- It's more fun to bully than to be bullied
Unfortunately, education secretaries and ministers have very few levers of power that are actually connected to anything. They kid themselves into thinking that Ofsted can bypass obstructive civil servants who don't much care for their 'reforms'. In fact, this isn't so: while Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw was banging away about the need for discipline, a teacher I know was criticised by Ofsted because her pupils were too 'biddable'.
By now, one would hope that Michael Gove has noticed that Ofsted is still permeated with the progressive ethos that New Labour allowed to develop unchecked. Teachers are expected to let pupils 'take control of their own learning', and at the same time ensure that they pass exams. When pupils don't actually want to learn what they will be tested on, Ofsted has very little in the way of useful advice - other than to carry on ticking the boxes.
Needless to say, no one wants to go back to the 1970s, when ambitious education professionals could do pretty much as they wished in their little red schoolhouses, and parents had to take what they were given. However, it is fair to note that in the vast majority of schools, standards were far higher than they are now - largely because O-levels CSEs were real tests.
We can't return to those standards overnight. We clearly need to inject real competition into education - otherwise, less fortunate children will still be trapped in useless schools. Talented women, who made up the bulk of the teaching force until recently, can now aspire to almost any career they wish. They won't come back so long as teachers are treated like imbecile children.