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Ofsted and the exam boards: The unholy alliance that Michael Gove forgot

    Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw delivered his annual report this week.  He rightly concluded that too many teachers are either leaving the profession or taking up posts in independent schools. He proposed that we need “golden handcuffs” to stop the drain.

    He is naïve if he thinks money is the problem. Surveys by teaching unions have revealed that pay is by far the least of teachers’ concerns.  Overwhelmingly, workload and poor discipline are the major sources of discontent. If Sir Michael had a mirror handy, he’d realise that his organisation is the major source of excessive workload, and indirectly one of the most significant factors in poor discipline.

    First, let’s back up and look at Michael Gove’s reforms. First, he took a massive axe to school quangos and the Children’s Plan, very much as we recommended. He also cancelled Building Schools for the Future, one of the most outrageously wasteful programmes instituted by a notoriously profligate New Labour regime. He killed their National Strategies, which would have replaced traditional academic disciplines with ‘Areas of Learning’ and a top-heavy social engineering agenda. He cancelled the SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) programme, and restored a measure of rigour to the curriculum. Most importantly, he scrapped coursework, modular exams and the Mickey Mouse vocational qualifications that unscrupulous schools used to inflate GCSE results. On top of this, there has been something of a revolution in the profession, especially at the secondary level: teachers are no longer afraid to come out and denounce progressive pedagogy. Dozens of teacher’s blogs have emerged, questioning sacred cows like ‘collaborative learning’. At last, the work of cognitive scientists is beginning to trump the received wisdom of the blob.

    These were truly heroic achievements, and we can only guess what else he might have achieved if Cameron hadn't bowed to union pressure to move him. Unfortunately, he made two major strategic errors which are preventing his reforms from achieving their potential. He failed to institute root and branch reform of the assessment industry, as we recommended in our 2008 publication, Ticking the Right Boxes. Had he done so, it might have been possible to abandon routine school inspections and downgrade (or even abolish) Ofsted, as we recommended in School Quangos. In the words of the late Professor Sir Chris Woodhead, “Ofsted has become a part of [the educational] establishment, and arguably the most lethal part”.  For all his undoubted sincerity, it does not seem that Sir Michael Wilshaw truly understands what is going on inside his organisation.

    First, let’s look at assessment. It is an act of faith in the assessment industry that exams should measure ability - and not what pupils have learnt. It is very easy to design tests that measure learning, but measuring ability requires high levels of expertise and a lot of time and effort. In any case, most educators argue that the purpose of education is to ‘make kids smarter’.

    In truth, we know that schools cannot significantly improve pupils’ scores on tests of cognitive ability. For over half a century, the American Head Start programme has been trying to do just that, yet even the US Department of Education has had to admit that they have yet to make any lasting improvements. However, low ability pupils are still capable of absorbing huge amounts of knowledge and understanding, even if they will never be able to understand the turgid prose generated by our examination boards. Effectively, educators and exam boards have created a perpetual performance gap which has become their equivalent of beggars’ sores.

    Since the sort of tests demanded by the industry are expensive and unreliable, they are only used at the ages of 7, 11, 16 and 18. They tell us almost nothing about the performance of individual teachers, and hence we also need a vast and totally counter-productive system of teacher assessment and performance management. It’s almost impossible to estimate how many jobs this creates; SLTs (Senior Leadership Teams) in our schools are bloated all out of proportion to what one finds in the independent sector. It’s sobering to think that the Omaha HQ of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway has a full-time staff of 13 - fewer than you will find in the SLTs of many of our comprehensive schools.

    Unfortunately, these are exactly the systems which are forcing conscientious teachers to work evenings, weekends and even school holidays. It is a miracle that so many of them still do this, even though they know that marking pupils’ books is almost a total waste of time. Teachers are constantly observed or are observing - it’s rather like living in East Germany under the shadow of the Stasi. In the best schools, SLTs minimise this interference, and teachers can live something a little closer to a normal life. The moment you walk in the door of such a school, you can feel the difference - you see real smiles, and not rictus grins. No one is straining to impress you. Needless to say, such schools have very low staff turnover.

    This, without question, is the major factor in the failure of the profession to retain new teachers - many of whom might become outstanding teachers in a more benign environment.  Alas, new teachers almost inevitably end up in the hell-holes which are under the most pressure to improve. With this constant churn, maintaining good discipline is difficult, if not impossible. Even the best and most experienced teachers struggle in these schools. 

    Unquestionably, schools have to be accountable. This is a problem that doesn’t exist in private enterprise, where markets are the simplest form of accountability known to humanity.  Attempts to establish quasi-markets in the US with vouchers or charter schools have proved rather disappointing, for the simple reason that markets can only flourish when consumers have enough information to make intelligent choices, and new providers can enter the market without jumping through hoops designed to ensure conformity. Academies and Free Schools in the UK are, on present form, unlikely to prove any different. 

    Simple annual tests of learning in each academic subject would be very easy to design, however much they would be resisted by vested interests who would claim that such tests distort teachers’ priorities. Of course they would - they would force teachers to ensure that their pupils mastered the curriculum. The blob would resurrect Thomas Gradgrind and paint pictures of Dickensian misery - yet if you visit Katherine Birbalsingh’s Michaela school in Wembley, you will find some of the happiest and most enthusiastic pupils in England. And in her school, pupils are tested almost every day. Like all good teachers, she knows that the best way to keep pupils happy is to keep them learning.

    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. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

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