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Ofsted. F***ing up standards, ruining lives.



We had Ofsted inspecting us this past week at work so particularly enjoyed the weekend. Every day at work  last week felt twice as long. All that extra effort looking over your shoulder, making sure that at every point you were looking busy, making sure that at every point you were providing evidence and showing demonstratively things that you do anyway. Elemental thing that has always fucked up at every place I've ever worked is the breakdown of trust between management and staff - always means that where you work transforms from a nice place to be into an array of cubicles, drones housed within, tip-tap-tip-tapping their paperwork into shape, the paperwork the only shape work has anymore, the joy gone, the malcontentment growing with every keystroke. Ofsted bring such mutual contempt to a dizzying frenzy of panic and rage. 

And what they insist on has little to do with encouraging thought as a teacher. It's a checklist any idiot could conform to, and bad teachers are great at conforming. Crucially though, it's Ofsted's blanket insistence on the same approach to every lesson, the same approach from every teacher, this attempt to smash everyone down to the same bland level of 'evidenced' 'provision', and the highly dubious way that evidence can be generated and checked, that irks the most.


For good teachers it's a chance to feel worried and mistrusted. I've been given graded observations by Ofsted many times, always the same grade (2), always the same mealy mouthed advice given as to how I could improve. Increase 'interactivity' (for it is a buzzword, and that's what Ofsted's rhetoric is all about) by getting students involved earlier in lessons. Actually had one inspector tell me in all earnestness that instead of offering questions out for kids to put their hands up, I should actually look into having buzzers in class so students could 'buzz in' their answers like it was a quiz show. I'd previously been unaware that Chris Tarrant was some kind of educational idol to aspire to but that's another thing Ofsted do, they teach you things you never knew before. Like a lesson in which the kids aren't DOING something within the space of two minutes is a bad lesson. Like too much 'chalk and talk' (i.e a teacher talking whilst the kids listen) is inherently damaging to a kids education. This runs so utterly counter to my deepest-held intuitive memories and thoughts about teaching I find it next to impossible to ever change the way I teach for these people. Which means I'll be a 2 forever. Fucking fine. 

Most of the teachers who ever affected me strongly as a child were those where you got a sense that (a) they knew what they were talking about & (b) they CARED about what they were talking about. With such teachers, it was fine if they decided to talk for a while without necessarily 'INVOLVING' you. For me it's  analogous to good telly. How would David Attenborough, or Simon Schama, or Kenneth Clarke, or Bronowsky, or Meades or Robert Hughes or John Berger or AJP Taylor have managed if within two minutes they'd have to sort their audiences into groups, get them to mark their own work or create a 'mind-map' of their 'feelings'? For Ofsted, the pictures in brochures for education, those perfectly posed prospectus shots of happy smiling students 'interacting' with each other and staff in fun role-playing and group-therapy-style situations are what they want to see when they walk past and through classrooms, and the idea of a group of students simply LISTENING to what an expert has to say is utter anathema to them. Ofsted start from the defeatist perspective that kids are naturally resistant to being given knowledge, that you have to 'smuggle' learning through via the kind of 'ice-breaking' and 'peer-led' assesment & teaching techniques of management-consultancy and team building. Learning for them is always, dictatorially, an active thing, and that means ACTION, never mind that listening can be incredibly active, never mind that hearing someone who knows what they're on about go on about that thing they know about with something approaching care can actually be the most lasting memory of education, the most keenly felt learning, beyond the distribution of scissors and moodboards and bingo-markers and brainstorming. Again I see deep analogies with previous places of work, times when in desperation the voice has fundamentally altered from speaking across to a readership to speaking down, simplifying essential complexity in favour of a supposedly inclusive crayon-scrawled emptiness of content. Ofsted would actually seek to stop the danger of teaching where it occurs, would prefer 'involvement' in relativist 'discussion' to the enrapture of  concrete ideas.





Although schools inspectors have always been with us, it's Ofsted's creation in 1992 that marks the real final shift in educational values away from knowledge and towards pure vocationalism. To be a teacher now, is to be little more than a cheerleader for capitalism, someone who prepares their charges for the viccisitudes of the workplace and nothing else. Anything else, apparently, is a waste of time, anything else is something kids apparently don't 'want' (curiously reminiscent of being told kids don't want writing that challenges them by various dunderheads in the media over the years, clueless underestimation all the way). Consequently, my natural revulsion for such tiny-minded notions of what teachers and students are capable of means that I have always utterly disregarded Ofsted's guideline obsessiveness about instant and constant 'interaction'. To them, I must be a bad teacher. Good. The other week, I had a lesson wherein I was going to teach a group of 17 year olds about governmental and authoritarian interference in music. I planned on dealing with a few thousand years of the history of that interference in a 90 minute session, all the way from Plato & Aristotle & Socrates through the Christian era, through the baroque/classical/romantic systems of patronage and leaving things just as we emerge into the modern era in the 20th Century.  Although it's anathema to modern teaching practice I decided, given the breadth of the subject matter and the complexity of the ideas, to deliver this in an entirely un-interactive, contemporarily-scorned manner. I talked, and the students wrote down what I said. I wasn't, and am not, a total monster. Questions were frequently invited, and were answered. Answered not by peer-to-peer discussion, or online research or via whiteboards or Lanschool or Moodle but by ME, because I'm the teacher, and as a serious thinker about music for most of my life I felt my answers were good, crucially undefinitive but suggestive. The kids had alot of questions, discussion was free, only truncated by time constraints. Didn't go fully old-skool (you can't throw whiteboard rubbers at kids heads, utterly innefective in drawing blood), but by the end of the lesson, without ever organising them into groups, or pointing them towards doing 'their own research' (the lazy teachers constant recourse), they each had a fairly complete picture of ancient, medieval and renaissance ideas about music, politics, religion, the state and the relationships between those ideas. I closed the lesson by pointing them towards some places where their reading could go further, and how if they wished,  they could improve what we'd built. 

 According to Ofsted, the kids should've hated this lesson, should've recoiled from it's old-fashioned didactic nature, should've come away having learned nothing except a bristling resentment for the subject. The newsflash you can guess runs thus: THEY FUCKING LOVED IT. Some of them even expressed a preference for more teaching to be like this. And though I would never dream of saying that EVERY lesson should be like that or that EVERY student had the same response, I equally ferociously reject Ofsted's idea that NO lesson can EVER be like that, that NO student EVER wants that. That blanket insistence on de rigeur methods stems from what I mentioned earlier, that fatal mistrust that poisons relationships between exec and those at the coal-face. It's mistrust that breeds formalistic prescriptions, it's mistrust that breeds the constant generation of ever-more preposterous waves of evidence-provision and boxes to tick (which of course, as a part-timer, I'm meant to generate in my own sweet spare time).

According to Ofsted before every lesson I should've printed out the following, and if I'm missing any single element from the following list I have failed as a teacher, failed my students and failed their criteria for getting anything approaching a good grade in any observation. 
1. A lesson plan that breaks down everything that will happen in the lesson according to strict time-demarcations, my activities in each chunk of the lesson, the students activities in each chunk of the lesson, the embedding of 'equality & diversity' teaching (kind of tricky when you're teaching people about the development and invention of the MP3 say, but hohum), the differentiation between different students' abilities/problems again for each of those time slots within the lesson, a list of resources used in terms of equipment etc, targets for the lesson, targets for the next lesson, targets from the last lesson and an appraisal of how that lesson and the current lesson went. Indications throughout as to whether the language used was vocational or academic. Indications throughout of assessment method, as well as a final appraisal as to whether all objectives have been achieved. 
2. A 'Scheme Of Work', i.e a detailed plan of how the entire unit/term is taught incorporating times/groups, special support needs, a week by week breakdown of curriculum covered, teachers activities, student activities, resources used, learning-outcomes covered, specific learning objectives for every week including indication as to whether these are successfully achieved. Basically all your lesson plans for an entire subject condensed into an epic document that you should ALWAYS have with you for every lesson. 
3. A detailed 'Learner Profile' containing information about every student including any support needs, problems, testimony from support staff or parents, each students preferred learning style (auditory-visual-kinaesthetic etc) and any other information about the student gleaned from previously generated learner-profiles or one-on-one tutorials with the students progress tutor. This document frequently runs into dozens of pages. 





So, in total then I have to create 3 documents per lesson before I can even start the lesson. In total this might total at least 20-30 pages of documentation (fuck the polar-bears, we need EVIDENCE!). For every lesson. Every single fucking lesson in the week. For me, that's 250 different kids spread between a dozen different groups from 9-5.30 five days a week. A lesson plan, scheme of work & learner profile for every single one of those 5 lessons a day, every single day. I should create 75 documents a week just to prove I'm a teacher, and this is before any actual preparation for the teaching I'm doing in the lesson. Because hey, newsflash. In three stages (Ofsted, like all exec, love their numbered bullet-points).


1. A good teacher has a lesson plan IN THEIR HEAD before even daring to set foot in a classroom because they know that beyond Ofsted, kids can sniff disorganisation a mile off and will instantaneously translate that into a total lack of respect for your floundering ass. 
2. A good teacher NEVER EVER FUCKING REFERS to a scheme of work because they know that criteria/learning outcomes are usually written by people with no experience in the field they're supposedly expert in, and like all criteria, they're their to be worked around rather than with. I know of no teacher who has actually found a Scheme Of Work to be useful in their teaching, only a GIGANTIC PAIN IN THE ARSE to create, and always for the purposes of box-tickers and checkers higher up the managerial-chain. 
3. A good teacher KNOWS THEIR STUDENTS inside and out and doesn't need a potentially dangerous & essentially private document like a learner profile to be toted with them class-to-class to inform them of which students need care & consideration.

For bad teachers of course, Ofsted is a chance to cosmetically slap on a good lesson for once and get a totally unfair appraisal. I recall a teacher in my dept. who was appalling, hated by students and other staff, so inept that he actually abandoned a lesson once because he 'couldn't find a hard surface to fill out my register on'. Every time he got tipped the wink that Ofsted were coming he'd suddenly produce a great lesson, then smugly coast on that rating for the rest of his entirely lazy-assed year of unprofessional duty-dereliction.

   Either way, we all get tarred with a brush only developed through minimal contact with teachers and students. A good teacher, knowing Ofsted are coming a-knocking should be able to knock up the necessary documentation, hold their noses and get through it. But of course, none of your pannicced artifice, the slapped on smile and suddenly-created documentary-evidence matters if you don't get seen, and if other teachers do badly, the institution as a whole, even if you never see hide nor hair of the inspectors themselves, will be damned. Meaning Ofsted will be back within the year, a year in which there'll be ever more hoops to jump through, ever-more distractions from the real business of teaching and learning. 



I hear ours went badly. I'm not surprised. Fundamental flaw in the inspection process is that we are warned. Gives enough time for a climate of fear to be created, and for everyone to fall into the same step, give the same tacit approval to Ofsted's maneouvres of data-crunching, their forensic compiling  of defects in the paper-trail. I sincerely hope next time Ofsted turn up at college they DON'T give a warning, just turn up on a Monday morning and don't immediately go into 4hrs of meetings with management but just stride into lessons straight away. I would actually cherish the opportunity to explain to inspectors at length why I HAVEN'T got the documents they desire i.e cos I'm a fucking teacher & I'm here to teach. I would love to waft away their pointless justifications of their pointless roles, make them realise that I apprehend them purely as lubricators of Thatcherite league-table-obsessed educational competetiveness via all this box-ticking bullshit, box-ticking that isn't just a totally disconnected-with-realities-of-teaching exercise in timewasting but is actually utterly inimical to my deepest held beliefs about teaching and what kids need and care about. Ofsted are all, ex-teachers or not (and many Ofsted inspectors, like me, have no teaching qualifications), exec, and consequently have forgot, or never had a clue in the first place, what makes a good lesson, a good teacher, a good institution, a good place to learn.
It's no accident that so many Ofsted staff sell-by-moonlight their services to colleges that are due inspections, consultations about how to achieve the best outcomes, the 'sharing of good practice' to ensure the right numbers get crunched. It's no accident that the real solution, in direct contrast to Ofsted's baffling labarynthine attempts to confuse every issue, is a simple one.
   Ofsted is founded on NOT trusting people to do their job. Fuck that. Trust YOUR instincts about the school, the teachers, and whether it's a good place for your kid to go. You don't need checklists, you don't need hours of meeting with slimy management-bods, and you certainly don't need to judge whether the institution itself can work itself into a sufficiently frenzied aura of panic to necessitate the creation of enough paperwork to fell a rainforest. 

Parents, teachers, students:  ignore Ofsted.
Ignore their findings.
Ignore the league-tables created.
Ignore the Blairite headmasters keen for Academy status.
Ignore the "roadmaps to progress", the recommendations, the 'plans put in place to achieve compliance to' a better rating, just as you should ignore the 'triumphant outcomes'. They are simply documents of fear, loathing, mistrust and lies. If you have a kid in the school, ask the kid (something Ofsted do painfully little of) and trust what they say. If they're not happy, go see your school, give 'em hell, see what can be done. Fight your own fights. Trust in yourself to win.
Trust, y'see, all important and all but forgotten by Ofsted and their believers. Fucking up standards. Ruining lives.

Comments

  1. Great piece! You've made me angry - in a way that moves to me to add a layer of common sense to the argument. My view is that as long as academic ability is at the heart of the British school system the more young people it will fail - Ad nauseam. I can't believe the system hasn't changed in decades. I can't believe it's not been changed in the 21st century. The question I ask myself is this. What do you teach children for the kind of work they do not know they'll be doing in 10 years time? I answer with this. I would make creativity the cornerstone of 21st century education for young people. Getting young people of various ages to work together to solve problems. These are the skills young people need in today's economy, not the ability to remember facts, like some kind of trivial pursuit. We are wasting a lot of people's time here And teachers. It's a merry-go-round of unhappy kids and even more unhappy teachers and parents. What is the end game. I am worried for the future of young people. The only way to avert the crisis in schools is to use creativity as a platform for growth, I'm convinced.

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  2. Tell it how it is. Wel done.

    It is remarkable what gets done in the name of 'raising standards'. Everyone knows that schools underperform in the year they are inspected and yet still we keep torturing schools and the staff in them. Essentially, people hate teachers and they are easy to blame and to persecute. Weak Britain.

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  3. Thank you so much for posting this. I have just had the most ridiculous Ofsted inspection ever. I am devastated . My teaching wasn't even observed yet I was 'inadequate' just because I didn't have the necessary 'evidence' laid out on a table for the inspector to look at while I was out on trip with my class. I was never asked for it when I got back either: never allowed to explain or find the 'evidence'. It was an absolute farce. The barrage of abuse from the inspector the head and I were subjected to at the end of the day was inhumane. Our pupils are happy, creative, well mannered kids who achieve well (if only I had been given the chance to show him). The head went on the sick the next day through stress. I am left to run our amazing little school feeling sick in my stomach and totally wronged. You are right 'bad teachers are great at conforming'. I concentrate on the teaching. The bad teachers can produce all the wonderful 'evidence' that the inspectors provide. I think I am too honest: I don't hide pupils or their work. I concentrate on my pupils and trying to teach them to be confident, happy, well rounded individuals who achieve their potential in whatever area of the curriculum that may be. I am finished. I am leaving and probably won't teach again. I hate to leave those children but I can't go on with these bullies crushing me at every opportunity. Does Michael Gove realise what he is doing? Experienced teachers are leaving in their droves. Our report isn't even out yet. A bomb is going to drop. How I will face the parents after this I just don't know. They will think I have failed their children. This is so untrue. Ofsted is such a political organisation. All the inspectors are bothered about is making themselves look good by finding those 'failing' schools that Mr Gove so wants to find. He has ruined my career. I have had enough.

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  4. I've signed my son up to Steiner school. It's been a year and it's improved our lives as a family and brought really joy to my child. Who is actually a child as is left to be one. The open day left us in tears seeing just how happy and creative the children honestly were are how well equipped they become as small adults with such a good, strong supportive core. I can't recommend the philosophy highly enough and it's something these people should look to to understand the more intuitive way of teaching.

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