The existence of Ofsted, or something like it, is taken for granted, and probably rightly so. Realistically no one is going to get elected, or get ahead, campaigning for a reduction in accountability, and even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, while advocating the abolition of the inspectorate, also proposes its replacement with some other system. The idea that teachers should not be scrutinised by the people whom we serve seems extraordinary: the public pay teachers’ salaries, and the public ought therefore to be able to have a say, however indirect, in how their tax is spent. I don’t have any friends within the inspectorate, but I suppose, if I did, this would be how they say they serve the public: we make sure, I imagine an inspector saying, that the ordinary taxpayer gets his money’s worth from what is, after all, a public service.
As inspectors tend to be drawn from the ranks of teachers, I doubt there are many who would openly say ‘actually, I couldn’t care less if teachers like this or not. I’m not here to serve teachers: I’m here to look out for everyone else’s interests.’ The closest we came to that was Sir Michael Wilshaw, sometimes regarded as a bit of a hero among traditionalists, who infamously asserted that low morale indicated that he was doing a good job.
The trouble with all this is that it just doesn’t work.
So if the pretend-market with a state regulator doesn’t work, what are the alternatives? There are only really two: a proper free market, and its opposite: the state funds schools, and orders them to educate our children as best they can.
Every so often I get seduced by the idea of a genuine free market in education. I do. I just tried to summarise my disapproval, and instead found myself with far too much to say; so when time allows I will write a further piece on whether this is such a preposterous idea after all. But that’s not this piece. This is about the opposite, and why it would be better than the status quo.
Yeah. I think the state should give pots of taxpayers’ money to schools, and then let them do whatever they like with it. I might allow some sort of audit-style inspection to check that Heads are not spending school budgets on all-inclusive holidays. But that’s about it. Scrap Ofsted. Scrap SATS. Scrap every other accountability measure.
Here’s the rationale.
Firstly, let’s not forget the immense damage done under the current system. This has been exhaustively documented, so I’ll just observe that if an inspectorate can simultaneously terrify a school’s leaders, whose jobs might well be on the line, and be used by unscrupulous school leaders as a justification for the imposition of appalling policies … then we have a cross between a factory inspector in the Soviet Union and a management consultancy.
Secondly, let’s not kid ourselves that everyone must expect some version of Ofsted. The armed forces don’t have one. Nor does the Border Agency, and I don’t think anyone’s going to claim that the British public cares more about Progress Eight scores than about defence or immigration.
Thirdly, what’s the worst that can happen? Some teachers start slacking off. Without Ofsted…
…well, what, exactly?
Look, pal, you want your teachers to work harder? That’s your problem. You call yourself a leader? Lead. That’s why you do less teaching for more money. Use those famous leadership skills that you like to boast about to do your job properly. It’s not as though Ofsted scares these teachers anyway. Their lessons don’t get graded any more. What do they care?
Or you worry that some bearded crypto-patriarchs posing as Dumbledores in some dodgy religious free schools would be teaching pupils that the world was created in 4004 BC? Well, funny you should ask that, because I’m sure you’re familiar with this story. That school, which just received a positive write-up in a monitoring visit a few months ago, still doesn’t teach Biology. There are political positions which have convinced some fairly bright people that it’s fine for a school to not teach British pupils about evolution because they’re Jewish girls, and I’m pretty perturbed by that. (Though if that’s your position, presumably you don’t like the idea of an inspectorate judging schools by their curricular offerings.) Personally I’d see a place for an inspectorate which would shut down a school in which teachers went through exam papers and redacted the sections on evolution. But that’s not the inspectorate we’ve got, even with its recent reforms; and the widespread acceptance that teaching kids this stuff is basically all right is one which has significant support, in the more gruesome areas of the political left and right, and so any statutory inspectorate is likely to reflect that.
How about basic health and safety stuff, and safeguarding? There might still be schools which don’t make teachers wear lanyards … should this be allowed in 2019?
(Yes, I’m being snarky, but I’ve no doubt that you can find people who would denounce my casual attitude to lanyards as evidence of a wilfully ignorant disregard for children’s welfare, while a school which insists that evolution not be taught should be respected.)
Well, I wouldn’t mind a basic inspectorate like the sort of hygiene inspection to which the hospitality industry is subject. By all means treat a school like an office, if you must.
How do I answer the taxpayer? I shrug and say well, sorry, we tried. But it turned out that trying to look after your interests meant that education was made significantly worse for our pupils. So we’re not going to do it any more.