I used to wonder why teachers had it in for OFSTED, the school inspection agency. The inspections were a hassle, and very stressful, but they weren’t that often. If every five years somebody wanted to pop in and tell me my lessons were good then it wasn’t the worst thing in the world for me as a teacher. My experience was also that the judgements given by OFSTED inspectors seemed much better than those given by managers. They seemed more focused on learning and behaviour, and less on playing games and inclusion. As somebody who was concerned about poor schools then it seemed to make sense that this form of accountability existed and the schools which most failed their pupils would be identified.
My opinion has changed. OFSTED has ceased to be a regulator; it is is now a magic word. The word “OFSTED” has mystical power over teachers. It is used by the dark wizards of senior and middle management to cast a spell on gullible teachers which saps their will and turns them into bad teachers. It works like this:
If you have a bad idea then saying “OFSTED” turns it into a good one. For example: “Students should be working in groups every lesson. It’s what OFSTED will be looking for.”
If your staff don’t respect your judgement, then saying “OFSTED” reminds them of their wretchedness: “If anybody here thinks OFSTED is definitely going to consider all of their lessons to be excellent then you might have another opinion about this, but unless that is the case then you need to listen to what I’m saying.”
If you are a manager who isn’t very good at teaching then you can even things up by using the power of OFSTED to screw up other people’s lessons. For instance you can say “You must not spend more than twelve minutes in the lesson teaching, it is (or is going to be) one of the new OFSTED criteria” and people will believe you.
It is only a matter of time until senior managers cease to use any vocabulary other than the word OFSTED, and will be free to simply address the school at INSET meetings by saying “OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED” conveying meaning only by the pace at which they speak and the tone of disapproval in their voice when they are looking at anybody who is not as fully OFSTED compliant as themselves. (I believe this may already have begun to happen in some schools.)
Now, in almost every OFSTED I have ever been through there has been an intense period of advice from managers, LEA consultants, advisors and the like, usually based around trendy ideas and box-ticking followed by a last minute revelation that OFSTED actually want something completely different (and more obvious) like marking in books, schemes of work for every subject, results that suggest students actually make progress. Advice given pre-OFSTED is usually terrible, and I have got my “goods” in OFSTED observations by ignoring it. Better advice is available from asking teachers who have recently gone through OFSTED what they got it in the neck for, and being ready for trouble. At the last OFSTED I went through, on the Sunday before the inspection, the headteacher rampaged through my department looking in every exercise book for signs of marking, having only just realised that this was important. Having reached a state of apoplexy with what he found, he arrived at my classroom to find me sat there marking and was extremely grateful. I knew what I needed to do, even if the many expensive advisers had left it to the very last minute to suggest that this might be an issue.
This is because OFSTED is a bullshitter’s charter. People who nobody would ever listen to based on their track-record or their qualifications gain power through uttering the magic word and watching people panic. It doesn’t matter what OFSTED actually want, there is just enough ambiguity for people to pretend they have an insight and then watch everybody dance to their tune. Worse, they have this effect even on people doing a good job, who will only get worse by listening to bad advice. Forget results, forget teaching, forget what works, every mad initiative and silly suggestion is justified by the magic word.
Here’s my solution: get rid of performance-related pay, reward good results with OFSTED immunity. Schools where the results show students make good progress should not have their teaching and management inspected. Teachers who get good results should be given a notice to put on their door saying “Successful classroom, so just fuck off” which compels all inspectors to leave them well enough alone. Members of SMT for any school which gets an “outstanding” from an OFSTED should, either simultaneously or one at a time, be given the opportunity to slap the lead inspector in the face for wasting everybody’s time. Any headteacher who turns around a failing school should be allowed to go to Christine Gilbert’s house on New Year’s Day for the next four years and empty a bucket of live eels over her head and pee in her fireplace. Accountability needs to be about identifying failure and doing something about it, not bullying the successful into becoming more like the failures.