October 23, 2009

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.


  1. I agree but there is one problem with making schools showing “good progress” immune from OFSTED. The plethora of joke qualifications worth improbable point scores: OCR National, BTECs etc. makes identifying the genuinely successful schools difficult.

  2. I agree, many schools “improve” rapidly with these (mine among them). The kids are being short changed and the colleges and employers passed the buck of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

    Abolish league tables, and have the inspections based on rigour of the qualifications. Why not have judgements based on rigour of the qualifications instead of this downward spiral of grade inflation (mixed metaphor? Surely not! You have got the light end of the stick)

  3. Judging from the comments already left, some people seem to think inspectors are stupid. Do you honestly think they don’t see through the games that schools play. As far as I can see already good/outstanding schools play both sides. They play some ‘quick fix’ games to keep up appearances for the superficially minded and make genuine sustainable improvements for the benefit of the students/teachers. Sounds like good leadership to me!
    What happens in weaker schools is only the superficial curriculum changes take place and attitudes/behaviour/learning continues to deteriorate. Almost a quantity over quality model – bad leadership!
    The oringinal article throws up an interesting proposal that I agree with in principle, but doesn’t it suggest that good performance is all about results (making schools exam factories?) Teaching and education is about so much more than exam results, but don’t ask me how to ‘inspect’ that fairly. That’s too tough a question for someone on a half term break!

    • “..some people seem to think inspectors are stupid….Do you honestly think they don’t see through the games that schools play”.

      Uh? League tables/school data anybody?

      I am unaware of any instance of a school’s improvement in results being “seen through” by OFSTED. The government and exam boards maintains all qualifications are (at least nearly) equally difficult for a given level. To quote Jerry Jarvis, Managing Director of Edexcel, (speaking to Select Committee) ,“We do not and cannot compete by producing easy qualifications”. I would imagine OFSTED citing a school’s improvement to have been the result of entering pupils for easier qualifications would be …politically sensitive. However, if you know of schools that have been “seen through” in this manner please point me to some evidence because I would love to use it to oppose the wholesale adoption of high point scoring but otherwise dubious qualifications by my school.

      By the way, my school is “outstanding”. We have 1600 pupils. To award us this outstanding category two inspectors visited for one day. Not one single lesson in my nine teacher department was observed. This brief inspection was permitted because our data i.e. average point score per pupil etc. is good. Our point scores are particularly enhanced by BTEC PE (100% pass rate including some of our most disruptive pupils and ‘equivalent’ to 4 GCSEs). This year our school data will be further improved by the OCR National in ICT (we are getting pupils through ‘one GCSEs worth’ in about 50 hours (with a 100% pass rate) compared to 180 hours for the GCSE ICT it replaced (75% pass rate)).

  4. I’ve just been told to expect an Ofsted visit any time from next week, since the last one was 3 1/2 years ago.
    When I asked what the latest we could expect the visit, the answer was 3 years time.
    So it’s a three year long Ofsted alert – forget about doing a good job, just get your paperwork up to date – it’s what Ofsted would want to see!

    And given all the latest outpourings about the need for formative assessment, when is Ofsted going to follow its own advice and back off from aggressive summative assessments?

  5. I don’t think that BTECs are joke qualifications but they do carry with them stupid scores for the league tables.

    You need Ofsted inspections whether the school has good results or not. But second guessing Ofsted does seem to be what some members of SLT think their jobs are about. They are supposed to be ensuring the children get a good education, rather thsn making teachers constantly swot for the Ofsted exam.

  6. This is a great post and I agree 100% with everything that you have written here. Like you, I always do my best to remain relatively unfazed by inspections, solid in the knowledge that I do my job to a decent standard and that there are certainly teachers who should fear an inspection more than I do.

    The disgusting management team at our school use the threat of an Ofsted visit to keep us on our toes and, crucially, to justify tons of what seems to be unnecessary paperwork. Also, they use the word Ofsted as a way of foisting their often hopeless ideas onto us by assuring us that their way is the best way- and that Ofsted agree.

  7. ps: As I was reading this post I couldn’t help wondering if you are one of my colleagues!

  8. “You need Ofsted inspections whether the school has good results or not.”


  9. What upsets me about Ofsted is that they are the perfect body for sharing good practice, but they don’t do it.
    As part of the SEF, schools should be able to identify their own areas of weakness (or Target areas) and Ofsted should be able to say “we saw such and such working well in a school last year. Here’s what they did. Here’s a contact. Get in touch with them.”

    The new frameworks for Ofsted at least put some focus back onto lesson obs. But the “satisfactory” no longer means “satisfactory”.

  10. OldAndrew: in case you wondered if it was only OFSTEAD that wasted your taxmoney: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/mar/06/police-surveillance-database-activists-intelligence

  11. […] in a tactfully titled post – OFSTED must die – said blog set out the difficulties caused by inspection, and the extent to which the threat of […]

  12. […] about Ofsted. This.  It’s funny and so bang on, it’s scary. Ofsted has totally become a magic word, with the […]

  13. Just been reading this post and I noticed:

    Here’s my solution: …reward good results with OFSTED immunity. Schools where the results show students make good progress should not have their teaching and management inspected.’ Which is what’s happening.

  14. Great post.

  15. Not content with meddling in and damaging – destroying- decent state education OFSTED have now turned their attention to the private sector with the same odious intentions to destroy more children’s chances. There is no escape and no-one is allowed to be educated properly these days.
    Why? And why do they still have so much power?

  16. […] before my recent writing on the subject I had argued that OFSTED needs to be abolished because of the indirect effect it has on schools. Managers force […]

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