Ofsted dodges the blame

A new school year has begun with the Government’s key allies having to acknowledge some of the desperate problems in the school system but without admitting that any of it is their fault. In particular, Amanda Spielman, as head of Ofsted, carefully avoids criticising government policy whilst trying to deflect the blame onto schools.

Curriculum narrowing and ‘teaching to the test’

Teachers have been complaining for years that high-stakes tests are narrowing the curriculum. The House of Commons select committee received abundant evidence and demanded change.

Spielman’s recent speeches acknowledge the problem but pretend it is neither the Government’s fault nor Ofsted’s. Surely she realises that Ofsted primary school inspections have been focused almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy. A recent report by the Wellcome Trust showed that half of Ofsted primary inspections didn’t even mention science, which is supposedly a core subject, let alone history or music.

But it is easier to blame teachers and governors. According to Spielman

those working in education need to ask themselves how we have created a situation where second-guessing the test can trump the pursuit of real, deep knowledge and understanding. Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it. (18 Sept 2018)

Inadequate teacher training is certainly a problem, but surely Spielman understands that fast-track ‘on the job’ teacher training is official Conservative policy?

Spielman confirms that inspectors have witnessed

curriculum narrowing, especially in upper key stage 2, with lessons disproportionately focused on English and mathematics. Sometimes this manifested as intensive, even obsessive, test preparation for key stage 2 sats that in some cases started at Christmas in Year 6.

Yet the chief inspector shields Government ministers from any responsibility.

Speaking truth to power

Kevin Courtney, as joint General Secretary of the NEU, is clear that Ofsted is not the solution but part of the problem. He has expressed no confidence in “another Ofsted policing solution” which would simply shield the government and deflect the blame onto schools.

I want schools to teach a broad curriculum, but Ofsted is one of the things that has stopped schools teaching a broad curriculum… I’m afraid what Amanda does not understand is the need for her to speak truth to power.

It is the government’s EBacc system, it is the cuts, which are leading to arts subjects being cut in schools – that’s what’s driving the narrowing of the curriculum. So I don’t support another Ofsted policing solution to that.

I want Ofsted to go, and I want them to go by next September.


Amanda Spielman also recognises the extent of ‘off-rolling’ as more ruthless school leaders try to get rid of students who don’t boost the exam statistics. In particular, some academy chains have gained reputations for removing large numbers of less successful students – often vulnerable young people. Devious ways have been found to get these students off roll, including persuading parents to remove their children ‘voluntarily’ to avoid being expelled. Some heads have even persuaded parents with limited education to ‘home educate’ their children. The Children’s Commissioner sent a briefing last November to alert MPs to the extent of the problem.

The number of students who disappeared from school rolls during KS4 rose by nearly a third last year. The Times put its finger on the problem, under the headline ‘Weak pupils expelled as heads game exam tables: schools exclude thousands in run-up to GCSEs’. A Schools Week investigation in March 2017 found that as many as 10 percent of students disappeared in Year 11 in some London schools.

This is a product of a high-stakes surveillance system, in which Ofsted has a key role. Its job is to drive struggling schools down the road towards forced academisation. Although some heads have been ruthless and uncaring, Government assessment policies and Ofsted are at the heart of the problem.

A report by the House of Commons education select committee, with MPs from all parties, said bluntly that students were being ‘abandoned’ and that off-rolling is “in part driven by school policies created by the Department for Education”. (Code for ‘policies created by the Conservative government’)

A survey by The Independent found that 1 in 5 teachers had direct evidence of schools ‘removing students through the backdoor to improve results.’

Is Ofsted the Government’s human shield?

Rather than admit its own share of responsibility and point a finger at government policies, Ofsted’s answer is simply to hound schools more. It will now turn on schools with a narrow curriculum or high levels of exclusion as well for failing to reconcile conflicting demands. On past performance, it will particularly target schools with high levels of poverty who are struggling to boost test and exam results. This punitive response will only lead to more problems as worried headteachers and CEOs attempt to save their reputations.

Ofsted is supposed to be independent of Government, but time after time it has simply fired the Government’s bullets, creating an aura of fear which provokes damaging quick-fix responses from ‘school leaders’. Not content with this, it is now operating as a human shield for the Government by deflecting blame onto teachers and schools.

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