Ofsted : unreliable, destructive, beyond repair

Ofsted is clearly beyond repair, and the Election provides an opportunity to close it for good. This will help to stop the mass exodus of teachers from England’s schools. It will help schools concentrate on what really matters: children’s education and wellbeing.

Understandably there are public concerns at Labour’s promise to close Ofsted. Many parents still believe they can judge a school from a Good or Outstanding banner draped along the fence. This is far from true.

1) Nearly 800 schools badged “Outstanding” have not been inspected for over ten years. When some were eventually revisited, serious problems were found: pupils feeling unsafe and frightened, high levels of exclusions, poor provision for pupils with special needs. Each year, thousands more schools are declared ‘still good’ on the basis of a one-day visit by a single inspector – most of it inside the head’s office.

2) Ofsted have failed to notice major problems until they have become a national scandal:

  • financial scandals in academy chains
  • gaming through the use of spurious qualifications
  • damage to children’s mental health through the use of isolation booths
  • “offrolling” – removing lower achievers.

Hiding the truth

Ofsted never admits its mistakes. There are hundreds of formal complaints (5% of all inspections) but Ofsted has not changed a single grade. However, survey by the National Audit Office showed that most dissatisfied heads didn’t bother to complain because they didn’t trust the process.

In 2015 Ofsted reviewed nearly 3000 ‘additional inspectors’ and found 1 in 3 inadequate. However there has been no attempt to review their judgements, however flawed. In fact, Ofsted’s spokesperson simply declared: “We stand by the inspections that we have done in the last few years.”

The big problems remain

Despite a consultation which attracted comments from 15,000 teachers, parents and organisations, most of the old problems remain:

  • the hit-and-run approach whereby a small group of inspectors (often just one or two) have to reach a definitive public judgement in just two days
  • variable quality of inspectors
  • a ‘naming and shaming’ approach to quality control
  • the chronic anxiety and the need to be permanently ‘Ofsted ready’ resulting from just half a day’s notice that an inspection is about to start
  • Ofsted’s extreme power and the fear that this generates – despite the courtesy of many individual inspectors.

Ofsted’s long shadow

Conservative politicians need to take seriously the damage to teacher morale. The long shadow of Ofsted creates a tendency to play safe, a tendency towards a servile unthinking conformity. Too much of teachers’ and heads’ energy is devoted to second-guessing what Ofsted want. Headteachers imitating Ofsted surveillance methods are a major reason why thousands of experienced teachers have left.

Kicking the wounded

Schools with children struggling through poverty are likely to have the lowest results. Teachers are trying to do the best for these children, educationally and by plugging the holes in a crumbling welfare state. Ofsted simply reinforces the problem with its “Requires Improvement” and “Inadequate” labels. It’s like kicking a wounded man when he’s down.

Ofsted’s own data confirms the problem. Schools in the poorest and richest fifth of England, when judged by levels of poverty among ‘white British’ pupils, received very different grades: only 4% of the most disadvantaged schools were judged Outstanding, compared with 58% of the most affluent. This is a ratio of 15 to 1.

As Blackpool headteacher Stephen Tierney rightly points out:

“Your intake dictates your Ofsted outcome. Ofsted are damaging schools who are already most fragile, serving the most disadvantaged communities.”

As York headteacher Trevor Burton put it: “If you want an Outstanding, choose the right pupils.”

There are far better alternatives

There are far better ways of protecting children’s education. It is time to consider these principles:

  1. The purpose of quality assurance is improvement, not a marketing banner on the school gate.
  2. Quality review should be an ongoing process, not a hurried one-off visit. This needs a review team which understands the local area, and can help bring about sustained improvement.
  3. The evaluation process should focus on issues which are most in need of scrutiny at any particular time, to collect reliable evidence and make a clear diagnosis of the underlying causes.
  4. Quality review should actively involve teachers and others working in a school. Methods of ‘self-evaluation’ are an essential part of the process.
  5. Evidence collection should include the different perspectives and experiences of the whole school community and the community at large. Well tried toolkits are available for that process.
  6. External support from ‘critical friends’ is essential: for example, an experienced head from another school, a teacher with recognised expertise, a local authority representative. Critical friends will appreciate the circumstances, but notice problems which insiders might take for granted.
  7. Local authorities have an essential part to play. They need the capacity and expertise to supervise the evaluation process, provide training in methods of self-review, and keep an eye on schools which are facing difficulties. The local authority is the only body capable of linking quality assurance to improvement.
  8. Parents are often the first to notice emerging issues but are nervous about approaching the school directly. Local authorities must set up channels of communication for concerned parents, so that problems are examined in a supportive but timely manner.

Ofsted is too distant and too toxic to do these things. It is beyond repair.


Posted in Accountability | Tagged , , ,

PISA: no victory for Michael Gove

Michael Gove was Education secretary when the 2012 PISA results came out. He expressed alarm that England seemed to be falling behind Shanghai and Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. He wanted to make England a future “winner” in the “global race”. He insisted that academies, harder exams, performance pay for teachers and school-based teacher training would enable England to catch up with the “best-performing school systems in the world”.

There are of course deep problems with this narrow-minded, ultra competitive way of forming education policy, as if education was about nothing more than a test in reading, maths and science. Surely education has more serious global concerns, including the very future of planet Earth. But let us look at the consequences.

Gove and the National Curriculum

Gove had already set about altering the National Curriculum, setting impossibly demanding targets with no regard for each child’s age or readiness.

He rejected a public warning, in an open letter signed by a hundred leading education experts, that his “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules” would lead to “rote learning without understanding.” The professors and researchers warned that:

“This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think – including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

One of the letter‘s coordinators, Michael Bassey, commented to the press that pupils would “memorise just enough detail to get over the hurdle of the tests”. The other, Terry Wrigley, added: “I think if these reforms go ahead it will be miserable for the children.”

Gove’s response was simply to lambast the education experts as the “blob”, the “enemy of promise

Sacrificing young people

The 2018 PISA results, just published (Dec 2019), vindicate the education experts’ concerns.

Firstly, they confirm that Gove has made children’s life a misery. This reinforces earlier studies raising alarm at stress and mental health. According to the official report, pupils in England were

“less satisfied with their lives than pupils across the OECD countries. They were also more likely to feel miserable and worried and less likely to agree that their life has a clear meaning.”

Secondly, a narrow high-pressure curriculum was teaching lists of facts at the expense of real education. Compared with other countries, young people in England expressed negative attitudes to reading, and fewer said they read for pleasure. 53% ticked the statement “I read only if I have to” (compared with 41% in a previous PISA study). 56% said “I read only to get information I need” and 30% said “For me, reading is a waste of time.”

Gove and his Conservative successors have sacrificed children’s education and wellbeing to “winning a global race”.

But did it work?

Despite this terrible sacrifice, the gains have been… well, not exactly earth-shattering.

  • In Science, England scored 9 points less than in 2012.
  • In Reading, it scored 5 points more.
  • In Maths, it went up 9 points.

This is a very modest improvement, given that the gap between England and Singapore, for example, is 44 points in Reading and in Science, and 65 points in Maths.

Even this evidence of improvement is unreliable. As John Jerrim, of the Institute of Education (University College London) and Education Datalab, points out, there are serious problems with the sampling in the case of England.

Nearly a third of the schools chosen by OECD as its sample failed to take part, and in addition nearly a fifth of pupils chosen were somehow absent or unavailable or unwilling. Compounding these factors, the English survey used only 60% of the original sample compared with 80% in Scotland. No explanation has been given and it is quite possible that this has artificially inflated England’s score.

Posted in GERM | Tagged ,

Every learner matters and matters equally

by Mel Ainscow

‘Fixed-term exclusions in the most deprived areas of England have gone up by over 70% in the last four years.’

‘Where did all the GCSE pupils go – and why has no one noticed?’

‘Councils report rise in number of home-educated children with complex needs.’

These disturbing media headlines confirm that many of our young people are being marginalised by the English education system. Despite the efforts of successive governments over the last 20 years, what is clear is that home background is still the best predictor of success. What is even more worrying is the way more and more students are being excluded from educational opportunities.

Since the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, followed by the Conservative government in 2015, the market-place has become the basis of education policy. This has led to a range of barriers in respect to the education system’s capacity to respond to learner diversity.

Matters related to the curriculum are one concern, particularly the narrowing of the educational ‘diet’, which is limiting opportunities for some learners. There is also concern about the growing trend of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being marginalised through grouping arrangements based on notions of ability, despite the massive research evidence which points to the problems associated with such approaches.

There are worries, too, about the increasing number of students being excluded from schools, through both formal and informal means – such as parents being coerced by schools into “home educating” their children, often before GCSE exams – and the increased numbers being placed in special or alternative provision away from their peers.

There is a particular challenge in relation to the education of disabled children. The importance of including them is stressed in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which commits to ending segregation by ensuring inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate support. However, when the UK government ratified this Convention in June 2009 it placed restrictions on its obligations. The first of these restrictions stated that the definition of a ‘general education system’ would include segregated provision.

The UK is one of only two countries in the world to place such restrictions (the other being Mauritius). In September 2016 the UN Disability Committee published a statement setting out how governments can move towards greater inclusion. Again, the UK has ignored this and remains out of step with the rest of the world.

These disturbing trends are occurring at a time when the rest of the world is attempting to move towards policies that are informed by the principles of inclusion and equity. These efforts are guided by the United Nations’ Education 2030 Framework for Action, which emphasizes inclusion and equity as laying the foundations for quality education. In this way, the international policy agenda is clear, as summed up by the motto used in recent UNESCO guidance: ‘Every learner matters and matters equally’.

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged ,

No joke – a brutal class war

johnson2rough sleeper

The extreme social divisions in today’s Britain are not just a case of unfair distribution. They are the consequence of a brutal class war conducted by the superrich on the working class.

The rhetoric since 2010 has been about Austerity – the need to cut public spending to balance the national budget after the financial crash. The reality has been a process of robbing the poor while the rich get richer. A glaring example is that the 1000 richest people – those on the Sunday Times ‘rich list’ – doubled their wealth in just five years.

Meanwhile the Health Service has been brought to its knees, and local councils have been unable to sustain the most basic levels of care. The only ‘growth industry’ since 2010 has been food banks.

As we pointed out in an earlier post, this is having a devastating impact on children’s welfare and education.

None of this is accidental. Conservative government since 2010 has been driven by representatives of the superrich, many of them Eton educated. Etonian families do not tighten their belts: the fees are now £42,501 a year. The pupil-teacher ratio is 8:1 and the facilities are amazing. Above all else, it instils the habits of Britain’s ruling elite: a third of Britain’s prime ministers attended this one school !


The Bullingdon Club epitomises the culture of Old Etonians at Oxford, and aspiring to political power. Founded in 1780 as a hunting and cricket club, its name has always been synonymous with excessive drinking and a competitive destructiveness. (And that according to the Daily Mail!) Both David Cameron and Boris Johnson were active members. It must have been a home from home for Johnson, whose nickname at Eton was ‘the Berserker’.

The brutal politics of Conservative rule are summed up in a brilliant new song from Madness. The Bullingdon Boys video (with the tagline ‘Don’t get bullied by the Bully Boys’) captures their selfish ambition and casual destructiveness in images from Clockwork Orange, pirate ships and slave galleys alternating with Eton boys, evening dress and caning.

The lyrics sharply capture the viciousness of this gang:

We are the chancers’ brigade
We’ll have you flogged and flayed
Move along back to your sweatshops

and their imperialist delusions:

We’re making England great again
Make way for the bag-men
And when everything’s been sold and bought
We’ll soon be off the life support.
Won’t we?

Share it far and wide. Put Johnson in the dustbin of history.

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged ,

Child poverty – Conservative rule


Britain is one of the richest countries in the world, but with scandalous levels of poverty. Child poverty has grown massively since the Conservative-led government took over in 2010, and is set to increase even more.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 4.1 million children are in poverty – 500,000 more than five years ago – and expected to grow to 5.2 million by 2022. One in four children living in two-parent families are affected, and nearly a half of children in single parent families.

An even more desperate situation is described as ‘destitution’, for example sleeping rough, having less than two meals a day, or no heating or lighting. 365,000 children experienced destitution at some point during 2017, many because of government benefit policies such as Universal Credit.

Child poverty and education

Child poverty has a devastating effect on children’s happiness and security, and also their education. Students on Free School Meals in their GCSE year had an average Achievement 8 scores of 34, compared with 48 for other students (2018 data).

22% of students on free meals got the higher grades in English and Maths (grades 9-5 in the new system), compared with 46% of other students. Students who have been poor for most of their time at school are, on average, two years behind.

Since 2010, economic divisions in Britain have increased: while child poverty has increased, the superrich have got even richer. In 2014 the Sunday Times actually boasted that the 1000 richest people in Britain – those on its Rich List – had doubled their wealth in just five years of ‘Austerity’ government.

No wonder Conservative ministers prefer to focus on the achievement gap rather than the economic one. After all, blaming teachers is easier than accepting their own responsibility for poverty.

Government statisticians have invented a new formula which supposedly shows its policies are reducing the achievement gap. Far from it. Research by the Education Policy Institute shows it would take 560 years to close the gap. Indeed, the latest data shows it is getting wider.

Conservatives prefer referring to ‘social mobility’ than social justice. This is another diversion. It’s like trying to climb up a slippery ladder in a thunderstorm. Even if a few more children from Hartlepool could get into Oxford, this will do nothing to tackle poverty and its effects. We need to build a society in which all can flourish. That is why there has to be a change of government.

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

Creative arts – a class issue


Michael Gove’s destruction of the creative and performing arts is an indelible stain on  this Government’s record.

Rich experiences in art, music, drama and media should be the entitlement of all young people. Creative subjects and activities provide an emotional satisfaction and social recognition which goes deeper than any test or exam scores. As education minister, Gove did his best to eliminate these opportunities.

Gove’s version of the National Curriculum has reduced children to cramming for SATs and the phonics test. Faced with impossible targets, teachers across England were driven towards fulfilling the tight technical demands of the tests, regardless of the lack of purpose or real meaning for their pupils. Conservative government has reduced education to drudgery. 

The creative arts (drama, music, etc), and practical subjects such as Design and Technology, were deliberately omitted from Gove’s “English Baccalaureate”. This has led to a steep decline in young people studying these subjects to GCSE. Altogether GCSE entries in creative arts and design and technology have gone down 38% from 2010 to 2019. A-level entries in these subjects sank by 29% in the same years.

Not surprisingly, there was protest from bodies representing arts professionals and from the ‘creative industries’ such as music and television. The CBI pointed out that “The creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, so the decline in creative subjects must be reversed.”


Suddenly, after nine years of narrow-minded neglect, the authors of the Conservative election manifesto appear to have woken up – but only marginally. In fact, the promise of extra funds hardly scratches the surface. Secondary schools have been promised an “arts premium” to fund “enriching activities for all pupils.” The budget amounts to a tokenistic £33 per student !

Let’s compare that with Boris Johnson’s old school. Eton does not skimp on the creative arts. Its website claims that “over 70 musicians come to Eton specifically to give music lessons”. Little impact of Gove’s EBacc there!

According to its website :

In recent years a very generous building programme has doubled the size and scope of the Music Schools. The new building consists of a purpose-built orchestral rehearsal room, recording studio, computer room with twelve PC workstations, a pre/post-production suite, rock band studio, electric guitar teaching room, and twelve other teaching and practice rooms. The old Music School has been rebuilt. It now consists of three floors of teaching, rehearsal and practice rooms, together with a 250-seater Concert Hall, academic teaching rooms, a library and an organ room.

Over 1000 music lessons are taught each week by seven full-time masters and over 70 visiting teachers; instruments range from sitar and tabla to the full range of orchestral and solo instruments. Senior boys put on their own concerts: orchestras, bands, choirs and music technology provide wide and varied musical opportunities. 

The drama facilities are equally stunning. A 400-seat theatre “is staffed by 5 full time theatre professionals led by an Artistic Director”, with all the latest equipment.

Old Etonians such as Boris Johnson can have little idea of life in state schools. They certainly don’t tolerate educational drudgery for their own children. We shouldn’t tolerate it for ours.


Posted in Curriculum, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

Class size – the Conservative legacy

The Conservative Party are constantly claiming to have improved schools, but without reliable evidence.

They claim that more pupils are being educated in ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools. The Ofsted data is suspect, since the criteria have been changed so much. Once a school is judged Good or Outstanding, it escapes thorough inspection for many years, which automatically leads to an upward trend in the data.

For GCSE grades too, Conservative ministers have gone to a lot of trouble to cover their tracks. A* was the highest grade, but 1 is now the lowest. Fair comparisons are impossible.

One piece of hard data is the number of pupils in oversized classes. It was due to the actions of teacher unions in the past that class sizes were brought down from around 40. Teachers were encouraged to stand firm and fight for an extra teacher, rather than allow children’s needs to get overlooked in too large a class.


Careful scrutiny of Department for Education data shows the situation has got much worse since the Conservatives (with Lib Dem support) took control in 2010. In the first year of Conservative rule, 11.7% of primary school children were in classes over 30. Now it is 13%. The deterioration was even worse in secondary schools: from 10.2% of pupils to 13%.

Expressed in percentages, the change might not seem so great. When you look at the number of pupils, you see the betrayal of hundreds of thousands of children and young people. Over 1,000,000 of primary and secondary pupils are being taught in classes above 30 – nearly a quarter of a million more than in 2010. The ratio has got worse, and not enough teachers have been employed to keep up with a rising birth rate.

Larger classes mean children’s individual talents and needs become invisible. It means special educational needs are overlooked. Larger classes mean an increasing tendency to get rid of more challenging students.

According to OECD data, class size in UK primary schools is now the worst in Europe.

It is all very well for Boris Johnson’s education minister to promise extra funding on the eve of a General Election. The proof of the pudding is the last 9 years. Despite all the government’s cant about ‘aspirations’ and ‘social mobility’, the school experience of state-funded pupils / students has deteriorated.

Let us compare this to Boris Johnson’s old school, Eton. According to its website Eton’s pupil-teacher ratio is currently 8:1 – and this doesn’t include the 70 visiting music teachers.  Johnson doesn’t have a clue about life in state schools. 

Posted in Teachers | Tagged