Opinion: A serious blow to Gove’s Red Guard – How will the Lib Dems respond?

Michael Gove’s and Sir Michael Wilshaw’s plans to use Ofsted to drive up standards in schools have been much vaunted in the press recently.

Hit squads of inspectors started arriving in schools in January to force the ‘satisfactory’ schools into special measures and to force schools to rapidly rid themselves of their ‘satisfactory’ teachers. The fact that ‘satisfactory’ is a categorisation used for all qualities of service about which there is no cause for concern and which often includes highly regarded practices which don’t tick the boxes Ofsted has defined for higher classifications (especially in teaching) does not concern them.

But it is concerning the teachers and communities who are suddenly finding their schools facing special measures despite them being well run. Special measures is a brutal process which is deemed to be successful and constructive by…….Ofsted. Respected and experienced staff who go through it and are find it more damaging than constructive are rarely heard.

But not only is Gove and Wilshaw’s behaviour deeply alienating for teachers, it is also illegal under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (2006) to which Ofsted became obliged in October 2009 (see part 1A point 17), as I pointed out to Ofsted last July and regarding which I received no response when I asked Graham Stuart to query this with Michael Gove in January.

Last Wednesday, one of the first schools to be put into special measures under the new regime successfully challenged Ofsted in the High Court in LondonFurness Academy had Ofsted’s judgement of their performance as being unsatisfactory overturned. Mr Justice Collins concluded that although maths results did not reach nationally expected levels Ofsted must issue a covering letter with the report, “making it explicitly clear that but for Maths the Academy would have been judged to be satisfactory”.

This judgement means that Ofsted will now be subjected to a Judicial Review regarding its practice which should require it to demonstrate that its future practice will be ‘proportionate and targeted only at cases where action is needed’ as the law demands.  Given the number of similar cases of inspectors descending into schools intent on creating the evidence they need to force those schools into special measures I have heard of this year it is likely other such judgements will follow in which case an Independent Commission will be convened. An Independent Commission would look not only at the wording of the law but also at the interpretations of it by our other regulators who take seriously their duty to protect the organisations they inspect from counterproductive intervention by themselves or politicians in accordance with Hampton Principles (page 2 point 9) which the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (2006) was designed to enforce.

I would strongly advise the Lib Dems to lead the way in demanding an Independent Commission to review Ofsted’s behaviour. Otherwise they will be seen to be endorsing Gove and Wilshaw’s ignorant and illegal bullying of schools.

* Rebecca Hanson is a teacher, a lecturer in education, an education adviser and a member of the LDEA committee. She was the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Copeland by-election in 2017.

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  • School Inspection is subject to the quantum process, whereby the act of observing something changes its state.

    There are some big flaws in the current system:

    – a 4 rather than 5 step rating which makes it impossible to fit school performance to a normal distribution
    – no advance notice of inspections
    – insistence on referring to pupils as “students”

  • 43 schools took part in PISA 2000, 65 in 2009. Our performance didn’t change very much.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Mar '12 - 2:14pm

    I am familiar with all sorts of craziness, but are you sure that the inspectors “force the ‘SATISFACTORY’ schools into special measures and … force schools to … rid themselves of … ‘SATISFACTORY’ teachers”? I have looked up the word in the dictionary and cannot make head or tail of what is being said.

  • Richard – yes, it is crazy; but it has been decided that ‘satisfactory’ is not good enough (though that is actually what it means to most of us). I have lived through about six Ofsted inspections; none of them told us anything we didn’t know already, all were expensive (in cash terms and stress).

  • Maybe schools should be resourced and structured to do more internal quality control and we should rely less on special measures

  • Rebecca writes that “It is essential that Lib Dems who share your beliefs go back to their routes and ask those who they respect who are actually teaching and running schools what is going on.”

    I did just that, and the head I respect said that special measures was the best thing that ever happened to the quality of education in his school. He said it gave him a lot more authority, a lot more outside assistance, and it made a lot of teachers realise that it was not acceptable for kids in their school to do badly just because their parents were poor, and kids in that school had always done badly. His school is now out of special measures, and those children’s life changes have been transformed.

    Simon Shaw’s comments are spot on.

  • TL – valid points, which also have to be backed up with effective sanctions to remove disruptive pupils.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Mar '12 - 10:37pm

    I cannot believe that teachers’s performance is judged on a 30 minute inspection in a classroom. Surely we are not in the Victorian age? Surely the basic question is something like how well the pupils learn, and I guess this is measured by their performance in exams? I imagine we are more sophisticated than in the 3rd world …?

    I taught at a 3rd world university where exam results were used as part of the assessment of a lecturer’s performance – some student failures were expected but a 25% failure rate was taken to indicate a fault of the lecturer rather than the students. Lecturers had all sorts of ways to argue agaisnt it, but generally recognized some truth in it.

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '12 - 1:05am

    The inspectors visited Birkdale High on December 12 and 13, 2011, according to the report quoted by Simon Shaw, so this presumably is not what Rebecca’s article is about – which is Gove’s inspectors starting January 2012.

    It would certainly be interesting to know more of Birkdale . The areas in which it was ruled inadequate look mostly difficult to assess. Did all this collapse really happen in the few months since August last year, when the school was “the best performing [school] in the town based on last year’s GCSE results”? How hard is it to change into academy?

    While there may be some possible sources of political motovations in Salford, It seems difficult to believe Rebecca’s claim that “inspectors are turning up at schools with an agenda to create unsatisfactory gradings no matter what they actually see “. I seem to recognize here the claims of those under-performers who simply don’t want to change.

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '12 - 9:35am

    Rebecca. Are you asking us to make a judgment between parties – inspectors versus teachers – by pre-judging that one side, the teachers, knows what is “actually” going on? That would not sound right to me.

  • Simon McGrath 24th Mar '12 - 10:10am

    @rebecca “Right – let’s start to look at Birkdale High.
    The Ofsted report categorised both the Head and the Governing Body as being unsatisfactory.
    The head is disappointed and surprised by the judgements. He and the governors will be staying on. The head wrote: “The inspector paints a picture of the school and its pupils which regular visitors, staff, governors, parents and the community will have great difficulty in recognising.” The school already seems to have robust improvement processes in place.”

    Hm , tough choice who do we believe the Head rr the inspectors. Know which one I would go for.

  • The last time I had an Ofsted inspection, I was teaching in the nursery class. The inspector who was responsible for assessing my performance came in, and her first comment was: ‘Oh my goodness, aren’t they little!’ I explained that we always put the littlest ones in the nursery … needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled to be assessed by someone who plainly had no experience of young children. On another occasion, I was slated for deviating from a planned maths lesson; I spotted that some children hadn’t grasped the point of the previous lesson, so revisited it. These kids went on to achieve above the national average in their SATs, in a socially/economically deprived area.

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '12 - 11:01am

    Rebecca – No. I am suggesting in this type of situation that observers need to find ways to assess what is going on without starting by assuming that one particular group of participants is in the right.

    As you have mentioned, it is natural to start by assuming that the inspectors are right, particularly since the nature of their task will inevitably bring them into dispute with teachers sometimes. Indeed, for this very reason, if we have to choose between judging inspectors as inxcorrect or judging teachers as incorrect, we need methods of judging that do not start by assuming the result of the judgment.

    Of course I appreciate that it is sometimes difficult to be heard.

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '12 - 11:09am

    Sid – Neither of your two examples are as obvious as you seem to thnk they are.

    Saying “aren’t they little” doesn’t indicate incompetence – there are plenty of other explanations and one would be that the inspector was pointing out that you didn’t need to be so rough with them! Of course I have no idea of the situation, but perhaps this example might make you think how differently different people can perceive events.

    For your maths lesson, you seem to have deliberately held back part of the class in order to bring another part up to speed – an alternative would have been to bring them up to speed outside of that class, so the choice you made would not necessarily be judged to have been the correct one by every observer.

    As it happens I have deviated many times from lesson plans, and for the same reason, and it is always good for the other part of the class to revise, so I do understand your point. But I wonder if you understand mine?

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '12 - 11:52am

    Rebecca – I don’t think you are understanding me at all!

  • Richard Dean 24th Mar '12 - 12:59pm

    Rebecca. Look at what you have written: “I’m hearing [something]. These teams clearly …” But you are not exercising any kind of judgment at all, you are simply taking what you are hearing as gospel.

    Just think …. there are certainly some teachers who under-perform. What will they say? Why, they will say that the inspectors have pre-judged them! You are observing a situation – you are an observer of a situation in which some people tell you the inspectors are doing wrong. As an observer, you need ways of finding the truth that do not involve simply assuming that one particular side is telling it.

    I am a different obsever. I am not observing the situation that you are observing. I am observing you. I am observing the way that you observe a situation. I am seeing someone who does not have independent criteria by which to make judgments. On this basis, I conclude that I cannot rely on your judgments.

    I am just an example of a member of the public. As such, if you want to convince me of your case, and if you want me to support you, you need to show me that you yourself are not make pre-judgments. I’m not talking here of what you are told, I’m talking of the way you approach the task of assessing whether what you are told is reliable.

    I hope this helps explain what I mean, it is not meant as any kind of personal criticism. Quite apart from our own involvement, people see an event and they need ways to understand and judge it that do not bstart by assuming one side is right – or at least allow room for the possibility that the side that they assume is right might noit be so. This ways need to be independent of trust, in my view.

    Anyway, thus is making my head hurt! 🙂 so I am going away for a while to rest!

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '12 - 7:24pm

    @Simon. Every gardener knows there are good ways and bad ways to tend flowers. In the same way, there are good ways and bad ways of ttrying to school children. Somewhere there is a school of gardening that knows much of what those ways are, and it makes sense to use that school’s knowledge in designing the care schemes uses in gardens nationwide – while allowing that other approaches can also be successful!

    @Rebecca. I’m sure that special measures are tough. Things like ” ….cyberharassment … people …. systematically spreading lies … was threatening their funding” should not happen, of course, but such statements also tend to look a little paranoid! Good luck!

  • Richard Dean 26th Mar '12 - 10:44pm

    You’re a very complicated person Rebecca! 🙂 My character is very bad, and irredemable at my advanced age. Paranoia is my middle name, and the struggle to distinguigh it from reality is familiar. It’s even right sometimes!

  • Rebecca Hanson 27th Mar '12 - 9:30pm

    Here’s one of my attempts to distinguish the two Richard. A sideways topic but one I find easier to get my head round than English education at present:
    http://cyberrhetoricbyrebeccahanson.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/how-to-manage-agenda-of-form-if-you.html :-/
    I do have emails with copies of most of the posts from that discussion. Unlike the hundreds of my posts that were systematically deleted form the TES forum.

  • Richard Dean 28th Mar '12 - 5:42pm

    @Rebecca – Google “deep root drive eroor”. There’s nothing on that exact topic, but there is something on deep file paths. All it means is that you have too many subdirectories of subdirectories of subdirectories … of … etc! I’m sure it’s nasty, and shouldn’t happen), but I find it difficult to believe that it is Israel’s fault. Maybe your friend offerred an explanation designed to fit your expectations, rather than one based on objective fact?

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