Issue 201 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: An inspector calls

In no other field has the Tory government been so inventive, so innovative, as in its education policies. They have come fast and furious the National Curriculum, assessment, league tables, teacher appraisal, delegated management of schools (LMS), school based teacher training, the rundown of local education authorities, bringing in Ofsted and now a return to selective schools. Each step coincides with more drastic cuts in funding. This offensive appears to be a sign of their strength, but their position is highly contradictory.

At each stage the Tories have to strain harder to keep up the pretence that they are interested in `raising standards', and since the claim is patently false, they scapegoat teachers. Consequently the government with a record for education cuts has invented Ofsted. It is supposed to inspect every school in England and Wales within the four years 1993-97 (unheard of in our history), and to pretend it's all the fault of `poor schools' and incompetent teachers. In a travesty of justice the victim of assault is put on trial, as the attacker dons the judge's wig and appoints the jury.

Now that this manoeuvre is running out of steam, the government (with support from Blair's `opposition') is trying to switch the charge, so that comprehensive education as a whole (secondary and, why not, primary) is on trial. The attack is not just against a minority of `failing' schools but against the majority, so that there will be `one grammar school in every town', writing off the rest. The government created the so called `Office for Standards in Education' out of weakness. HMIs (Her Majesty's Inspectors) had been full time professional inspectors, an elite group of civil servants but members of a trade union! They had produced a series of devastating annual reports, criticising the derelict state of school buildings and the pitiful level of resources. Large numbers of parents, including traditional Tory voters, were turning against the government, with many joining protests against cuts.

The original plan, through 1989-91, had been to fund local education authorities to conduct regular inspections. But few of these were still in Tory hands, and any local or regional voices against central government had to be removed and replaced by quangos. In short, the government had to silence criticism and renew pretence that it shared public concerns about the quality of state education. Almost without warning, inspection was privatised. Hundreds of state and LEA inspectors were driven into early retirement and redundancy (many subsequently working for Ofsted as inspectors under worse conditions). Ofsted would award contracts for specific schools to commercial or public bodies, who in turn formed teams of self employed inspectors to do raids on schools. All stability of relationships between colleagues was broken.

Organisation was replaced by `the market', but a market manipulated by a powerful central body. Work has intensified, so that a 14 hour working day is normal. Now prices have sunk for secondary schools and experienced secondary inspectors are shifting into primary and special schools with minimal training. As a result, primary schools and teachers are being judged `failing' by inspectors who have never taught younger children, but only watched a couple of lessons on video during their training!

Despite the claim that inspection is about `improving schools', Ofsted instructs inspectors to `make judgements, and not give advice'. This runs against common sense and all previous practice. So ironically the most positive moment of school inspections is still the verbal feedback, where teachers responsible for particular subjects receive (and often welcome) the information and advice offered. To the extent that the system works at all, it works despite Ofsted, not because of it.

Traditionally, a major role of the inspectorate was to publish guidance and advice, promote curriculum development and conduct a general survey of the state of education across the country. These roles have been cut back but, worse, distorted through the solo voice of Chris Woodhead, the Tory political appointment and mouthpiece now in charge of Ofsted. Woodhead has become notorious for his strategic press releases, each abusing information gleaned from inspections to support a key plank of Tory policy. His first step was to claim that, according to inspection data, the size of classes makes no difference to standards achieved. For each lesson seen, data was available on how many pupils, and a grade for `standards achieved' simple. Not quite! In most secondary schools where pupils are grouped by ability, groups of more able pupils are deliberately made larger, to give more teacher help to struggling pupils in smaller classes. This factor alone turns his logic upside down. And even he had to admit that smaller classes are significant in the infant years, when kids are learning to read.

In every inspection report, there is a whole section on staffing, accommodation and resources, with masses of background data which could provide a damning report on the state of our schools kids learning without books, teachers struggling with large classes, training inadequate to meet today's demands, derelict schools, shabby out of date libraries. This of course makes the biggest difference in the poorest neighbourhoods. Woodhead has carefully ignored all this information.

Woodhead has publicly declared 15,000 teachers to be `failing'. His only data from inspections was the percentage of unsatisfactory lessons, not poor teachers. Many of these lessons may have gone wrong because of nervousness due to inspection, or a teacher feeling ill, or just a well prepared lesson which didn't work for those kids on that day. Since April the intimidation has been sharper, as inspectors have to report to the head any teachers whose lessons are generally poor. This information could be used to provide improved training and guidance. But that's not the intention. Woodhead's rhetoric is entirely punitive `Sack the bad teachers.'

The government wants a style of teaching and learning in schools which leads to regimented young workers who can't think for themselves. Despite Ofsted instructions to inspectors to be open minded about teaching styles and not to prejudge, Woodhead repeatedly demands more teaching from the front, more old fashioned instruction. This runs against the grain of what many inspectors are actually saying about the schools they visit. Most secondary schools are criticised for too much `chalk and talk', too little independent learning, too little research and investigation and discussion. According to Ofsted's own publication, Primary Matters, out of all the lessons judged unsatisfactory or poor only a quarter were the result of inadequate direct teaching. The same booklet says that too much whole class teaching is as bad as too little; praises topic work which is well focused and where integration of subjects is properly planned; and stresses the importance of individual and group work which is matched to pupils' different interests and rate of progress.

Clearly, we must fight on all three planes for better resources; to strengthen morale and the will to struggle (without which there is no future for state education); and to provide a style of learning which creates a literate, skilled and critical working class.

We have to see that Tory policy making is itself part of a class dialectic. Reduced to its most basic they make the cuts, combined with half baked policy changes. Parents (and not just in `middle class' white suburbs) become dissatisfied at the quality of education their kids are receiving and even worse ideas follow.

So we have the latest proposal of a return to grammar schools and secondary moderns (and no doubt selection for primary schools too). It's almost an admission that the Tories have made a mess of things. This crazy future is a step backwards even for capitalism, which gained far more from comprehensive schools in terms of a literate and intelligent working class. It would be unthinkable if Britain's economy wasn't in such a mess. It is tolerable to capitalism only because they don't know what to do with millions of our people already. They clearly plan to concentrate on a minority who have an initial advantage (educated parents and a comfortable home) and will make most progress. Schooling for the rest, though not good, will be very cheap an education system to match Britain's low wage economy.

Support for the principle of comprehensive education is massive, and the Tory government can only dream of getting away with this because the present state of comprehensive schools is so much poorer than it should be. Sympathy and solidarity for teachers are widespread, but so too is dissatisfaction with the present state of our schools.

Ofsted insists that many schools are failing, and occasionally its inspectors agree. There is some truth in this some schools are failing to give an adequate education to working class children (in truth, far more than inspectors are prepared to admit. Ironically, if Ofsted asked its inspectors to identify `schools in need of special support', rather than `failing schools', the list would be five times as long). As socialists, we understand all too well the impact of staffing cuts, insufficient books, decaying buildings, and inner city life in general on teachers and pupils all this is exacerbated by the snakes and ladders financing of schools under LMS. And in a wider sense, all our schools are failing to provide the education our children deserve. How could it be otherwise under Thatcher and Major, under capitalism in Britain in the 1990s? But selection is no answer.

We are not simply fighting a trade unionist campaign to make life less stressful for teachers, but a political campaign of the whole working class, for the education and future of our children. We are against Ofsted, but in favour of genuine steps to school improvement (including a restoration of inspections linked to advice and staff training, as provided by local education authorities).

In this struggle, it is divisive and damaging to write off anxieties and criticisms about the state of our schools in 1996 as `middle class elitism'. There are major problems in our schools. We need to build on all these concerns, deal with them seriously, use them as a lever to shift people towards challenging a system which breeds poverty and hopelessness.

Specifically, in our campaign for comprehensive education, we demand the resources for it to work well, knowing that a well run comprehensive school provides the most interesting and relevant teaching, and leads to the greatest progress and opportunities for children with their many different abilities, talents and interests.

Standing up to Ofsted

Teachers' campaigns are often most successful when linked up with the whole community, and it is easiest to campaign in situations when parents are involved in our schools, not kept outside. The most effective weapon against Ofsted would be to bar the door through industrial action, but where this cannot be achieved, other tactics will help expose the political nature of Ofsted.

1. Parents recognise teachers' professionalism, and expect as much from those who dare to inspect them. They need to be told when, for example: primary schools are inspected by people who have never taught in them, or secondaries by those who are too old to remember multiracial schools! Teachers should demand to know the expertise of the inspection team, and if necessary complain.

2. Since Ofsted is an attempt to divert the public from education cuts, blaming the teachers instead, we need to highlight the impact of inadequate buildings, staff training and resources. This means before the inspection telling parents and the press what 17 years of Tory rule have done. Insist the inspectors see it when they come, and make sure it is in their report.

3. Teachers have every right to be proud of their achievements and skills. Inspection can be frightening, but staff morale has to be kept high. It is no use becoming silently resentful. Instead rehearse your achievements. Give the inspectors, parents and the public hard evidence of pupils' real educational progress.

4. Teachers should not be intimidated by Woodhead into adopting narrow teaching styles they don't believe in. Most inspectors don't believe in them either, and want to see effective and lively lessons with strong participation from alert and thoughtful kids. And rest assured, they won't have seen much of that in the grammar schools they've inspected.

5. If we truly believe in comprehensive education, and especially mixed ability classes, we need to make sure that all pupils are catered for. We cannot be influenced by the sociologists who tell us that kids on council estates are bound to fail at school! This is hellishly difficult with large classes in troubled urban communities. Again we have to demand the resources are available to sustain a comprehensive system.

6. Try to prevent any teacher being singled out as inadequate. If there is this risk, demand they get proper support and training well before the inspection. In the worst scenario, if most of a teacher's lessons are `poor', he or she will be asked to sign a sheet explaining any extenuating circumstances. This they should refuse until there is union advice, and then all the circumstances the whole demoralising history of oversized classes, or teaching without books, inadequate training or lack of special needs support should be recorded.

7. Schools can be declared `failing' for a number of reasons, including high levels of racial harassment or expulsions. Although comprehensive schools in poor city areas are most at risk (no one ever `failed' a grammar school for getting too few A grades!), it is unlikely if progress is reasonable and relationships are good. Sadly for Ofsted, many inspectors hate `failing' a school (it makes them feel bad, and it means a lot of extra work!). They are glad to see hard evidence of progress: kids who have made big improvements in reading, kids with real social problems and a pride in something they've achieved at school, or who tell them how much happier they are in school than out on the streets.

8. If an injustice is being done, fight it. If you feel that inspectors haven't taken proper note of your circumstances, or have missed some important evidence of your success, insist on it. Remember, the inspection doesn't officially end for about a month, until the report is published. Teachers and parents could always get together to produce a counter-report.

9. Finally, if helpful suggestions for improving a school do emerge from an inspection and this is quite possible, despite Ofsted, since many inspectors are skilful observers and are as helpful as they're allowed to be it's still a good opportunity to campaign for the staffing and resources needed to implement them, and against government policies such as selection.

In other words, even in those circumstances where it isn't possible simply to bar the door to an inspection, we have a range of tactics for struggle which will subvert the Ofsted process and the very reasons for its existence.

Socialist Worker Special on Ofsted 50p (10 copies 4) from PO BOx 82 London E3 3LH

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