Inspecting the Inspectors

The National Association of Headteachers has made it clear it has no confidence in Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, appointed at the beginning of this year. The National Union of Teachers even wants to lock Ofsted inspectors out of classrooms. Headteachers accuse Wilshaw of “bully-boy tactics” and of demoralising the profession. In part this is because of new policy, like changing the “satisfactory” judgment to “requires improvement”, which triggers further and more frequent inspections. But it isn’t just structural threats that have angered teachers. Wilshaw’s own words leave a bitter taste. 

Sir Michael says that teachers don’t know the meaning of the word “stress”. Teachers need to “roll up their sleeves and get on with improving their schools,” he says. “What we don’t need are leaders . . . whose first recourse is to blame someone else — whether it’s Ofsted, the local education authority, the government or a whole host of other people.” 

I don’t agree with Wilshaw. First, I think that some teachers in some schools have such stressful jobs that it is a wonder they don’t all get treated for mental breakdowns. Only some of them do. But let’s put that aside. The real issue is who or what is to blame for the battlefield that is the reality in some of our schools, and the sea of mediocrity in which so many others are floating. Is it just poor teachers who don’t know the meaning of stress and poor leaders who like to blame everyone else for their own failings? Or is it more complicated?

While Wilshaw is correct to say we need leaders who are willing to get their hands dirty, the constant elephant in the room is Ofsted and whether it helps or hinders this process. The public presumes that Ofsted inspectors are able to recognise good teaching, and can therefore reward good schools with a badge of “outstanding” and rightfully shame bad teachers with a badge of “inadequate”. But what happens when the inspectorate upon which parents depend doesn’t just have low standards but fundamentally misunderstands what good teaching is?

Ofsted actively encourages teachers not to teach a knowledge-based curriculum and penalises them for doing so. Teachers have to put on a kind of show when an inspector is in the room, but you can be sure that their pupils would not pass a single exam if teachers taught these Ofsted-friendly lessons all the time. If you think I’m exaggerating, all you need do is read the various Ofsted reports that describe what inspectors believe to be “outstanding” lessons: “dynamic” lessons featuring “relevant” content — such as, for example, a webpage speculating on Gary Lineker’s love life. The emphasis is always on pupils’ own opinions and ideas — even if they have precious little knowledge with which to form opinions. Outstanding lessons feature groupwork, pupil collaboration, multimedia content and very little direct instruction. For example, a report by Ofsted in May 2011, Excellence in English, celebrates an “innovative and highly distinctive” lesson based on the Mr Men books. “While this might seem on the surface to make limited demands on the ability of secondary-age students, the work involves a great deal of grammatical and linguistic analysis. The unit begins with an exploration of the notion of stereotypes. Students then review and extend their knowledge of grammar focusing on the use of adjectives, onomatopoeia and alliteration.” 

Setting aside the fact that Ofsted is advocating teaching secondary school students Mr Men books instead of Shakespeare, the report never mentions the importance of background knowledge for successful reading and comprehension. Not one of Ofsted’s sample lessons suggests that teaching grammar explicitly is a good idea. It would seem that Ofsted inspectors don’t even know what grammar is, as demonstrated in the quotation above. Adjectives are grammatical features. Onomatopoeia and alliteration are not: they are stylistic devices. Once upon a time we used to point to the fact that teachers themselves didn’t know grammar, to explain why they were unable to teach it to their pupils. Well, now the inspectors judging the teachers don’t know what needs to be taught either. How can a  head possibly make any difference to his pupils and his teachers if the inspectors who are sent to judge him are using the wrong tools? 

Wilshaw’s call for teachers to work harder may seem, particularly to those on the Right, to be just what the system needs. But without a clear vision and an understanding of what is wrong with the education system, hard work is worse than useless. It remains to be seen whether Wilshaw has that vision. Teachers would be wise to recognise Ofsted for the cancer that it is, instead of just moaning about being held to account. Only then will the public take seriously the very real complaint that Ofsted itself requires far-reaching reform. Perhaps then, Sir Michael Wilshaw might listen too.

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