Are Ofsted’s Days Now Numbered?

A new paradigm for school accountability and improvement is long overdue – and a judicial review against Ofsted currently being led by QC Michael Mansfield may well hasten the process.


By Richard House

In its manifesto for the December 2019 general election, It’s Time for Real Change the Labour Party refreshingly said the following: Schools are being subjected to intensified testing, inspection, league tables and competition. These aren’t improving pupil achievement or narrowing the attainment gap, but are contributing to a growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis…. We will replace Ofsted and transfer responsibility for inspections to a new body, designed to drive school improvement. (pp. 39, 40)

At the time, teachers and educationalists across the land rejoiced at this news. At long last, after nigh-on three decades of bullying abuse and fear-inculcating compliance, a mainstream political party had finally ‘got it’ about this noxious organisation – England’s schools inspectorate, Ofsted –  and was going to replace it with a far more empowering way of supporting our schools and helping them to improve their learning offer, coming from a place of collegial respect rather than threat, punishment and public naming-and-shaming. Perhaps those of us on the political left shouldn’t have been surprised that in response, the Tories promised to enhance and extend the powers of Ofsted if they won the election. 

At long last, after nigh-on three decades of bullying abuse and fear-inculcating compliance, a mainstream political party [Labour] had finally ‘got it’ about this noxious organisation – England’s schools inspectorate, Ofsted

I have been all too aware of this toxic organisation since the mid-1990s, when the then head of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, was boasting about terrorising teachers, and Bob Jeffrey and Philip Woods (1996) published their heart-rending paper on the emotionally traumatising and de-professionalising impact of Ofsted inspections. And speak to pretty much any teacher about Ofsted today in an off-the-record conversation, and you’ll hear that little if anything has changed since then.

Now as well as an adult life spent residing very much on the left of politics – and a proudly labelled ‘Corbynista’ from 2015 to date, I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life strongly committed to a humanistic approach to education and schooling (e.g. Aloni, 2007). Broadly defined, ‘humanistic education’ refers to an approach to pedagogy that is progressive, holistic (with body and heart just as important as ‘mind’), developmentally appropriate, democratic, emotionally and spiritually (as opposed to religiously) literate, arts-heavy, high-trust, post-competitive, and which eschews the high-stakes ideology of England’s exam- and testing-obsessed neoliberal regime, and which believes in giving teachers relative autonomy from central control and bureaucratic diktat.

When casting around in the late 1990s for an educational approach that embodied as many of these precepts as possible, Steiner Waldorf education shone out like a beacon – and I duly trained to be a Steiner class and Kindergarten teacher (1998–2002), and to help lead the initiative group that set up what is now Norwich Steiner School. Now holding a flame for Steiner Waldorf education can be a tough ask for someone with left-wing politics – after all, aren’t virtually all of these Steiner schools independent, private fee-paying schools?

Perhaps those of us on the political left shouldn’t have been surprised that in response, the Tories promised to enhance and extend the powers of Ofsted if they won the election.

Well yes, they are; but – and it’s a huge one – these are emphatically not schools whose raison d’etre us to entrench and reproduce privilege and inequality. Rather, they are schools whose parents are typically of progressive green-left political persuasion, who eschew materialistic life-styles and are not unduly well off, and who make considerable sacrifices to give their children an educational experience that is as unpressured and as non-high-stakes and as ‘un-audited’ as possible. An educational experience that values and even reveres childhood experience, rather than one which is determined to wrench children into adulthood and adult consciousness as quickly as possible.1 

This latter is crucially important. These schools are not in the independent sector because of privilege; they’re there because the standardising national curriculum just won’t countenance their arts-based, low-testing curriculum.2 And as such, they represent a crucial pillar of resistance to the unforgiving Audit Culture that has swamped our schools since the 1990s (Power, 1997. House, 2000), and for which both political parties – the Conservatives and New Labour – are responsible.

Fast-forward now to January 2020. Locally to me, Wynstones Steiner School near Gloucester was formally ‘required’ to close by the Department for Education, following a damning Ofsted inspection report. I have known this school for many years – not least, through its principled opposition between 2007 and 2010 to the developmentally inappropriate ‘Early Learning Goals’ of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) being imposed on Steiner early childhood settings at that time (opposition organised through the ‘Open EYE’ campaign).3 

Ofsted’s own recent survey of Wynstone’s school’s parents found a 93 per cent satisfaction level – significantly higher than the national average. And yet the school was required to close, virtually overnight, leaving in excess of 250 children school-less – and some at a very critical time in terms of examination preparation.4 

Ofsted’s own recent survey of Wynstone’s school’s parents found a 93 per cent satisfaction level – significantly higher than the national average. And yet the school was required to close, virtually overnight, leaving in excess of 250 children school-less – and some at a very critical time in terms of examination preparation.4 

My colleague Richard Brinton and I conducted a questionnaire survey of the closure’s impact on families and children, the results of which revealed a litany of trauma, incredulity and outrage that the State, via DfE-Ofsted, could brutally closed a school in this way, without any consultation or accountability.5 At the same time, I also read the offending Ofsted report closely, was utterly appalled at what I was reading, and so immediately wrote a hard-hitting ‘counter-report’ that deconstructed the Ofsted report’s judgements line by line – and which soon afterwards was formally published as a book.6

It soon became clear that the school’s parents were not going to take this abuse lying down – unlike the school’s management, which predictably caved in to Ofsted’s judgements and unquestioningly complied with the demands DfE-Ofsted were making of it.

As an educator, academic and researcher of some decades experience, I knew both intellectually and in my bones that a massive injustice had been perpetrated; and tellingly, as soon as we approached socialist human-rights QC Michael Mansfield to lead a legal challenge to this outrage, he immediately and enthusiastically agreed to lead our determination to win justice. 

So as I write, a 14,500-word document bringing a judicial review against Ofsted has just been lodged, challenging the rationality and the proportionality of their inspection report that was used as the pretext for closing Wynstones School. And with legal aid looking unlikely to be granted in what is now a desert of a legal aid system under the Tories, we are going to have to raise upwards of £60,000, and perhaps far more, to bring this case to successful fruition.8 

With the National Education Union and its excellent co-leader Dr Mary Bousted also implacably against Ofsted and wanting it to be replaced by a far more empowering and respectful accountability process for our schools, this is a moment for the progressive left to seize with both hands. Since Ofsted’s famous defeat by Summerhill School in the courts in 2000, there hasn’t been a better opportunity than this to expose the nature of this organisation in the courts, and to undermine its credibility – and to hole it below the waterline such that it will hopefully never recover. It is impossible to overestimate the prescience of this legal challenge, and the opportunity it affords to bringing about an accountability system that England’s brilliant dedicated teachers deserve.  


Notes

1  For an introduction to Steiner education, see Clouder and Rawson, 1998.

2  Note that there is one successful state-funded Steiner academy in Hereford; but other Steiner academies have been effectively closed down by the DfE-Ofsted in what many see as a concerted attack on Steiner education by the State.

3  See https://openeyecampaign.wordpress.com/.

4  Note that this event happened many weeks before the C-virus question had emerged.

5  The heart-rending results of this survey, and the devastating impact it has on families and children, can be read at https://tinyurl.com/ya866qcs

6  House, R. (2020). Pushing Back to Ofsted: Safeguarding and the Legitimacy of Ofsted’s Inspection Judgements – A Critical Case-study. Stroud: InterActions (available from https://tinyurl.com/r76jgqp).

7  Sadly, this is all-too-familiar a story; and it speaks volumes to the persecutor/victim dynamics at play with this ‘enforcer’ organisation, with those victimised by its disciplinary practices feeling helpless to resist – no matter how unjust they feel their treatment to have been.

8  For the legal case’s Crowd Justice fund-raising page, where you’ll find more details of the case, see https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/justice-for-parents-and-childr/. And for other recent media reports, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-52721840 and https://www.unitynews.co/steiner-school-forced-out-of-education/

References

Aloni, N. (2007). Enhancing Humanity: The Philosophical Foundations of Humanistic Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Clouder, C. & Rawson, M. (1998). Waldorf Education (Rudolf Steiner’s Ideas in Practice). Edinburgh: Floris Books.

House, R. (2000). Stress, surveillance and modernity: the ‘modernising’ assault on our education system. Education Now, 30 (Winter), Special supplement (4 pp).

Jeffrey, B. & Woods, P. (1996). Feeling deprofessionalised: the social construction of emotions during an OFSTED inspection. Cambridge Journal of Education, 26 (3): 325–43.

Power, M. (1997). The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Select Critical Bibliography on Ofsted

This is a highly select bibliography which contains only a small fraction of the extensive literature available that critiques the Ofsted regime, with more recent literature being given most prominence here.

Avison, K. (2008). What does Ofsted inspect? A Steiner Waldorf perspective. In S. de Waal (ed.) Inspecting the Inspectorate: Ofsted under Scrutiny (pp. 96–105, 111–12). London: Civitas; available at https://tinyurl.com/ng2zdju (accessed 30 March 2020).

Bassey, M. & others (2020). Letters – An Ofsted inspection should not be like entering the dragons’ den. The Guardian, 8 February; available at https://tinyurl.com/rvaz2qc (accessed 16 February 2020).

Bousted, M. (2020). Schools deserve better than an inspectorate that’s come unstuck. Schools Week website, 9 January; available at https://tinyurl.com/ws6hkmh (accessed 4 February 2020).

Bousted, M. & Wrigley, P. (2020). Ofsted casts a dark shadow over schools – letters. The Guardian, Wednesday 26 Februrary; available at https://tinyurl.com/uouoegk; accessed 27 February 2020.

Brinton, R. & House, R, (2019a). Talking Point: Richard Brinton and Richard House describe a new campaign for radically reforming or replacing Ofsted. Juno magazine, Autumn: 43.

Brinton, R. & House, R, (2019b).  INSTED, not Ofsted…: A new campaign for a better nursery and schooling system and inspectorate is needed. Nursery World, 1 September; available at https://tinyurl.com/u23wpt5 (accessed 12 March 2020).

Case, P., Case, S., & Catling, S. (2000). Please show you’re working: a critical assessment of the impact of OFSTED inspection on primary teachers. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21 (4): 605–21.

CEPPP (1999). The Ofsted System of School Inspection: An Independent Evaluation. Report of a Study. Uxbridge: Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policy and Practice, Brunel University.

Coffield, F. (2017). Will the Leopard Change Its Spots? A New Model of Inspection for Ofsted. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

Coffield, F. (2019).  A world without Ofsted. Times Educational Supplement podcast; available at https://tinyurl.com/t4zy72y (accessed 1 April 2020).

Cullingford, C. (ed.) (1999). An Inspector Calls: Ofsted and Its Effect on School Standards. London: Kogan Page.

de Waal, A. (ed.) (2006). Inspection, Inspection, Inspection! How Ofsted Crushes Independent Schools and Independent Teachers. London: Civitas; available at https://tinyurl.com/toncpzr (accessed 30 March 2020).

de Waal, S. (ed.) (2008). Inspecting the Inspectorate: Ofsted under Scrutiny. London: Civitas; available at https://tinyurl.com/ng2zdju (accessed 30 March 2020).

Duffy, M. (Ed.) (1996). A Better System of Inspection: Report of Conference Proceedings at New College, Oxford, June 1996. Hexam: Office for Standards in Inspection (OFSTIN).

Fairclough, M. (2020). If Ofsted told us to jump off a cliff, would we? Times Educational Supplement, 20 February; available at https://tinyurl.com/rxz985r (accessed 20 February 2020).

House, R. (2007). Schooling, the state and children’s psychological well-being: a psychosocial critique. Journal of Psychosocial Research 2 (July–Dec): 49–62  

House, R. (2020). Pushing Back to Ofsted: Safeguarding and the Legitimacy of Ofsted’s Inspection Judgements – A Critical Case-study. Stroud: InterActions.

House, R. & Brinton, R. (2019), Time for something INSTED of Ofsted… Early Years Educator, 21 (6): 12.

House, R., Brinton, R., & 54 others (2019). An Open Letter to Amanda Spielman (Head of Ofsted), 25 June; available at https://tinyurl.com/y3x8f5k6 (accessed 4 February 2020).

Jeffrey, B. & Woods, P. (1996). Feeling deprofessionalised: the social construction of emotions during an OFSTED inspection. Cambridge Journal of Education, 26 (3): 325–43.

Reclaiming Schools (2020) (in press). Ofsted beyond Repair: Alternatives for School Evaluation. Book in press.

Schools Week reporter (2020). 8 January; available at https://tinyurl.com/rujkjfc (accessed 4 February 2020).

Thomas, B., Lowry, F., & Lewinski, M. (2017). Letters – Ofsted and the harm done by school league tables. The Guardian, 26 June; available at https://tinyurl.com/y8ku646l (accessed 4 February 2020).

Thomson, C. (2016). Ofsted is responsible for a culture of fear in schools that too often results in job losses. Times Educational Supplement, 5 October; available at https://tinyurl.com/sda3nhw  (accessed 20 February 2020).

Tierney, S. (2020). Teachers are drowning in our pernicious Ofsted system. Times Educational Supplement, 11 March; available at https://tinyurl.com/qty55gc (accessed 12 March 2020). Trafford, B. (2016). Ministers call it cracking down on poor performance. I call it persecution of a once noble and now beleaguered profession. Times Educational Supplement, 7 January; available at https://tinyurl.com/rf5twyh (accessed 12 March 2020)


RICHARD HOUSE

Richard House is a Labour Party member who campaigned very hard, twice, to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as prime minister. A Ph.D., chartered psychologist, childhood campaigner, Richard is a ‘former’ lots of things – including a university lecturer, counsellor-psychotherapist, a Steiner Kindergarten leader and trained Steiner class teacher. Author or (co-)editor of 14 books, Richard’s best-selling book Too Much, Too Soon? Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood was published by Hawthorn Press in 2011; Therapy beyond Modernity (Karnac) was published in 2003; and most recently, Pushing Back to Ofsted was published in April. Richard is currently a full-time left-green activist in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Contact: richardahouse@hotmail.com



Categories: Education, Richard House

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