The big fib at the heart of Ofsted

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

I've been following the awful story of the primary school headteacher who killed herself after an inexplicable top to bottom down-grading from Ofsted.  I say inexplicable because how can the leadership of a school be inadequate when every other grade is good?  The answer, it seems, is where there is a safeguarding issue.  Not that it seems that there was an actual safeguarding issue in the school; it was just that the paperwork (or lack of it) suggested there might be – possibly – at some point.  And so Ofsted's big stick was wielded.

Everyone who works or worked in education will have an Ofsted story or three, often about the in-built lottery of an inspection.  I have a few.  I'm old enough to have a few HMI stories as well, and I regret the transition that the Major government made in 1992 from HMI to Ofsted; from an independent highly respected group of peers reporting to the Privy Council to an organisation at the beck and call of the DfE shifting policy whims.  I imagine that the DfE never liked the independence of the HMI and so the civil service saw its chance to emasculate it with Ofsted.  Schools and the rest of us are the poorer for it.

The big fib at the heart of the Ofsted regime is that its inspection outcomes are independent of the visiting inspector.  This has never been true despite what they say.  Just like it's not true of driving test examiners, flower show judges, art critics, planning inspectors, juries, restaurant reviewers, football referees, cricket and baseball umpires, and so on.

It brings to mind a story as told by the great Denis Lawton in 1982 in the presence of the chief HMI for teacher training, as she explained to a UCET committee how HMI were going to intervene in university PGCE courses for the first time.  It was one of the moments of my university life: when the stiletto of truth was skilfully slipped under the ribs of the avatar of power – although to no lasting effect, it has to be said.  That's avatars for you.

Lawton told the story about three baseball umpires in a Brooklyn bar, discussing how they make calls, and the perennial problem of deciding whether something is a 'Ball' or a 'Strike'.

The rookie  of the three said, "It’s really a question of what happens. I calls ‘em as they are."

The second, an umpire of some considerable experience, said, "Nah!  You don’t understand; it’s a question of perception: "I calls ‘em as I sees 'em."

The third, a long-in-the tooth character on the point of retirement, who had seen most things, many times, said.  "None of you’s understands.  Some of 'em is balls, some of 'em is strikes, but they ain't nothin' 'till I calls 'em."

Just so.  If you click here you'll see a longer version of this story.  I once seriously contemplated applying to join the HMI.  It was a lucky escape.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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