Sir Martyn Oliver, the new chief of Ofsted, the national schools inspectorate body, recently gave an interview to the Times, in which he spoke of two key problems facing the teaching profession today: rank misbehaviour amongst pupils, and the often equally appalling behaviour of Ofsted itself.
According to Sir Martyn, in one school he entered, teachers were forced into “locking themselves in their classroom during break and lunchtime for safety reasons”. And, if the kids didn’t get them, the Ofsted inspectors certainly would: following an inquest into the sad death of the headmistress Ruth Perry, whose school received an inspection so severe she felt forced into suicide by it last year, Sir Martyn promised immediate reforms to ensure similar tragedies would never occur again.
Unfortunately, I strongly imagine that they will. I used to be a teacher myself, at secondary school level. Once, I was told of some Ofsted goons who had criticised a local school (verbally, not on paper, in actual officially recorded form, funnily enough) because some birds – the “wrong kind of birds”, no less – had shat in its playground one morning. Another local school was chided for not employing any black teachers. That no black people had actually applied to work there was deemed irrelevant. Is Ofsted really any better or any saner today?
Those Who Can’t, Teach: Those Who Can’t Teach Join Ofsted
My own final resolve to flee the profession came after my school’s newly appointed, no doubt wholly Ofsted-compliant Headmaster (why else would he have been given the job?) gave staff a speech introducing his way of thinking. Here, rather than talking about apparently irrelevant concepts like academic rigour or the need for good discipline, he preferred instead to expatiate at length about the pressing necessity of recycling something called “grey water” from the roofs of school buildings and how it was likewise now utterly essential that all of the apples in the canteen were “ethically-sourced”; I had no idea that beforehand they had all been being shipped in on the cheap from the Taliban.
If these absolutely essential tasks were not performed, he informed us, then how would it ever be possible for us to become a “sustainable school”, in a world in which we had only 10 more years left to save the planet? (This was 14 years ago, by the way.)
This robotic speech, delivered in a language only vaguely approximating to English, confirmed absolutely everything I had come to suspect about the way in which schools in this country were now being run, at least from on high: in a fashion which had increasingly little to do with their alleged core purpose of teaching children. The whole point of any school had become no longer to actually educate the pupils, but simply to pass the next Ofsted inspection – even though the specific criteria for doing so were frequently completely stupid.
For example, for some reason it had now become expected by Ofsted for schools to possess their own mission statement. Whether it specifically says so in their official documents, I don’t know, but this was certainly the impression that had been allowed to spread. Therefore, departmental heads were asked to solicit suggestions for one. My own personal offering was ‘To Be A School’, but regrettably this was not accepted. Senior management cobbled together something appropriately pseudo-meaningful written in fluent New Labour instead. It probably included the word “passion”.
Lessons Must Be Learned
British schools were now being judged more upon whether they appeared to be good, on paper, rather than whether they actually were good, in practice. And this was largely the fault of Ofsted and its central Government masters. It is actually pretty easy to make it appear that any given public service is good (or indeed bad), simply by rigging the criteria of judgement so that they measure not actual quality, but a series of arbitrarily chosen ‘performance indicators’ which in fact only act as little more than a checklist of Government-invented criteria of pseudo-quality, not the real thing. Hence, a school might score highly on sustainability or diversity matters, but so what?
Obviously, Ofsted does monitor and assess rather more important things like behaviour, attendance, attainment and teaching – but even here, the precise way it does so can often be misleading. I recall one Head of Department being hauled over the coals after one of her pupils had failed her A-level exam. Fair enough, you may think: except that the reason the kid failed the exam was because she couldn’t be bothered to turn up and actually sit it. It didn’t matter. Ofsted would still take a dim view, the teacher was told. The U-grade exam showed up in the data as a ‘Fail’, not a ‘Fail Due To Lazy Girl Staying In Bed That Day’. And, as always, the data were inflexible. So was everything else: up to and including the specific structure of every single lesson henceforth to be delivered.
One day, towards the bitter end, I babysat a student Geography teacher giving a lesson on the subject of waterfalls. Firstly, she explained what a waterfall was, how it would have been formed, and displayed a diagram of one. Perfectly sensible. More-or-less, this was how pupils would always have been taught. Then, however, she displayed a film clip of literally dozens of separate waterfalls running on the interactive whiteboard, one after another, endlessly, accompanied by an inane pop song, also about waterfalls, just in case children hadn’t got the message of what one of these falling water-features was called, or looked like (i.e., like some water, falling). This lasted for several minutes. Then, she produced a tray full of brightly-coloured plasticine and told the children to spend the rest of the lesson making models of her initial diagram in groups, before then getting them to stop, stand up and show everyone what they had just made. Surprisingly, all of them had made models of waterfalls.
These children were 16 years old, not 16 months old: their exams were rapidly approaching. Wholly predictably, several of them actually spent the entire time rolling the plasticene up into little balls and then squashing it against their own heads. Many were content to just sit there and gossip whilst one or two group members did all the work. Was this really a good way to approach delivering teenagers a GCSE lesson? I would suggest not. So why did the teacher in question do so?
The answer, in short, was Ofsted. It wasn’t her fault. She had to teach like this – we all did. Throughout the 2000s, teachers were actively encouraged to create lessons like the above retarded fiasco during their training. During this period, a seemingly official template appeared, determining the structure of how all lessons now – at least so trainee teachers of my generation were told during our training-period – had to be taught in the nation’s schools. These abominations were called ‘three part lessons’, their compulsory, central Government-mandated structure (just think about that for a moment) being as follows.
The first part was the ‘starter’. Here, some pointless and patronising game was often played, reputedly to warm the pupils’ brains up and get them intrigued. One, I recall, included having pupils perform an ‘earthquake dance’, such embarrassing gyrations supposedly illustrating, in some vague way, the different types of tectonic plate. Another was a so-called ‘brain gym’, where pupils gurned stupidly at one another like mental patients in order, somehow, to supposedly increase their innate brain-power, Dr. Kawashima-style.
An equal waste of time was the obligatory giving out of an ‘aim’ or ‘objective’. You couldn’t just say ‘Today we’re learning about waterfalls’. Instead, you had to write on a board “AIM: To learn about waterfalls”, followed by an “OUTCOME: To have learned about waterfalls”, or words to that basic tautological effect. Thousands and thousands of miniature whiteboards were purchased by schools up and down the country in order to be nailed up next to the main board, purely so these aims could be easily recorded and seen by pupils at all times, at needless taxpayer expense. You were even supposed to do this with lessons where you were just showing the class a video. Towards the end of my time in teaching, by which point I had just stopped caring, I left up a permanent ‘aim’ on my own mini-board which read “To waste public money on tiny boards”. Most children who saw it agreed with my sentiments upon the matter wholeheartedly.
As for the other two parts of the three-part lesson – oh, I won’t bore you with them here. Suffice to say, many sensible teachers completely ignored it all as being the soft-Stalinist rubbish it so clearly was and taught their classes in their own preferred way behind closed doors whenever they were not being watched. I certainly did.
In Ofsted-land, a strange meta-language was now being created. Lessons were now formally categorised as being ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘satisfactory’ or ‘poor’. However, that word ‘good’ did not necessarily mean ‘good’ as it would be defined in the dictionary. Instead, it meant “stuck slavishly to the predetermined Government framework for all lessons”. For example, that appallingly stupid lesson about plasticene waterfalls I mentioned above? In truth, it was ‘poor’, wasn’t it? And yet, in terms of its utterly vacuous structure, it would have been marked as being ‘good’, despite being, in actual practical educational terms, the precise reverse. And that was how Ofsted operated, during my own time in teaching. It’s a wonder more heads didn’t kill themselves.
Marking Their Own Homework
Or, wait. Did all this even happen at all? Or did I just dream it? Something certainly seems to have since changed, following my own time in the classroom. When Sir Michael Wilshaw was Ofsted chief between 2012 and 2016 under the first post-New Labour Conservative administration, for example, he point-blank denied that three-part lessons actually had to be followed at all. As evidence, he could even point to a sentence in Ofsed’s obscure ‘Clarification for Schools’ document (which no normal teacher would ever have actually read) from 2005: “Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment.”
Eh? 2005 was precisely when I was training to teach, and I can tell you now for certain that Ofsted was doing precisely this very same thing – or, if it wasn’t, then it did a pretty poor job of communicating this fact to every last teacher, head or training provider I ever met.
The forced Blairite imposition of three-part lessons, together with their mandatory whiteboard-recorded ‘aims’ and ‘outcomes’, on teachers now seems to have been somewhat abandoned, at least officially, but the contemporary line that they were never actually compulsory at all is a complete and outright falsehood. Consider Ofsted’s following 2002 piece of ‘best-practice’ advice for how a teacher should introduce a lesson about painting a (then still happily non-gay) rainbow to primary school kids from the mid-New Labour years:
Today I want you to paint a picture of a rainbow. Here is a chart showing the colours, a piece of white paper, a brush and some watercolours. Paint your rainbow as beautifully as you can. You are painting the rainbow to practise using your brush to blend colours. This is an important skill in art. Write this learning objective next to your title.
Or, alternatively, why not save some time and just tell the kids to paint a fecking rainbow, like a normal human would? Because, if you did, New Labour-era Ofsted would actually have failed you, whatever lies they try to spin now.
Fear of criticism by inspectors led to an increasing level of monitoring of ordinary staff members by middle and senior management in schools. Intrusions like ‘learning walks’ (re: monitoring of prisoners in their classroom cells) sprang up, wherein high-ups suddenly jumped into a teacher’s classroom in the middle of a lesson, holding a clip-board, checking up that your aims were clearly recorded, or that you were indeed performing a brain gym-type starter. This happened. I saw it. I would be immensely surprised if it isn’t still going on, just with the precise wholly made-up definition of what constitutes a ‘good’ lesson having changed randomly and capriciously in the interim: as it no doubt magically will do once again, once Labour get back into power again later this very year, as seems currently inevitable.
The contemporary British state simply does not trust professionals to be able to do their job or to make their own independent judgements about matters concerning which they know best – e.g. the specific children sat in front of them in their classroom every day, none of whom anybody working for either Ofsted or the Department for Education will ever have actually met. Schools self-evidently need to be inspected, but not in the Kafkaesque way they have been in recent decades. Rather than restricting themselves to assessing meaningful and legitimate criteria like pupil behaviour, what Ofsted actually largely enforce is a process of nothing but ‘pseudo-professionalisation’ – ‘pseudo’ because it can only seem ‘professional’ to someone who has never actually had to do the job, like a management-consultant, clueless outside academic or meddling politician. Looking good is everything. Doing good is nothing.
But then, why should we be even remotely surprised that our schools are now structured and run in this wrongheaded and wholly counterproductive way? It’s the precise same way every single other aspect of the British state is now run too, isn’t it?
Steven Tucker is a journalist and the author of over 10 books, the latest being Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science: When Science Fiction Was Turned Into Science Fact by the Nazis and the Soviets (Pen & Sword/Frontline), which is out now.