11th June 20

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It's about the politics    
News and Comment from Roy Lilley

It's a brave man who will step into the row over secular schools, religious schools and curricula.  As an outsider with no kids at school and as one who left the chalk and free milk behind me over 50 years ago, I am, mercifully, exempt from that particular burden.  However, a lot of you reading this will have kids at school and it is important to you.


Looking from atop my mountain of ignorance I figure you don't have to be a genius to see all is not well.  In education as in so many other facets of life, the real issue is; 'demographics defines destiny'.  If we could fix that, so much else would fall into place.


In schools backboards have given way to white boards, the three Rs are probably now rights, re-sits and regulation... and then there is Ofsted, the schools inspectorate.


I can't tell if the boss of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, is waving or drowning?  He used a speech to head teachers to address concerns about the current Ofsted system.  Quite what it is he wants I'm not sure.  More inspection, less inspection, outsourcing inspection, in-sourcing inspection, planned inspection, unplanned inspection, snap inspections... if it sounds like a muddle, it probably is.


The head of a union representing 146 heads and deputies said Ofsted inspections were now "a real barrier to good candidates going into difficult schools"... news parents will not want.  Presently, outstanding schools are exempt from the routine inspections which usually happen for all other schools every five years.  Under proposed changes schools in the top two ratings of outstanding or good would in future be visited more often - but by one inspector on a day-long visit.  Draw your own conclusions about the value of that...


A Policy Exchange Report revealed; 'many (inspectors) are employed part-time by private firms, and lack experience of primary teaching or special needs training'.  It called for inspectors to pass an accreditation exam before they go into schools.


Currently, three regional contractors employ around 3,000 school inspectors.  Half carry out inspections.  I've no idea what the other 1,500 do.  Ofsted itself directly employs 300 to 400 inspectors - only half of whom work in schools.


So, now the school inspectors could be inspected!  If they have to pass a test, who will accredit the test and who will inspect the inspectors' training schools?   Before you know it schools will be open from Monday to Wednesday and on Thursdays and Fridays, closed, as they inspect each other.


After 20 years of inspection, Ofsted is now mired in a new three Rs; race, radicalisation and religion.   Ofsted was set up in1992; government decided all schools were to be inspected regularly by a 'rigorous and transparent process'.


Reports were to be written to a common format accessible to parents and judgements on schools, consistent.  Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools came to prominence and was a tough cookie.  He departed and Ofsted changed its approach to collaborative and self-evaluation.  The Coalition, in 2010, reverted to a tougher model.  Inspection might have changed but it is fair to ask; has education got any better?


If all this seems familiar it's because you could cross out Ofsted and insert CQC.  Costs, change of approach, confusing outcomes, reports that can't be compared.  It is hard not to argue; inspection mires organisations in the bureaucracy of inspection and does nothing to improve the services they are engaged with.


There is a general consensus, inspection is not a worthwhile management tool but it is used as it is the only tool that ministers have.  Denationalising or outright privatisation of services, paid for by public money, does not absolve politicians from responsibility and creates its own problem.  The clumsy solution is regulation; Ofwat, Ofgem, Ofcom, Ofqual.  Are our utility services better or cheaper?  And, in health Off-sick (Monitor) and CQC... you can ask the same question. 


Faced with under-performing public services politicians reach for a lever to pull.  Sometimes it's cash... 'bungs' for better performance, more often it will 'bash', increasingly 'inspection' because it is a word that plays well on the pages of the breakfast-time newspapers and the airways.


Inspection is not a management tool, it is a political tool; we should recognise that and see it for what it is.  Chairs of most regulatory organisations are political appointments and the row over Ofsted and the Golden Hillock School, reverberating into the Cabinet, makes manifest the political nature of  regulation.


Inspection is not a way to leverage performance; creating audit families of similar organisations and benchmarking them against an agreed data set is.   


Inspection is not about performance, it's about politics.

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