(3/5) OfSTED plays shotgun-rider to the right-wing of education

OfSTED plays one, and only one, political role. That is to deflect attention away from government responsibility for the impact of social inequity on educational achievement. Of course, they do much, much more in the meantime. All of what they do is an important element of a conservative and technocratic approach to education and schooling – OfSTED is the fortress wall protecting a right-wing ideology and practice. But the role we ask OfSTED to play is one choice among many. There are other models of school inspection and accountability which play to alternative ideologies. OfSTED’s is at one extreme of a political spectrum towards command-and-control/low-trust, punitive accountability, and away from, for example, the New Zealand approach which is negotiated, developmental, high-trust accountability (Educational Review Office:  www.ero.govt.nz). 

There are, then, two perspectives on OfSTED which we can look at: (i) the politics, (ii) the practice.

(i) The politics of OfSTEDIn 1966 James Coleman published one of the largest, most significant and applauded education research studies: The Equality of Educational Opportunity, but better known as, simply, The Coleman Report. Politicians wanted confirmation that ethnic difference was a significant factor in uneven educational achievement – that Black kids did worse, systematically, than white kids. The report went well beyond this. What it showed was that the most significant factor in systematic differences in achievement was socio-economic background, no matter ethnic differences. In short, social disadvantage gave rise to educational disadvantage. Today, this is easily accepted – but only as an enduring influence of Coleman. 

But Coleman presented what quickly became an unwelcome challenge to government. The implication was that to nurture equity and social mobility we could not rely on schools – Coleman’s catchphrase became, “schools cannot compensate for society”. We needed governments committed to wealth redistribution as a prerequisite for the elimination of inequities. In England, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and successor Prime Ministers have found this unacceptable and have insisted (with no evidence) that schools can, indeed, ‘compensate for society’ – in a systematic way. They passed the buck back to schools. If schools can shepherd poorer kids through exams successfully we will increase social mobility. There is no evidence – other than the elegance of the wish – to support this and to refute the Coleman findings. In fact, the evidence supporting Coleman only grows:

(If you are interested, look at this book – it’s an enormously entertaining and dismaying read by one of the leading educational researchers in the USA: Glass, G. V. (2008). Fertilizers, pills, and magnetic strips: The fate of public education in America. Charlotte, USA: IAP.)

So, to OfSTED.  OfSTED’s job is to enforce the view that schools can equalise educational opportunity and deflect attention away from the underlying need to address social and economic inequities. For this reason, achievement (NOT the quality of education) is its primary focus. Notice this: that OfSTED looks exclusively down the system at teachers and their performance. It does not – cannot – look up the system at government administration of schools or at schools policy. It is an enforcer. It is not politically independent. What it enforces is the policy that avoids the issue of wealth redistribution, the Coleman issue that it is socio-economic status that determines your child’s progress and outcomes. In strict, dictionary terms, OfSTED itself is a reactionary instrument – dedicated to frustrating real reform and maintaining the status quo.

Here’s a case in point. In 1999 OfSTED inspected Summerhill School. Its draft report was kindly to the school, affirming that its exam performance met the national average and intrigued by the liberal philosophy of the school. This did not play well to the political agenda towards a school that stood out as an embarrassment to the government. How could young people (by no means children of a wealthy elite) attend just a small fraction of the lessons most kids go to, and still pass GCSEs??!! The Chief Inspector of Schools (the infamous Chris Woodhead) sent the inspectors back to do the job again. This time the report was damning and recommended closure. A team of university researchers working with the School’s lawyers in judicial review of the inspection was privy to the OfSTED drafts and documentation. OfSTED had done things like change phraseology from, say, “as many as 30% of pupils – “ to “as few as 30% of pupils” – and other invalid and sometimes deceitful acts to achieve a 180-degree turn. This was revealed in court and the Secretary of State (David Blunkett) withdrew OfSTED before it was due to give evidence. 

(ii) The practice of OfSTED: OfSTED polices compliance with national targets, irrespective of schools’, teachers’ and student rights to self-determination. Where we might see schools and classrooms as continuing educational experiments, constantly searching for new ways and innovatory ideas, OfSTED makes fleeting visits to schools to impose a one-size-fits-all template. Where schools and teachers ought to be sharing their experience, using each other as a critical ‘whetstone’ to sharpen their ideas and practices, OfSTED reinforces competition between schools for the increasingly scarce resources that are on offer, and, thereby, isolates schools from one another. Think of the model of accountability OfSTED promotes, and think of the challenge of educational change – of constantly modernising education and the curriculum for a fast-changing world. OfSTED accountability is retrospective. It asks teachers to justify what they are doing, how they made plans, how decisions were arrived at. In a series of 10-minute visits to classrooms they will sum up the quality of teaching that has years of biographical learning, training, experience, thought and preparation, all of which needs to be understood if teaching is to be analysed for its quality (this, indeed, accounts for a large proportion of the work of educational researchers and teacher-educators who are continuously at work improving our understanding of educational quality). Since an OfSTED decision is so significant and potentially punitive it encourages risk-aversion and persuades schools to look back to ensure their justificatory arguments are solid, and many schools spend a lot of time preparing and amending the paper-trails.

Meanwhile, change requires prospective thinking, looking ahead at where possibilities lie. It demands the embracing of risk and that teachers talk, not in the language of self-justification, but of speculation and ambition. The aim of change is to find departures from the status quo, whereas OfSTED insists upon its compliance. To engage with change requires creative, not compliant, thinking. Change in a collective can only be achieved through negotiation and compromise, two elements of professional exchange outlawed by OfSTED. 

In practical terms, then, OfSTED protects the status quo and militates against change to it.   Over the roughly 25 years of its existence, OfSTED has suppressed school-based and classroom-based change, and contributed to the ossification of educational practices and school curriculum. Its agenda is conservative and is intolerant of challenge. A sure marker of a right-wing agenda is intolerance for appeals and the dismissal of people’s rights to natural justice – the core of authoritarianism. The procedures for appealing against an OfSTED judgement of a school have been designed so as to protect that judgement, and to make it all but impossible to alter it:


There is no independent scrutiny of OfSTED judgements. The only independent appeal allowable (what is known as a Stage 3 complaint) is over the way OfSTED managed a complaint, not over the substance of the original complaint :


OfSTED cannot be challenged and cannot fail (in spite of the numerous controversies and errors that have arisen). It cannot fail because this would open a crack in the defensive wall of government allowing in original, Coleman arguments that equity and social mobility need to start with wealth redistribution and poverty reduction. 

As a final note it is worth emphasising that ‘left-wing’ does not mean (in the UK) the Labour Party, just as ‘right-wing’ does not implicate the Conservative Party. Far from it. It was under the Blair administration that the role of OfSTED was reaffirmed, and tied directly to the meritocratic drive for equality of educational opportunity. Now, Blair and Brown had explicitly shifted the Labour Party away from its commitment to equality of educational outcomes. Here, precisely, was the subtle shift away from the Coleman agenda. Redistribution of wealth implies narrowing the gap between educational achievers and ‘under’-achievers because it leads to more poorer kids passing more tests and exams. The cheaper, less politically sensitive option is to argue that at the starting gun all kids have the same chance. If, once the race is run, some pass and others fail, that is down to them. The government’s moral obligation in a meritocracy ends with ensuring equality of opportunity, equality at the starting point. If OfSTED were to police equality of outcomes it would inevitably have to follow the path of clues back to socio-economic policy. Blair’s government administration was among the most conservative in educational terms, and most dismissive of left-wing values. This continues in the policies of both Conservative and Labour Parties – at the time of writing.

[This is a little confusing, since, as I have said, OfSTED focuses on student achievement as a measure of quality. But this is merely a convenience, for it ensures (a) that OfSTED will find uneven measure by which it will always be able to claim that there are ‘failing schools’ and ‘incompetent teachers’, and (b) that OfSTED condemnations will generally protect middle-class and wealthy schools and reserve its condemnations for schools in areas of lower socio-economic standing. (If you do look at that Gene Glass book cited above you will see his analysis that shows how educational accountability intensifies in poorer areas, and vanishes in wealthy areas.)  The focus on educational outcomes is not used as a critique of government economic policies, but as a form of ‘victim-blaming’.]

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