Authoritarian leaders come in two stripes: those who believe their justifications for absolute power; the others, those who speak those justifications pragmatically and don’t care whether they are true or not, so long as they hold the attention of those they subject.
The latter group, the cynical pragmatists, are negotiable. Their views and actions can be shaped by circumstances. If their narrative isn’t catching on they can just change it. In the supposed words of an aristocrat immediately before the French Revolution, “if we want things to stay the same – we’d better start changing”! These autocrats and dictators we can live with, to a degree.
It is the first group who are dangerous – the ‘true believers’, those who believe in their self-justifications. These are the ones who will refuse to budge, and so permit chaos to develop to a point where systems become unstable and unpredictable, and harm may be done. They are unresponsive, dogmatic. Insufficiently educated in the Machiavellian arts to understand. In a word, politically foolish.
Amanda Spielman, CEO of Ofsted, is of the first kind. She appears truly to believe that Ofsted “raises standards”, and that this is her job. This is why she is proving to be ruthlessly unbending in the wake of a suicide of a much-loved, much empathised head teacher – a clear victim of Ofsted pressures. ‘We sympathise and are saddened,’ goes her line, ‘but Ofsted still has a job to do informing parents of school standards’.
I’ll deal with the notion that raising standards is “my job” first – that’s an easy coconut to knock off its shy. The ‘raising standards’ argument is merely the waving ostrich feather behind which the politicians dance naked. Conservative politicians, in particular, cannot be remotely interested in raising standards, if this means credentialising and liberating the common classes to compete in the labour market for elite jobs, which belong to the economic elite by right. Labour embraces this falsehood out of a mistaken belief that they have to control education to achieve some kind of equality. But, no, Ofsted’s job is to police a National Curriculum that levels down state school students – to the point where a poor child in deepest rural Northumbria is fed the same curriculum gruel as the middle-class child of Islington professionals. Ofsted disciplines teachers, reminds teachers and schools that they work in a command-and-control system with which they have to comply.
As for standards themselves, what are they and where do they come from? Well, think about this. We haven’t invented schools yet, and there are no exams. Do educational ‘standards’ somehow exist even so – abstract, arriving, as it were, on an interstellar meteor? Nooo…hardly. They are invented – by whomsoever has the power to do so. You know this to be true, because if too many school students are passing exams with A Grades an education minister will declare his or her indignation and instruct the examination boards to make next year’s exams harder. If too few students are passing – to the indignation, this time, of parents (voters) – then the exam boards are required to make exams easier. Slide the pass-Grade (standard) up and down to achieve the desired effect.
In any event, we know from extensive educational research on assessment such things as that on a 5-point scale there will be a difference in student results where the grades are A-B-C-D-E, as opposed to Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, Fail; that there can be significant slippage between an A and a C depending on who is doing the marking; that the wording of exam questions can give advantage to some students over others; that knowledge learned rapidly for passing a test has a very short half-life, compared with knowledge learned slowly out of genuine student interest; and that the greater the pressure for exam results to improve, the more corruption is evoked in the school system to achieve that – especially where school income is dependent on results. And, since it is simply delusional to compare both the knowledge needs and the performance of the Northumbrian student with the Islington student we cannot simply average out exam performance across a population to create a ‘norm’ – a supposed standard for achievement. We are comparing apples with bicycles.
And the parallel belief that Ofsted is holding schools accountable on behalf of parents, this, too, is a tragically comical distortion. It takes a second or two of reflection to realise that you can only be held accountable for that over which you have responsibility. It is absurd, fatuous and unjust to hold teachers to account for a curriculum and a school regime over which they have little, if any, say. But Ofsted only looks ‘down’ the system at the implementers – not ‘up’ the system at its designers. Who holds education ministers and their advisers to account for the bureaucratised, politicised and ideological curriculum forced on English schools? Well, the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, supposedly, though that Committee, too, has always bought into these deadly fictions.
Amanda Spielmann clearly understands little, if anything, of this, and merely parrots the words set out in her job description. Not only do schools live under a regime of dissimulation, delusion and threat, they are subject to leadership by a fool.