F Ofsted — the Grade its Reports Merit
Civitas, 21 October 2004
Ofsted is a governmental body set up by the 1992 Education Act whose full name is the ‘Office for Standards in Education’. Its original remit was to inspect and report on the quality of all state schools. If, based on an inspection, Ofsted judged the quality of educational provision of a school to be unsatisfactory, then, unless the school addresses and rectifies those aspect of provision the report deems unsatisfactory, the school inspected stands in danger of being compulsorily shut down.
Since its creation, the remit of Ofsted has grown steadily, with more and more different kinds of educational establishment being brought under its inspectorial wing. In 2002, Ofsted acquired power of inspection over the country’s private schools. Its powers were extended to them on the alleged grounds that such powers over private schools as the state had under the 1944 Education Act were insufficient to compel those offering inadequate provision to improve the quality of their provision on pain of closure otherwise. Meanwhile, competition between such schools was deemed unable to exert market pressure for improvement, allegedly on the grounds that parents could acquire insufficient information about what went on in private schools to enable them to make informed decisions about which to send their children to.
As from 1 September 2003, independent schools in England and Wales became subject to Ofsted inspections. Such of them it deemed offered unsatisfactory provision became vulnerable to threat of closure, unless they changed their provision in the ways prescribed by the Ofsted reports. The powers Ofsted have over the independent sector are truly enormous, having become sole arbiter of what it is and is not acceptable for them to provide.
The way Ofsted has chosen to exercise its powers over the private sector is anything but re-assuring. In the first twelve month period since it acquired these powers, it found no fewer than 95% of the 60 independent schools it inspected during that period unsatisfactory, requiring them to change in the ways prescribed or face closure.
If the private schools Ofsted judged unsatisfactory were genuinely so, then arguably it would be providing a genuine public service, despite it straining belief to suppose parents able and willing to pay large sums for private schooling of their children to be otherwise unable to know which schools are worth sending their children to.
Overwhelming evidence exists, however, that Ofsted is a very poor and biased judge of what is satisfactory private educational provision. A case in point is the Ofsted report issued earlier this year about Charterhouse Square School, London, based upon an Ofted inspection of it in March 2004. On the strength of what it claimed to find at this inspection, Ofsted deemed Charterhouse Square School failed to meet the requirements necessary for its continued registration as a school with state approval to operate.
Ofsted arrived at its verdict despite acknowledging Charterhouse Square to have an exemplary record in pupil attainment levels for English and mathematics, to offer excellent provision in such non-core subjects as dance and music, and despite finding the morale and behaviour of the children good and parents most happy with and well-informed about it.
Ofsted deemed Charterhous Square School unsatisfactory on the grounds of finding its pedagogy over-reliant on more traditional approaches at the expense of being permissive and child-centred . The school was also judged unsatisfactory for having preferred to focus its five year olds on reading and writing rather than learning IT skills.
What makes the Ofsted report on Charterhouse Square School so disturbing, especially when taken together with the enormously high rate at which Ofsted has found other independent schools unsatisfactory, it is that Ofsted is not delivering comparably unfavourable overall verdicts about state-schools that it knows employ no less traditional teaching methods than Charterhouse Square but which achieve far lower attainment levels in core curriculum subjects like English and mathematics.
A case in point is the Islamia Primary School in Kilburn, London, a comparably sized voluntary-aided mixed primary school in Kilburn, London. Unlike Charterhouse Square School, Ofsted deemed the Islamia School to be ‘an effective school where pupils achieve good standards in English and mathematics’. This was despite its pupils’ attainment levels in English and mathematics being far less good than those of Charterhouse Square school. Likewise, Ofsted found Islamia school ‘good value for money’, despite also finding all the following aspects of its educational provision to be unsatisfactory: its provision for under fives said to be given ‘too few opportunities … to develop an appropriate degree of independence’ , its procedures for child protection and for ensuring pupils’ welfare’, its ‘accommodation’, its learning resources, its attendance rates and its support for those of its pupils for whom English is not their first language.
There is not the slightest wish here to contest the legitimacy of Osted’s overall verdict on Islamia School being a perfectly adequate school. All that is being claimed here is that Ofsted is being manifestly less than even-handed in the unfavourable verdicts it is delivering on manifestly still-more adequate private schools than the Islamia school. That Ofsted is being such is profoundly disturbing when it enjoys ultimate power of deciding whether such schools can remain open and which schools must close.
Lovers of liberty, not to mention, high educational standards, would do well to be reminded of the words of warning John Stuart Mill issued in 1859 on the dangers of the sate being allowed to become the sole arbiter of what is an acceptable form of education. In his great essay, ‘On Liberty’, Mill wrote:
‘A general State education [system] is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another.… [I]n proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendencies to one over the body. An education established by and controlled by the State should only exist, if exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence…. In general, if [a] country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense.’
In sum, in response to Ofsted’s claim to be champion of educational standards, lovers of liberty might wish to responding by singing altogether in unison, ‘We don’t need your education; we don’t need your thought control’.