Civitas Civitas

Media information: Embargo: 00.01am Sunday 16 July 2006

How OfSTED undermines independent teachers


Tony Blair has staked his reputation on 'education, education, education', but his last chance of a legacy will be a system of rigidly shackled schools in which tick-box inspections take precedence over learning, according to independent think-tank Civitas.

In Inspection, Inspection, Inspection! Anastasia de Waal shows how the Blair government continued the mistrust of teachers and the controlling tendencies that had characterised the Thatcher and Major governments and ratcheted them up several notches. The mechanism Blair has used to get political control of every classroom was OfSTED, the Office for Standards in Education.

OfSTED is not, as people assume, an independent body inspecting school standards: it is the enforcer for the Department for Education, making sure that every teacher in every school is following the latest (and ever-changing) fads from Whitehall. OfSTED was set up in 1992 under the Major government to maintain standards in schools. New Labour reformers have seized this powerful mechanism and added their own brand of intense managerialism, awarding themselves a monopoly over the definition of excellence in education, then enforcing their demands through detailed prescription of teaching methods.

Good inspection no guarantee of good education

OfSTED's stamp of approval does not safeguard parents and children from bad schools. OfSTED does not rate schools according to the quality of education provided; it judges them on how many boxes they can tick on an OfSTED inspector's chart. Extensive and pointless paperwork requirements and a focus on artificial targets mean that pupils' learning has become a secondary consideration, with devastating effect for those children in the country's most deprived schools (pp113-121). Children's work is re-marked and past lesson plans fabricated (p.119) to give the inspectors what they want.

If the DfES/ OfSTED onslaught on teachers had produced good effects, it would be harder to criticise the approach. The stark reality is that British schools perform badly in international comparisons (p.96), the government's own targets are constantly being missed (pp.7-8, pp.72-4), test results cannot be relied on (p.74-5), and exams have had to be watered down to conceal the failings in the system.

Success of independent schools
"a stake through the heart for Blair"

In this context, the excellence of independent schools has been a thorn in the side of the government. The government's explanation of the success of private schools is that they are better resourced and selective in their intake. In fact, some independent schools operate on a lower per-capita spend than state schools; many are not selective in their intake; and state schools in good areas with an entirely middle-class intake still fail to match the results of the private sector. Independent schools therefore have to be attacked as if, by their success, they are somehow taking something away from state schools. Yet:

"The problem with the private sector's successes is not that they affect state education, but that they affect the political education agenda. A group of schools with no more in common than the fact that they are fee-charging and not wholly controlled by DfES policy are consistently out-stripping state schools. This is a stake through the heart for Blair, whose hoped-for legacy was to annihilate the relationship between class and achievement by taking 'responsibility' for schools" (p.97).

When Tony Blair announced that he was going to close the gap between independent and state schools, people assumed that he meant to do this by raising standards in state schools. As the strategies adopted have conspicuously failed on this front, the fall-back position seems to be to hobble the independent schools so that they will not compete so effectively. OfSTED provides the mechanism for doing this.

Since 2003 OfSTED has been inspecting many independent schools. Some of the larger and richer schools are inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), but the ISI is in its turn inspected by OfSTED and has to work to the same government agenda. This agenda covers far more than health and safety and child protection issues. As in the state schools, the government via OfSTED can and does interfere in every aspect of the teaching, the resources used, and the way in which lessons are planned and recorded. Independent schools are being subjected to the same sort of scrutiny and bureaucratic intervention as state schools. The result can only be to undermine their effectiveness - and thus achieve Blair's stated aim of closing the gap:

"In an attempt to salvage the legitimacy of state school reforms, there has been an attack on private practice. Rather than tackling its state sector problems, the government has attempted to mitigate them by 'planting' problems in the private sector. By imposing requirements on independent schools, the government has been able to make its schools look better and private schools look worse" (p.94).

A climate of fear

Just as in the state sector, teachers and governors in independent schools are afraid to go public about what is happening. Fear of OfSTED is so pervasive in the education system that Anastasia de Waal had to insert a note at the front of Inspection, Inspection, Inspection! explaining that many of those interviewed requested anonymity, and even some representatives of professional bodies who had agreed to speak on the record had second thoughts. As a result, their contributions had to be anonymised.

Independent schools have a particular reason to fear OfSTED, however. OfSTED reports are posted on the internet and have to be sent to parents. A bad report can have a devastating effect on a school's finances. Anastasia de Waal gives an example of a prep school with an excellent academic record that suffered a bad OfSTED report, as a result of which eight children registered for the next September were withdrawn, and one parent sued for the return of his deposit on the grounds that the prospectus had been misleading. The head teacher estimates she has spent £198,000 complying with the demands of OfSTED, including £800 a day for an inspection consultant, and, for the first time in the school's 20-year history, there are 20 vacancies (pp.108-110).

"Schools and parents have simply not been able to resist the force of the DfES-cum-OfSTED. This is manifest when previously contented parents withdraw their children from popular private schools with good results but an unsatisfactory OfSTED report; or when head teachers on the orders of OfSTED fork out for educational materials which they deem unnecessary; or when teachers stay up at night fabricating a term of 'invaluable' assessment records" (p.95).

OfSTED must be tamed

Anastasia de Waal calls for a series of reforms to bring OfSTED under control, including:

  • A thorough review by the Education and Skills Select Committee to address the question of OfSTED's independence from governmental influence and how its remit for inspection is determined. It is imperative to the proper functioning of the inspectorate that the connection between the government (via the DfES) and OfSTED be severed.
  • Independent schools should not have to comply with regulations concerning teaching content and style but only with regulation concerning issues of basic health and safety and child protection.
  • Independent schools which are too small to belong to any of the associations for larger and richer independent schools should form their own representative body to protest against government interference in the private sector.

"Inspection, Inspection, Inspection!" by Anastasia de Waal is published by Civitas, 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ, tel 020 7799 6677, www.civitas.org.uk, price £12.00 inc. p&p.

For more information ring:

Anastasia de Waal 020 7799 6677

Robert Whelan 020 7799 6677


For more information e-mail CIVITAS on:    info@civitas.org.uk