Which reminded me of a conversation with a Head of Year a long time ago, watching some boys playing padder tennis without bats and in the oddest PE kit they could exhume from the spare kit box. ‘Children are mad’ I offered. ‘Yes’ she said ‘and they make no attempt to hide it’. And of another experience in a coastal school where a year 9 history group appeared with stiff PE shorts on their heads with cries of ‘we’re chefs, Miss’. Ah, the charm of the fourteen-year-old.
Speaking of charm, I turn now to Sean Harford, National Director for Education at Ofsted. This Harford is an avuncular chap whom I’ve heard pronounce on this and that, here and there. He’s reasonable and usually makes sense and I’ve always assumed he was behind the clarifications and mythbusters that Ofsted put out from time to time. He was in the trade press last week allegedly saying three things that made me long for something to put over my head.
- While Ofsted’s reports show behaviour as good or better in 90% of schools, he doesn’t believe it. There are ‘real issues’ with inspecting behaviour and Ofsted can do ‘a whole bunch of things’ better, like talking to new or lunchtime staff who might see the worst of it. Yes indeedy.
- The curriculum ‘started to suffer’ when schools became academies. Ofsted ‘missed a trick’ because it was slow to respond to schools having ‘freedoms to do different stuff’. They assumed that everyone would preserve the well-established national curriculum and not narrow choices unreasonably. This took how long to spot?
- Ofsted don’t have enough cash to inspect properly and were therefore over-dependent on performance data, so that made everything worse. Mighty thinking, Maestro.
At the end of the film quite a lot of things have gone badly, so much so that someone tells the sort-of hero, Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine he’ll be shot. ‘Nah’ he says sanguinely. ‘More like chewed out. I been chewed out before’.
Mr Director’s been on the electronic loudhailer to say he’s been misquoted. I hope that’s true because the alternative is that he’s just twigged onto something so blindingly obvious that I assumed we took it for granted. Obviously a day in school doesn’t show you what behaviour is like. Obviously autonomy combined with punitive accountability leads to fearful decision-making. Obviously inspection on the cheap is faulty.
Being honest is good. Thinking out loud is refreshing, but Harford isn’t Brad Pitt and breezy won’t do. Children’s education suffered, good people lost their jobs and teacher recruitment has fallen through the floor during this madness. As the damage is huge, so repentance has to be proportionate and lead to real change.
Forgive me, there’s more. Aldo Raine helpfully points out during the film that fighting in a basement offers a lot of difficulties, number one being that you’re fighting in a basement. I wonder if Sean Harford meant to say something like that: lack of money offers a lot of difficulties, number one being we didn’t have any money - so we had to do a cheap job. That raises more questions: if the money isn’t going to be put back, what kind of inspection can we expect? What scheme will overcome the difficulties?
Many head teachers might bring other Tarantinos to mind when contemplating Ofsted, but I prefer his smart remarks to the bloodbath movies and I don’t want to annihilate other public servants. Inspecting schools is a democratic duty, but we do it with at least one hand tied behind our backs. It’s not just the money, it’s the vision. Because we don’t know what our schools are for we don’t know what to inspect them for. We don’t care enough about children or state education to fund any of it properly so we make blindingly obvious mistakes. After decades of inspection, our data is corrupted, its use is shallow and we’re no wiser about trends or effectiveness because the goalposts move so often they must be on castors.
As Aldo Raine says ‘it behooves oneself to keep his wits’. The Director and HMCI are smart and honest folks: I hope something better comes out of this garbled messaging.