Friday, July 23, 2010

Ofsted and Mission Creep

Nobody could really have an issue with the concept of an Office for Standards in Education. This was, I believe, something that came from the Conservative government of the 80s, with the aim of providing a national, centrally-defined standard for education, and undermining the left-wing agenda that dominated an educational establishment that was largely libertarian and socialist-leaning.

However, I do object to the mission creep that has taken place over the years. School are no longer judged simply on the basis of the standard of education taking place - or rather, the definition of education has been stretched to such an extent that it bears very little resemblance to what the man on the Clapham Omnibus would assume it was. Ofsted doesn't simply inspect schools, it defines the standards that schools are to meet. The goalposts move regularly, requiring significant amounts of management effort simply to ensure that "when HMI calls", the school has jumped through the regulatory hoops. It is difficult to say what value the changes in terminology and pet projects driven by Ofsted add to the education of the children

To an extent, it's not even as though it makes much difference. There are certain aspects of the work of schools which override others. For example, Ofsted currently look at "The extent to which pupils develop workplace and other skills that will contribute to their future economic well-being." But the likelihood is that this section will simply mirror the overall educational attainment of the school - if the school is "adding lots of value" to the children, it will score well here. If not, it will score badly. So why bother assessing it separately? The answer is that it is part of government/Ofsted dogma to show this - a mandate it has taken upon itself. But this is political and social - in my opinion (and that of many others, I'm pretty sure) people are not just units of economic productivity. A debate should be had before the government, or its inspector, asserts that the role of education is the future economic well-being of pupils.

Furthermore, the tentacles of Ofsted have gradually spread over the years. By redefining education as (pretty much) child-rearing, Ofsted have assumed the role of guardians of (broad-sense) education not only in schools and colleges, but in pre-schools and even for child minders.

To a degree this is understandable. Government money goes into this - child-care vouchers and free nursery places - so perhaps the government wants to know that something useful is going on. But to be honest, the standard of assessment is pretty imprecise (most schools wouldn't take seriously the assessments done by nursery schools, and would carry out their own baseline assessment). And for most parents, even the concept of expecting educational objectives to be met by a childminder is utterly absurd - they simply want somewhere safe where their children can play for a few hours (or possibly do homework) until the parents get home from work. Unsurprisingly, the increasing administrative burden and inspection regime on registered childminders has resulted in increasing numbers of people vocationally well-adapted (compassionate, sympathetic, playful) to childminding packing it in, and those people who aren't what a parent would naturally look for in a childminder getting more work and being able to justify increasing charges due to restricted supply.

Even so, it wouldn't matter so much if there was any sense of an absolute standard in such measurements. But it feels as though inspections aren't carried out with any level of objectivity. Schools "in a category" (coded language for having to improve - in special measures, or under notice to improve) find that on repeated visits by people checking progress, they hear them muttering under their breath that they can't see why the school was placed in the category. Different inspectors have their own hobby horses. Inspections for nurseries and childminders are even more subjective than those for schools. My own children's preschool was criticised by one inspector for not having staples in the stapler that was in the office corner. When the staff commented that this might result in injury to the three- and four-year-olds, the inspector replied that they would only hurt themselves on it once.

And even so, since in large sections of the country, parents effectively have little or no choice about where their children will go to school, it's all something of a sterile debate anyway. If the effort that was directed to repeated inspections and implementing initiatives were instead given to the schools (who increasingly understand where they are failing to do the best by their pupils, but are strapped for resources to do much about it), that would surely be more helpful.

As a paradigm for the way government has run over the last 30 years - a central organisation created to address a specific issue which has grown like topsy, and largely unaccoutably - Ofsted could hardly be bettered. Unfortunately, the new government has shown little sign thus far of any willingness to tame this huge, unelected beast which has ended up with such enormous control over the lives of our children.

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