The schools inspectorate Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) has in recent weeks come under attack by two right-wing think tanks. Education Secretary Michael Gove then announced last week that he was not renewing the contract of the current Ofsted chairwoman.
It is tempting to engage in schadenfreude over attacks on an organisation that has become hated and feared by teachers and school leaders. Its ever more brutal inspection regime has been used by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition to force schools previously under the control of Local Authorities to become academies as a step towards privatisation. In this case, however, Ofsted is being targeted because, despite having accepted all the government’s changes to the rules governing schools, it is still seen as lagging behind what the government wants to do next.
A revealing factor is that Ofsted has come under fire because its members are mainly former or still-serving teachers or head teachers, who are believed to have an unhealthy interest in educational standards that cuts across the government’s agenda on sanctioning private schools and introducing a “Three R’s” curriculum.
Two weeks ago, Ofsted chief inspector of schools Michael Wilshaw, a former academy head teacher, said he was “spitting blood” after it was reported in the Times that right-wing think tanks Policy Exchange and Civitas were to publish reports criticising the inspectorate and claimed that the Department of Education had briefed them.
Wilshaw insisted that Ofsted would not be frightened into softening its inspections on Free Schools, the government’s flagship education policy, which aims at taking education further down the road to wholesale privatisation.
Recent inspections of free schools have led to the closure of Discovery new school in West Sussex, while the troubled Al-Madinah school in Derby was labelled inadequate.
“If I see things going wrong in an Academy chain I will say so,” Wilshaw said, adding that he doesn’t intend to give any special treatment to them or free-school providers. “If people tied to the free-school movement think I will not do that they have another think coming. As long as we exist and have the job of raising standards we will do the job fairly without fear or favour.”
Wilshaw then criticised those who wanted “children to be lectured for six hours a day in serried ranks”, a reference to the “knowledge-based curriculum” being imposed by the government next year.
The Times article stated, “Pressure is mounting for Ofsted to be overhauled or scrapped as supporters of Michael Gove accuse school inspectors of being trapped by 1960s ‘progressive’ approaches to learning.”
Civitas, a right-of-centre think tank, is to call for a new inspectorate for academies and free schools in a pamphlet to be published soon. It will argue that the education secretary’s wish for schools to develop their own approaches to teaching is being held back by “child-first orthodoxies among inspectors, who are stifling innovation.”
Policy Exchange, another right-leaning think tank set up by Gove himself, also plans to call for wholesale changes at Ofsted.
Gove denied claims that these organisations had been briefed by the Education Department. However, the publicising of their reports was followed closely by the decision to dismiss Baroness Sally Morgan, a Labour peer, as chair of Ofsted, and rumours of her replacement by Theodore Agnew, an insurance magnate who worked closely with Gove before the 2010 general election.
It is clear that the privatisation of education is not happening fast enough for the government, whose agenda also includes the complete overhaul of the curriculum so that working class children are taught the minimum they need to know to work in a low-wage economy, are actively discouraged from learning the critical skills they need to understand the world, and are fed a version of history that glorifies war and capitalist ideas.
Having long been used as a weapon against teachers and schools, even Ofsted is now deemed as a barrier to the ruthless decimation of education in Britain.