If there is one thing that will strike fear in the heart of all teachers, it is those two little words ‘Ofsted inspection’. There’s good reason for this. Even if a teacher is completely up-to-date with all of the correct paperwork in place and their lessons thoroughly prepared, there is still a real risk that it can sabotaged just a the wrong moment. All it takes is for the Ofsted inspector to walk into the room to observe your lesson, just as one of your least compliant students decides to kick off, to severely impact your chances of being assessed as a competent – let alone outstanding – classroom practitioner.
Quite how anyone can judge the quality of a teacher’s professional ability based on a 10-minute snapshot continues to be a mystery. But once Mr or Mrs Ofsted Inspector have made their decision, that’s it: you’ve been graded, and it sticks. And the same goes for an entire school.
There are two common grievances with Ofsted which repeatedly come up in staffroom discussions. Firstly is the assumption that they know best how any school should be run; and secondly, that despite this unquestionable omniscience, they are quite at liberty to move the goalposts and decide that what was previously acceptable is no longer so.
Until recently there were four grades for schools: Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory and Inadequate. Then in 2012 ‘Satisfactory’ became ‘Requires Improvement’. However you look at it, these two terms do not mean the same thing. As a result, all those satisfactory schools, without changing anything, suddenly became less than satisfactory.
Now, you could argue that this is just an issue of semantics. But for the schools which all of a sudden find themselves on the wrong side of Ofsted’s wandering dividing lines, the impact can be considerable.
The ability of Ofsted to pull the rug from beneath the feet of schools has reared its ugly head again following the decision to tighten up rules on the teaching of religion and cultural values, following the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham earlier this year. Thanks to the attempts of hard-line Muslims to take over and control schools there, the Government is rushing through changes to the requirements that schools are expected to meet in order to make sure that those ‘British values’ which have been implicitly part of our education system for decades are now stated explicitly. to leave no one in any doubt of what should be expected.
Except that rather than bringing clarity, we now have confusion. And the consequences are, frankly, very disturbing. The new regulations only came into force for independent schools on 29th September, with state schools to follow. But Ofsted are wasting no time in making sure these are being thoroughly applied even before the ink has been allowed to dry.
The most severe example so far came to light this past weekend, and involves the case of Trinity Christian School in Reading. This tiny independent primary school (with a single class) has been looking to increase its intake, and consequently Ofsted paid them a visit three weeks ago. As far as the school was aware, the inspection was purely to determine whether it should be permitted to take children older than its current age range. What happened, though, was a full-blown interrogation to establish whether the school could demonstrate evidence of their meeting the revised standards relating to children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. This was despite the fact that, following their previous Ofsted inspection 11 months previously, the report stated:
“The provision for pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is excellent. Every care is taken to provide pupils with plentiful opportunities to enhance their spiritual understanding and development through the biblically-based curriculum and daily Christian assemblies that are in keeping with the ethos of the school. As a result, pupils develop good levels of self-esteem and self-confidence. They learn well from biblical stories. They celebrate Christian festival days such as harvest thanksgiving and learn about different cultures and appreciate diversity, for example, through their close links with a school in Zambia and contacts in the local community. They are currently preparing for a concert in a local care home. Pupils are well prepared for life in modern, multicultural, democratic British society through the teaching of the Christian principle to ‘love thy neighbour’ as found for example in the teaching of the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. Pupils gain a practical understanding of public institutions and democracy though educational visits, for example to Windsor and through visits from the local fire brigade and local community nurses. They are making good progress in their personal development and in their behaviour.”
The Independent School Standards had previously required schools to promote principles that “enable pupils to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the law” and “assist pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures in a way that promotes tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions”. These have now been expanded and altered to include “actively promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” and “ensures that principles are actively promoted which encourage respect for other people, paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010”.
According to a letter from the school to the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, despite not having changed their working practices, they were told they were now failing in this provision. Furthermore, various points were made by the inspector in the hearing of the Headteacher and deputy headteachers which alarmed them, regarding the future of the school. In expressing doubt over the school’s continuing existence, the Inspector stated:
- That representatives of other faiths should be invited to lead assemblies and lessons in order for the school to demonstrate compliance with the Standards;
- That evidence needed to be provided, including within the curriculum, that the school “actively promoted other faiths”;
- That the school should actively promote the principles of the Equality Act 2010, that pupils must learn about people with protected characteristics and that the school must not give a viewpoint that certain lifestyles are wrong. Nor should the school promote a particular lifestyle; and
- That the promotion of a principle, namely the Christian principle that all people are equal before God and have inherent dignity as human beings, was not enough to demonstrate sufficient respect for other people, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.
Whatever the truth of these allegations, at least the school can rest assured that Ofsted has no powers to close it. But they are perfectly capable of making life very difficult for them in the immediate future.
Looking at this rationally and reasonably, one might ask if it is possible for a school to go from ‘excellent’ to ‘failing’ in less than a year, without doing anything differently? The only explanation is either that our British values have so drastically transformed over that time, such that we are now living in a newly-created cultural paradigm that bears little resemblance to the one we thought we knew; or that this Ofsted inspector has interpreted the new standards in an appallingly insensitive way. Common sense suggests it is the latter.
If so, the question this raises is whether this inspector was incompetent, or whether they were following instructions in accordance with the wishes of their superiors.
Another regular gripe from schools regarding Ofsted is the inconsistency between different inspectors from one visit to the next. If this particular inspector has overstepped the mark, then one would hope, given the media interest generated, that Ofsted would intervene to allay any fears. However, scratching beneath the surface reveals evidence to suggest something more fundamental has shifted at Ofsted.
Earlier this month the National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools issued a press release claiming that Ofsted inspectors had asked highly inappropriate questions and bullied pupils into answering insensitive and anti-religious questions during a number of visits.
Also, in the last few days, a Roman Catholic school has been downgraded from its ‘Good’ rating because “the younger students show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation” and “it is not made clear how all students are prepared for life and work in modern Britain”.
Having had this many cases over the last month, how many more should we expect over the coming years? In the summer, the Independent Schools Council, which represents over 1200 schools in this country, voiced its concerns over how the new requirements would be assessed and they did so with good reason.
If the Department for Education does not act fast, there is a real chance that the nature of faith schools will be irreversibly damaged, and for no obvious benefit. This is not setting out the promotion of British values at all: it is bloody-minded, religiously-illiterate and insensitive bureaucrats forcing their ideas of how religion should bend to the will of an intolerant form of equality upon schools, the vast majority of which do an outstanding job of teaching their pupils to respect all people irrespective of race or beliefs.
To tell a designated faith school that it should be actively promoting other faiths and that it is not acceptable to promote a particular lifestyle is bewildering to say the least. How can any school maintain its ethos under the pressure of such an assault? If Ofsted really is carrying out the will of the Department for Education, it has become a tragic and disturbing case of the state losing its bearings and over-reacting in response to the real but limited failure of a few schools (academies and local authority) in Birmingham. The real danger is that the response to a failure in one area will produce a crisis that engulfs schools across the whole country. For the sake of the hundreds of thousands of children who will be the ones who ultimately suffer, we cannot allow this to happen.