During the debate over abolishing Ofsted at Michaela on 21st November, an audience member compared the inspectorate to the Soviet State Planning Committee. He said that Gorbachev’s efforts to reform it had led to its collapse. It could not be reformed. It had to be destroyed, because it was incapable of changing fundamentally.
There has been a schools inspectorate ever since there has been large scale state education, but there has not always been Ofsted. The great Victorian education reformer Matthew Arnold was an inspector, for example. So inspection and Ofsted are not synonymous. The question we have to ask is whether Ofsted is capable of being reformed so radically that it actually does more good than harm.
We are talking about an organisation that has, with almost complete impunity, ruined the careers of many good teachers. There are countless stories of how inspectors have branded knowledgeable teachers who get good results as inadequate, on the basis of misguided dogmas. Katie Ashford shared some of these nightmare tales during her speech in favour of abolition.
Because of the incalculable harm done by Stalinist inspectors, Ofsted is viewed with suspicion and fear by most in the teaching profession. Although there have been genuine reforms, most notably in the abandoning of lesson grading, and although Sir Michael Wilshaw talks sense, is it really possible that the whole institution has had a change of heart?
It seems unlikely. Sir Michael is not St Michael. He presides not over an army of angels but a large number of fallible human beings. Many of these human beings have blood on their hands. A lot of it. They are responsible for destroying careers and closing schools based on arbitrary and misinformed judgements. And despite the sanity being spoken by those at the top, we haven’t seen much public penitence from the people who got their hands dirty carrying out the purges. It won’t be Sir Michael who visits your school. And it might be one of them.
Aristotle points out in his Ethics that virtues develop over time by the repeated performance of good actions: ‘by doing just actions we become just’. In other words, virtues are habitual. But so are vices. What is decisive is not knowledge, but habit. So whatever Sir Michael says, we have to face the fact that many inspectors have very bad habits, which would take a long time and a lot of willpower to break. Even if they have been told not to judge lessons, they are in the habit of doing so, based on misguided criteria. How could we know how much their judgement of a school would be swayed by the false judgements they are in the habit of making? Of course, they wouldn’t officially admit to it, but we’re all very good at making judgements based on flimsy evidence and then rationalising them afterwards.
Should people with habits like these really be trusted with making or breaking the careers of teachers, and deciding on the very existence of schools? Or do we need to start again from scratch if we are going to build an inspectorate that does not have Stalinist tendencies?