Educational press-reports-2009 Jul-Dec.  PM wants to "free' teachers … !
ARCHIVED on 11 November 2015


At the very end of this 103 page document is a note: “Printed on Paper containing 75% recycled fibre content minimum”: cynics may say that it could also have said: “This Paper contains 75% recycled policies and the education content is minimum”.

This is what Warwick Mansell wrote in the TES on 17 July.

Where is the vision for education? Focusing on performance targets rather than a high-quality learning experience will not help to engage children

The new white paper on 21st-century schools is remarkable in two ways as a vision of education policy. First, it is short on vision. And, second, it is not really about education.

The white paper is in fact packed with policy initiatives. For example, it sets out plans for a new report card system of school-by-school accountability; encouraging schools to work together in federations; new pupil and parent guarantees of orderly classrooms and broad and balanced curriculums; on-to-one tuition with children in primary schools and in year 7; and, most controversially, for a new “licence to teach” system, checking on teaching quality.

School management mechanisms are discussed at length. It also promises yet more intervention in schools and local authorities which are “underperforming”.

However, search as you might, one subject appears to be non-existent , and it is the one that education research shows actually matters most: that is, how a teacher can provide their pupils with a high-quality learning experience in the classroom, otherwise known as teaching.

Instead the document is couched in the deadening language of “outcomes” (55 mentions) and “delivery” (57 mentions), which utterly fails to do justice to the importance of education in any broad, intrinsic or – dare one say it? – life-affirming sense. ….

I was particularly struck by the phrase which begins the paper’s section on the need for well-led and highly skilled teachers and support staff. This reads: “It is only the workforce who can deliver out ambition of improved outcomes, with children and young people engaged with their education and supported to progress through it.”

Mansell goes on to note that neither Professor Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review nor Professor Richard Pring’s Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training are mentioned. Both attack utilitarianism and philistinism in education. Both have clearly not had any hearing from ministers, if the white paper is any guide. … The civil servants appear to be resorting to management-speak as if it could be applied to anything, and the Government is not interested in outside perspectives from those who might criticise.


The TES carried the grim face of the prime minister on its front page on 30 October with the banner headline BROWN WEIGHS INTO SATS ROW. In an exclusive article he writes, We are blessed with a fine crop of great and dedicated professionals … So it is to teachers that we now turn and in them we must now place our trust; drawing on their expertise, passion and commitment with a fresh approach fit for the time. … I’m not willing to accept excuses for underperformance. Every school should be doing the best by all its pupils. But progress relies on the need to retain clear accountability through testing. This means at the end of primary school as much as at the end of secondary. It is why we are introducing the School Report Card, which will hold schools to account for how they ensure pupils’ progress.

In his editorial comment, Gerard Kelly, noted that both Labour and Conservatives seem to be saying that teachers should be trusted, but went on to write: Before the profession gets too overjoyed by this remarkable outbreak of cross-party consensus, perhaps it should consider another fundamental question of trust. Why should teachers trust either party to let them do their job?

Historically, Mr Brown’s government has thought that the answer to a problem is to issue a deluge of directives and laws. Top-down, state-imposed solutions are written into its DNA. Can t really stop itself telling teachers not what it expects them to do – which is a perfectly legitimate concern of government – but spelling out precisely how it wants them to do it?

Philosophically, one would expect the Tories to be more inclined to give schools more freedom. But their recent pronouncements are not reassuring. It, as they say, they want to “trust heads more”, what on earth are they doing getting involved in the minutiae of school uniform policy or proposing to draft in squads of bawling ex-sergeant majors because clearly teachers can’t control the little blighters?

There is no reason to doubt either party’s commitment to educational excellence. But none of their ambitions will succeed unless they enlist the support of the people they need to carry them out. They need to start believing in the profession they profess to admire so much.


Guardian columnist Jenni Russell hits out at the education plans in the Queen’s speech (18 November).

The plans for education in the Queen's speech are simply shameless. Who could possibly be opposed to ensuring a good and appropriate education for every child, alongside cultural activities, music and sport? Well, Ed Balls has dispensed with the hard work of finding out why – despite Labour's huge increases in education spending – that isn't already happening. Instead he has simply decreed that from now on every child's education will be good, and that parents can complain to, or sue, any school which doesn't come up to scratch.

This is politics by magic wand. Overnight, because the secretary of state has declared that they shall, schools will ensure good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety. Yet teachers get no new powers to discipline, remove or educate elsewhere the children who are determined to misbehave in class. There's no discussion of how the dreary curriculum or the testing regimes affect children's interest in education. There's no mention of how including large numbers of children with special educational needs can completely disrupt the education of others. This is Cinderella-land, where everyone is going to live happily ever after.

The lack of reality is evident in the other guarantees. Primary pupils are to get "good teaching"; pupils expelled from ordinary classes are to get "high-quality teaching". Fantastic aspiration; what do these mean as guarantees? Who's to define or measure them? And what difference will these promises make? Does Balls think the country is full of mediocre teachers who will suddenly deliver high-quality lessons from now on, simply because the secretary of state has reminded them that it's a good idea? …

The voters deserved more thought, more honesty, and less fantasy here.


Sadly it seems that government ministers ignore the carefully argued criticisms of academics at some of their educational policies. Thank goodness the research community has not given up the struggle to put evidence into policy making and to communicate their views to the world at large.

Assessment in Schools. Fit for Purpose?

The TES on 21 August carried an article by Prof Mary James, of Cambridge University, drawing attention to the book Assessment in Schools. Fit for Purpose? which is written by the journalist Warwick Mansell collaborating with 10 academics of the Assessment Reform Group (of which Prof James is one). She writes:

Assessments that were originally designed to indicate what a student knows and understands of a subject have now become proxy measures of the quality of teachers, heads, schools, support services, local authorities, the Government and the nation.

With stakes this high, no wonder results are represented in dubious ways and the means of achieving them are subject to games-playing. If a school takes actions designed to improve its performance, such as drilling to earn marks at the expense of teaching for deeper understanding, the consequences for students are often against their long-term educational interests.

We argue that the fitness for purpose of the assessment system needs to be evaluated and the education of young people made the priority once more.

Prof James highlights four points from the report:

    • More must be done to promote effective in-class assessment because there are significant gaps between teachers' valuing of formative assessment and the capacity of many to implement it;
    • Confidence in tests and exams needs to be enhanced with results being published with information on the likely scale of measurement errors;
    • The cost of assessment needs to be analysed and justified. The research team calculate the overall cost to the nation of the assessment system to be £750 million. The public needs to ask whether this is money well spent.
    • Political micro-managment of the assessment process needs to be avoided. Ministers recent record in specifying details - the pilot work on single-level tests being a case in point - raises questions about whether they are qualified to do so.

[The report can be downloaded from

Schools need to reclaim responsibility for education

In the TES of 4 September Prof Keri Facer of Manchester Metropolitan University wrote of the need for a sea change to wash away the rule-book.

She writes: responsible educators know that an education that doesn't involve them using their discretion and experience to engage with the complexity of local contexts and individual children is not really an education at all, but merely training for the knowledge mills of the service industry.

Looking at some of the possible challenges which may face educators by 2025 she argues for the rapid creation of new approaches to education with fundamental debate about the aims of education. She says, We cannot rely on central government to lead this debate. Instead, schools and educators are going to have to reclaim the responsibility not only for developing new teaching and learning strategies, but for debating and shaping educational aims and curriuculums with their students and communities.

Ask first what is education for

A research project by Professor Peter Moss and his team at the University of London’s Institute of Education (commissioned by the Government) has concluded that if the wider goals of the Government policy statement Every Child Mattersare to be achieved the curriculum should be overhauled. William Stewart, in the TES of 11 September reports that the research team believes policy makers need to consider exactly what education should be for before revising the curriculum.

A radical future for secondary education?

Professor David Hargreaves is arguing for a much more radical future for secondary schools – explains Peter Wilby in Guardian Education 22 September.

Take any aspect of secondary schooling as we understand it – lessons, classrooms, subjects, tests, year groups, the role of heads, the authority of teachers – and he challenges it. … In his vision of 21st century schooling, pupils help make the curriculum, tell the school how to use information technology, set standards and learning objectives, assess their own and one another’s work, spend half or whole days on collaborative projects, sometimes work at home. Teachers are mentors or coaches who comment on students’ work rather than grading it. Subjects become “essential learnings”, such as communication, thinking or social responsibility; or “competencies”, such as managing information or relating to people. Schools become part of networks, working with other schools or colleges. … The impetus comes from below, from heads and teachers rethinking how we go about secondary education. He just pulled things together and helped them along, and the 23 pamphlets he has produced over the last four years quote numerous examples of mind-boggling innovations from the grassroots. “We are not talking about a new model of schooling, handed down from above,” he says. “The notion that there should be or can be a standard model is dead.”

Goldstein’s forensic analysis demolishes league tables

In The Guardian on 28 November, Polly Toynbee spoke out about the government’s reluctance to take note of the findings of social scientists. One of her examples was school league tables.

Professor Harvey Goldstein’s evidence about school league tables should make Labour squirm. No woolly liberal educationist, he is a distinguished statistician, editor of the Royal Statistical Society’s Journal. His forensic analysis demolishes the basis of league-table results. The “contextual value-added” tables, which adjust results for students’ ability, free school meals and non-English speakers don’t work. Add in the change in school results over the six years between a parent choosing a school and a child taking GCSEs, and the tables reveal no difference between almost all schools. This is dense and counterintuitive stuff, but he concludes, “the inherent imprecision of all estimates” means parents are relying on information “not fit for that purpose”.

Toynbee adds, Will Brown, Ed Balls or the Conservatives, take a blind bit of notice? Of course not. [After further examples] … We need a louder cadre of public intellectuals who understand the nature of politics, yet command the authority to challenge politicians.


16 October 2009 The day that an 'intrepid prof took on the primary code'

This was the headline for the TES editorial, written by Michael Shaw, which starts with these words:

    Dan Brown’s position at the top of the international bestseller lists is, sadly, unlikely to be settled by a new book published today. Like Brown’s latest work, The Lost Symbol, this book is around 520 pages long and concerns a globe-trotting professor who seeks to solve an enduring mystery with help from a series of uncannily well-informed assistants, while dodging attacks from powerful figures.

    The key difference is that the mystery Professor Robin Alexander attempts to solve is infinitely more important than some occult hokum: it is how England’s primary schools can best meet the needs of today’s children. In the process he has edited one of the boldest and staggeringly ambitious books about education in 40 years. And, unlike Dan Brown, Professor Alexander and his team can write.

Too much too young: start [formal] school at six says key report

This was the front page banner headline in The Guardian on publication day – 16 October. It would have saved a lot of misunderstanding if the word I've put in brackets had been included. This is how Polly Curtis’s report began.

Schoolchildren should not start formal lessons until they turn six, and Sats should be scrapped to relieve the damaging pressure England's young pupils face, the biggest inquiry into primary education for 40 years concludes today.

In a damning indictment of Labour's education record since 1997, the Cambridge University-led review accuses the government of introducing an educational diet "even narrower than that of the Victorian elementary schools".

It claims that successive Labour ministers have intervened in England's classrooms on an unprecedented scale, controlling every detail of how teachers teach in a system that has "Stalinist overtones". It says they have exaggerated progress, narrowed the curriculum by squeezing out space for history, music and arts, and left children stressed-out by the testing and league table system.

The review is the biggest independent inquiry into primary education in four decades, based on 28 research surveys, 1,052 written submissions and 250 focus groups. It was undertaken by 14 authors, 66 research consultants and a 20-strong advisory committee at Cambridge University, led by Professor Robin Alexander, one of the most experienced educational academics in the country.

Last night the review's conclusions were backed by every education union in England, but rejected by ministers, who were immediately accused of rejecting independent rigorous research.

Key recommendations of the report

Helen Ward in the TES sets out the key recommendations: • End the “state theory of learning”. The Government should not tell teachers how to teach

• Extend the foundation stage to age six. Have a single primary key stage.

• Prioritise narrowing the gap between vulnerable children and the rest.

• Undertake a review of special educational needs.

• Follow Professor Alexander’s curriculum recommendations, including the creation of 12 aims and eight domains.

• Reform assessment; stop current Sats; scrap league tables; assess all areas of the curriculum and use sampling to monitor national standards.

• Undertake a review of primary school staffing: primaries need more teachers and more specialist teachers in addition to generalist class teachers.

• Reform initial teacher training: train teachers to be educators not deliverers of ready-made lessons – consider a two-year PGCE to help achieve this.

• Protect rural and middle schools.

• End primary/secondary funding differential.

Reactions of minister and shadow minister

The Guardian gave the immediate response of the Government.

Vernon Coaker, schools minister, said the government was already reforming the curriculum and testing, and accused Alexander’s report of suggesting a “woolly” accountability system. It’s disappointing that a review which purports to be so comprehensive is simply not up to speed on many changes in primaries. The world has moved on since this review was started. If every child making progress and reaching their potential is what matters, then Professor Alexander’s proposals are a backward step.

The Conservative shadow schools minister, Nick Gibb, while agreeing about bureaucracy and for the need to trust teachers more, added, However we do not agree with all its proposals for changing the curriculum, or that politicians should end school for four to six year olds.

No way has Coaker read my report

The TES reported next week (23 October) that within hours of publication, schools minister Vernon Coaker had described proposals in the 586-page final report as a “backward” step and said that the world had “moved on” since the review was started. Professor Alexander replied: There is absolutely no way he could have read it. The Secretary of State received his copy the previous day. It is also apparent because of the number of errors in what he said about it.

Alexander added that this dismissive Government reaction was indicative of a cultural change that sees ministers and their officials responding to media reports of research instead of the research itself. By contrast to the ministers Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons schools select committee, said So much of this report is a treasure trove for the future … It means re-energising ourselves to deliver this research into change.

Time to depoliticize education

As the report itself says in the last of its 153 concluding statements:

The politicisation of primary education has gone too far. Discussion has been blocked by derision, truth has been supplanted by myth and spin, and alternatives to current arrangements have been reduced to crude dichotomy. It is time to advance to a discourse which exemplifies rather than negates what education should be about.


What are exams for?

Gerard Kelly, editor of TES, had a strident editorial on 21 August which argues that the only question worth asking is whether exams are fit for purpose. He says that the Conservatives are on a mission to inject”rigour” into an exam system that they believe has been “dumbed down”. … They think GCSEs and A-level are too easy. He goes on It is impossible to say conclusively that standards have declined over time. Changing context – even in the sciences – renders comparison nigh on impossible. It is a fool’s errand and a peculiarly British one.

Kelly notes that no other country in Europe tests young people at 16 in the way that our GCSE does and he argues that our examinations at this level are unnecessary since today for most pupils education ends at 18. He adds that to spend huge sums of money on a pointless exam which has an 15 per cent margin of error in its gradings is shameful.

Why not replace Diplomas with something like the French Bacc?

On 11 September Kelly speaks out again about Tory plans to abolish the present government’s diplomas. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the UK can turn out limitless numbers of students skilled in the nuances of a dead Regency novelist but not a would-be electrician with the respect or training she deserves. No one since Prince Albert has taken vocational education seriously. Few of the initiatives since his day have got off the ground. Fewer still were as ill-starred as Diplomas. .. The result [of government pusillanimity] was a half-Tomlinson – an embarrassed compromise which recognised that although the vocational question was pressing, it wasn’t as urgent as the need not to disturb the voting middle classes.

Kelly agrees with the Tories that the diploma should go, but argues strongly that something valuable must replace it. He says: A comprehensive education needs a comprehensive qualification. The English should learn from the French, who have successfully re-tooled the Bacc with a suite of vocational options without trashing a venerable academic brand. He notes that the French Bacc caters for 70 per cent of pupils while our A-level only serves 46 per cent.


On 11 September William Stewart of the TES noted that school report cards, as proposed by the present Government on the model of New York’s system, have run into deep trouble in New York itself. Last week, 97 per cent of New York’s elementary and middle schools gained either an A or a B grade on their report cards. The results render the grades virtually useless for their main purpose of helping parents to rate and choose between different schools. The Department for Children, Schools and Families plans to introduce these single-grade report cards in England from 2011.


In the second week of September Ed Balls opened the 200th academy and announced that the £2 million fee for companies and charities to sponsor them was being abolished – it has already been abolished for universities and further education colleges wishing to sponsor an academy.


The 50-plus hours profession

Almost all teachers are still working more than 50 hours a week despite massive investment designed to cut workload. This was the finding of a Government-sponsored research into the working patterns of 1572 randomly selected teachers in primary, secondary and special schools in England and Wales. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers said, Until the high-stakes nature of league tables is removed and teachers are trusted then working hours are very unlikely to reduce. Excessive planning and reporting to parents is a waste of time. TES 18 September

More evidence, fewer policies, less meddling

In the TES of 18 September, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writes: We can’t keep education out of politics, but we can appeal for politics to be more rational in the way it discusses education.

Schools struggle to fill headships

About 3,000 schools advertised for a headteacher in the past year. Vacancies were reported unfilled after an advertisement this year in 19 per cent of secondaries, 26 per cent of primaries and 27 per cent of special schools. The TES reported this finding of research (for the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Association of Headteachers) with the comment that there is a chronic shortage of talent willing to take on the top job and Government policies still exacerbate the succession crisis. (25 September)


Politeia says England’s teachers are under-qualified

On 31 July Richard Vaughan in the TES reported on Politeia’s document Teachers Matter. While the extensive data was compiled by Prof John Howson, the comments were made by Chris Woodhead, Prof David Burghes, Dr John Marebon and John O’Leary. The commentary compares the recruitment and academic standards of teachers in England with their counterparts in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand and the United States, saying that English teachers are the least educated and more leave the profession early in their career than in the other countries studied: findings showed a profession in “crisis” and that England was lagging behind in the Western world, particularly continental Europe.

In the same week, the Training and Development Agency for Schools revealed statistics showing that only 57 per cent of undergraduate trainee primary school teachers have any A-levels.

Commenting on this report the Editor of the TES, Gerard Kelly, wrote the BEd has outlived its usefulness and should be retired.

Centre for Policy Studies argues for more autonomy and fewer quangos

Richard Vaughan, in the TES on 14 August describes the Centre for Policy Studies view that Schools should be given the power to set their own pay scales, train their own teachers and teach their own curriculum. This is their list of quangos for abolition: QCA, TDA, NCSL, Becta, 11 Million, Teachers’ TV, School Teachers’ Review Body. The report says that this would save £633 million. Enhanced school freedoms would include the abolition of Ofsted inspections – except for schools deemed to be failing, or where the parents call for an inspection. The Department for Children, Schools and Families should be transformed into the Department of Education.

A DCSF spokesman said: This report is based on fag-packet maths and the recommendations are a complete false economy as they shift workload on to schools.


Single-level tests to continue despite ‘technical issues’

At the end of July the TES reported that the SLTs (single level tests), which are intended to show whether a child has reached a particular level in national curriculum assessment and have been piloted in 370 school, have faced what some critics call “substantial and fundamental problems”. The Liberal Democrats said that they should be scrapped, “instead we need more teacher assessment with external checking to ensure that high standards are maintained.”

English Sats results of 11-year-olds at level 4 show drop

In early August the Department for Children, Schools and Families published national results showing that SATs results in English for 11-year-olds have dipped – the first time since these tests were introduced. The percentage of children reaching level 4 dropped from 81% last year to 80% this year. Mathematics remained the same at 79% and science likewise at 88%. In terms of reading, writing and maths combined, 61% reached level 4 – compared to 62% last year.

The Guardian reported on 5 August that teaching unions renewed their calls for external tests to be scrapped and replaced by teacher-testing. Teachers have long complained it encourages “teaching to the test”, distorts lessons for months before exams, and causes too much stress for children, parents and teachers. The view of parents appears more mixed. A survey by the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations earlier this year suggested that there was no clear opinion on a boycott of the Sats for 11-year-olds, then proposed by teacher unions.

On 28 August the TES cited an official report that shows that, despite being called "single-level tests" the questions are actually set at two national curriculum levels. Curiously a pupil can be recorded as achieving say level four even though most of the marks were gained at the level below. Next year the results of thousands of pupils taking the experimental tests will be included in performance tables, which has led Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, to say If schools are unhappy about the pilot, they should pull out.

10,000 call for axing of KS2 Sats

A petition for the scrapping of key stage 2 tests has been signed by more than 10,000 people. It was launched by the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers. TES 18 September.

Scrap Sats to give Rose review a chance, say heads

A survey by the TES and the National Association of Headteachers of 60 primary heads and deputies found that while 70 per cent agreed with the proposals of the Rose Review, many thought they would be wasted if the key stage 2 Sats remain in place. TES 25 September.

Heads’ fury at ‘injustice’ of rejected KS2 appeals

This was the front-page headline of the TES on 2 October when Helen Ward reported that primary headteachers have received an unprecedented number of rejections in response to appeals over what they consider to be “unfair” marks given on KS2 tests by the external markers. These appeals are made, with official sanction, when a headteacher considers that a child has been given the wrong level.

On 16 October Helen Ward had a further item on this:

The row over refused Sats appeals is spilling into meetings carried out this term to set targets for 2011. Many headteachers now believe that school improvement partners should ignore their Sats results as they cannot be trusted, and instead turn to teacher assessments. … Many schools have ahd almost no changes made to papers, despite huge shortfalls against their usual scores and a wide difference between reading and writing outcomes.

Archbishop on "oppressive" English educational system

There was a short report by Polly Curtis in The Guardian on 22 October.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has criticised the “oppressive” English educational system, accusing successive governments of prioritising test marks over children’s spiritual or emotional happiness. Williams said in a speech at Lambeth Palace that teachers had been undermined and very young children over-tested in governments’ pursuit of making schools accountable. “We have in the past few decades created an extraordinaryly anxious and in many ways oppressive climate in education at every level in the search for proper accountability”, Williams said.

Balls’ assessments plan could see Sats axed by 2012

Polly Curtis in The Guardian reported on 20 November that the secretary of state plans to beef up a system of teacher assessments as an alternative to the English and maths tests in England. If the process proves popular with parents and provides a rigorous check on schools, Balls suggested Sats could go within three years. … [But added] I’m not closing the door. I’ve said the current system is not set in stone. But I’m not going to do anything that compromises the provision of objective information for parents about schools.

But it then became apparent that teacher assessments will be used to construct league tables – to the horror of the general secretaries of the National Association of Headteachers and the National Union of Teachers (which bodies both reject Sats and league tables) and of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (which supports Sats but rejects league tables).


Helen Ward of the TES reported on 28 August that the KS1 cohort of 2009, which is the first national year group to be exposed to compulsory use of daily 20-minute phonics sessions for the two years of KS1, has achieved results showing no significant improvement in reading. This year 84 per cent of pupils reached level 2 - which is the same proportion as last year. In writing there is an increase from 80 per cent to 81 per cent.

Prof Colin Richards of the University of Cumbria said, At the very least, these results cast severe doubt on the claims of the synthetic phonics lobby that their favoured methods would drastically improve early reading. There's clearly far more to early reading than a heavy dose of synthetic phonics, as so many early-years teachers realise.

The Conservatives included this technque in their last general election manifesto!


Helen Ward, in the TES on 11 September suggests Instead of bemoaning yet more disappointing early-years results, it may be time to rethink the foundation stage goals. And are children being assessed at the wrong time? A big debate is re-opening so it may be useful to be aware of what is required of early-years teachers – as Helen Ward’s article sets out.

    Teachers assess children on 13 different nine-point scales, where points 1 to 3 are below expectations, point 6 is good, and point 9 is exceptional. There are three scales that measure personal, social and emotional development, four that measure communication, language and literacy and three within problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy, with one each for knowledge and understanding of the world, physical development and creative development. Last year the biggest gender gap as in point 6 on the writing scale: achieved by 74 per cent of girls and 54 per cent of boys.


Heads hit out at ‘brutal’ new Ofsted regime

This is the heading in the TES on 16 October of a news report by Kerra Maddern. The new Ofsted framework downgrades schools compared to previous ratings if the raw results of pupil attainment levels are considered to be low. In total, 18 out of 25 separate Ofsted categories of inspection are now dependent on pupil attainment. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the TES:

The emphasis on raw results has made the task much more difficult for schools serving challenging communities. Everyone recognises those schools are the way to improve the life chances of young people, but Ofsted needs to understand that their task is different and it needs to be fair.

Ofsted under attack: 23 November

Guardian columnist Polly Curtis on 23 November reported that Ofsted was being mauled as critics bite back on ‘wasteful’ bureaucracy. These are extracts from her report

    Ofsted is facing a crisis in public confidence as it comes under a series of attacks on its authority this week, with the watchdog accused of being "flawed, wasteful and failing”.

    The children's services inspectorate will be criticised today by service heads in every local authority in the country, headteachers' leaders and in a damning forthcoming report by MPs on the government's school accountability system. Its new inspection regime is accused of forcing social work departments to focus on passing inspections instead of looking after children, giving good schools mediocre ratings on routine technical matters – such as fences not being high enough – and more claims that sub-contracted inspectors are not fit for the job.

    Pressure further intensifies on the watchdog as a former chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Mike Tomlinson, today suggests it is struggling after a major expansion two years ago to include responsibility for inspecting children's services as well as schools and childcare. Today he raises new questions about Ofsted's ability to fulfil its role. “The question needs to be asked and answered as to whether Ofsted has the appropriate skills and experience to carry out its agenda. Inspection systems that rely too heavily on data and tick-box systems is not what we need. I worry we are heading that way."

    Schools have expressed concerns about the new school inspection regime under which they cannot be rated good if their exam results are low – regardless of their social context. They can also be marked down on routine matters of safety.

    A report from a powerful committee of MPs, to be published shortly, also criticises Ofsted for having insufficiently trained inspectors and for relying too much on exam data in their inspection of schools. Barry Sheerman, chair of the children, schools and families select committee, said schools in challenging areas felt "aggrieved" that even when they were doing well against the odds, they could be failed for low GCSE results.

    A spokesman for Ofsted said: "We are disappointed to hear the ADCS criticisms but have to say that their views just don't accord with what we are being told by directors and frontline social workers who have actually experienced our children's services inspections. The feedback we are getting is much more positive."

The Guardian website received 97 comments on this report, of which 90 were critical of Ofsted, 4 removed by the site administrator (perhaps for obscenities directed at Ofsted), and 3 supported it. It would be an hour well spent for our politicians to read them.

Ofsted under further attack: 24 and 25 November

Next day in The Guardian Polly Curtis reported that the Local Government Association accuses Ofsted of being too concerned about its own reputation and being so punitive in inspections of child protection services that it has prompted a significant rise of children being taken into care – an increase of 9% in the last year. The LGA claims these increases are putting the systems that protect children under extra pressure and making it harder to identify the children at the greatest risk of harm.

The same Guardian report also notes that Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, wrote to the chief inspector last week claiming that Ofsted is engendering an atmosphere of fear in schools. She said schools were being graded so harshly on relatively minor details there was now a risk of a large increase in the number of failing schools. It would appear that the new inspection arrangements are not only proving extremely unpopular with and unfair to schools, but they are also in danger of giving the general public the erroneous impression that school standards are in serious decline.

And the attacks continued on the following day (25 November) with four letters in The Guardian under the banner heading, Time to exclude Ofsted from schools. This was my letter (MB) – signed as an emeritus professor of Education:

    Ofsted is a creature of New Labour's obsession with raising standards by central micromanagement enforced by ruthless inspection: it fails to accept that social deprivation can mean that, however hard-working and committed the teachers and social workers are, the "expected" standards cannot be reached overnight. Ofsted provides an ineffective form of accountability. Its £70m could be better spent.

    Eight objections to Ofsted are set out at These show how it acts as a ruthless enforcer of inept government policies with a narrow vision which totally fails to take account of local circumstances, that it is fear-inducing in a way alien to most teachers and social workers, that it undermines their professional status, fails to provide support to those needing it, and there is a dearth of firm evidence that it has succeeded in raising educational standards.

    A spokesman says that current criticisms are not in accord with what frontline workers are telling them. Who tells a dragon that its breath is too hot?

Ofsted fights back, supported by Daily Mail: 26 November

On the 26 November The Independent said that “Defiant Ofsted rejects mounting criticism of its performance”. Richard Garner reported Christine Gilbert, Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills’ as saying:There can be no hiding place for poor practice. Weak regulation serves no one’s real interest, not even vested interests. [That seems to be what the Ofsted critics are saying!] In the Ofsted annual report, published that day, it is stated that children were receiving a substandard education in a third of schools because of a “stubborn core” of poor teachers. … Too much teaching is just satisfactory and fails to inspire.

This led The Daily Mail to give its front page on 25 November the banner headline A LESSON IN INCOMPETENCE followed by More than two million children are being taught in schools that are mediocre or failing and many pupils were being failed by teaching that is dull and confused and leads to disruption and absenteeism. The editorial comment uses this to attack Labour’s shameful end-of-term report and notes that a fifth of schools once rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ are now merely ‘satisfactory’ or even ‘inadequate’. [It doesn’t mention that Ofsted has moved the goalposts so that higher ratings are more difficult to achieve].


Conservative party policies

On 8 October The Guardian carried a brief account of what Michael Gove, Conservative shadow schools’ secretary, had said at the party conference:

The shadow schools secretary set out a plan at the party conference to sideline local authorities, scrap the curriculum agency, sack the worst headteachers and return to traditional values in the classroom, with former soldiers imposing discipline and pupils expected to wear ties.

Steve Bell had a cartoon of teachers in a war zone, wearing steel mortarboards and feeding striped ties into a machine gun , one of them saying to an intercom ‘More ties. We’re running out of ties.’

In a letter to The Guardian on 12 October 26 headteachers give Michael Gove, ‘zero marks’ for his claim that a culture of ‘defeatism and political correctness’ has dumbed down education in England.

He spoke to the Conservative party conference of overhauling state schools, sacking headteachers of badly performing schools, closing failing schools and allowing every school to become an academy. He gave a damning analysis of state schools, which he said had suffered a a comprehensive decline in exam standards and failed to tackle behaviour in class. He seemed to be rehashing old Tory arguments when he promised to challenge the ‘educational establishment’ that had perpetuated the problems, which included the exams agency, government advisers and elements within teaching unions, training colleges and academia.

The heads’ letter says: We would like to challenge the image of the state education sector portrayed in that speech. ‘Faddy ideologies’ have been resisted by schools. Recent years have seen a strong focus on raising the quality of teaching and learning, increasing the number of young people who achieve well, improving their behaviour and broadening their opportunities and life chances.

Cambridge Primary Review critical of government policies

Scroll upwards to see an account of this Review and the call for politics to be taken out of education

For press reports earlier in 2009 click here


This page last amended on 21 April 2010