Inspectors and ministers: Back off!


An obsession with controlling everything is the sign of a failing state. Marion Gibbs calls on inspectors and government to back off!

I wonder what 2015 will bring for you and your students. Certainly, with the election due in May, we can expect plenty of political pronouncements and promises. So, what would I wish for this year?

Education itself should become more important than examinations – we should stop trying to measure everything. Is a student who has eight A* grade GCSEs including religious studies, but not history or geography, inherently less good than one who has geography?

We should stop making invidious comparisons between subjects and activities. Students are not all the same. If a student has a great talent in music, art or drama should we really be telling them that these subjects don’t matter or have no place in the curriculum?

Is it better to force a student to tackle mathematics and sciences in the 6th form and not enjoy them and fail, or to let them study subjects where they might succeed and flourish? We are desperately short of bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters, plumbers and nurses, for example, but we have made university degree courses the only valued progression route for our young people.

Indeed, nursing is now an all-graduate profession, and it has become increasingly difficult to find those who will clean and feed the sick and elderly and spend time with them. Only now are politicians and the media beginning to realise that if you send 50 per cent of the population to university, they won’t all be able to gain the highly paid specialist graduate jobs which were the norm for most when only 10 per cent gained degrees. Some of us realised that years ago.

Similarly, what is the point of burdening young people with student debt and tuition fees of many thousands of pounds? EU students rarely seem to repay their debt and many UK students will never earn enough to do so. The whole collection system costs a fortune to run. Let’s abolish university tuition fees – it would probably save the country money.

Inspections should focus on education and on students’ welfare. The vast disparity between the inspection regimes in independent schools inspected by ISI and those, both state and independent, inspected by Ofsted should be removed. 

ISI inspects rigorously to ensure that independent schools meet some 400 regulations. So, it is unsurprising that some very good schools fall foul of the minutiae of these 400 regulations and thus are given a “failure”. These “failures” are then used by the government and/or Ofsted to prove that independent schools are not doing a good job.

I would love to see a controlled experiment where a group of state schools were faced with an ISI inspection while a group of independent schools faced an Ofsted inspection. The proposed new system is for ISI to inspect even outstanding schools at least every two years in future, while in the state sector Ofsted does not currently re-inspect outstanding schools at all. No level playing field here!

It would also be great if the media and politicians stopped trying to stir up divisions between the state and independent sectors and just let us get on and work together for the good of our students and staff. We can all learn from one another and should be encouraged to do so.

Britain has one of the most over-regulated, over-examined and over-accountable education systems in the world, but this has not made us the best in the world – we are regularly outperformed in PISA and other such international comparisons. Since the time of the ancient Greeks and the decline of 5th century Athenian democracy, the mark of a failing state has been an obsession with tight control of the minutiae of people’s lives. So, the key to success should be trust. Please “back off” government and inspectors and let us concentrate on education and getting the best out of our students!

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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