No-notice Ofsted inspections will be introduced. They have finally come to pass, ironically brought about not by an insistence on academic standards but by panic induced by fear of extremism. Why is no-notice so threatening for schools? Isn’t it arguably easier, less traumatic, than letting worry build for 12, 24 or 48 hours?
Logically, it should be, but the idea’s supporters (including the chief inspector and now the secretary of state) would be disingenuous to make any such claim. Indeed, it would be wilfully false to deny that schools nowadays live under a cloud of anticipatory inspectoral terror.
The stakes are enormously high, the cost of failure colossal. Pressure on heads is immense: as a result we continue to face a supply crisis for leadership positions in many parts of the country. Teachers, harried and buffeted by the inspection process and its consequences, succumb to stress and illness.
Inspections are frequently hostile. There are too many instances of inspectors refusing to take account of last year’s (2013) exam results, even if they demonstrated significant improvement. If figures weren’t already on RAISEonline, the Department for Education’s performance database, inspectors refused to take them into account, revealing an agenda that in some areas sets out to fail schools.
I’m not becoming melodramatic: this is happening.
Messrs Gove and Wilshaw repeat their mantra: children shouldn’t receive second-best; every school should be excellent. We all sign up to that goal: but the route to achieving should not lie in bullying the workforce.
Sir Michael Wilshaw has long advocated no-notice inspections: his reason was to catch “coasting” schools at their real and complacent worst rather than spruced up for an anticipated inspection. It’s a persuasive argument, but only if you believe that the way to get results is to kick people into line.
The rationale behind no-notice inspections raises other questions. The idea is, of course, that schools are given no time to cover up ... well, what? What precisely are they allegedly trying to hide? I’m not a fan of mono-cultural or mono-religious schools: and I’m emphatically against religious indoctrination. But at present it isn’t proven that all (or any?) of Birmingham’s “Trojan horse” schools were indoctrinating children into extremism, nor disadvantaging girls.
Do we really want the modern equivalent of the Inquisition (not the comical Monty Python “No-one expects...” style, either) kicking the door down and checking for un-British values? Besides, how do we define our values? The prime minister went public very quickly with his definition: but there’s nothing uniquely British about the qualities he listed. Any civilised country would want to boast of its tolerance, diversity and democracy.
Who decides on that definition, before they enforce it by sending in the inquisition (sorry, the inspectorate)? This week we might achieve consensus with relative ease. But what if we had a UKIP government? I doubt I would share its views of what constitutes Britishness.
It’s not such a big step from our current relaxed liberality to enforcement of what someone with too much power and too little accountability might prescribe. I can’t help picturing alleged national values enforced in Nazi Germany, or such communist dictatorships as North Korea.
Nor is it an unimaginable step at all from a proposal to define values and impose them in the school curriculum – however that might be achieved – to the kind of regime where a less tolerant, less flexible Britishness is articulated and where that unexpected knock on the school door, too readily welcomed in the tabloid press, is extended to the homes of those who embrace diversity, oppose homophobia, or simply believe in the things that the government of the day doesn’t. Look at the history of the 20th century for lessons on that theme.
The PM is right on one aspect of this. Schools should promote tolerance. And tolerance is about living and letting live: not about telling other people how they should live their lives.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a SecEd editorial board advisor and headteacher of the independent Newcastle-upon-Tyne Royal Grammar School.