INSTED not Ofsted…

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A new campaign for a better nursery and schooling system is needed, argue Richard Brinton and Richard House

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Richard Brinton and Richard House

Ofsted is coming under increasing criticism, and our open letter to Amanda Spielman (https://tinyurl.com/y3x8f5k6), co-signed by more than 50 notable signatories including Rowan Williams and Sir Tim Brighouse, is the tip of the iceberg.

Ofsted’s ‘audit culture’ and high-stakes accountability regime have long been devastating authentic professionalism within education; but the impact on children in early years education of such linear instrumental thinking is especially harmful. Ofsted’s punitive regime forces schools and teachers into complying with a test-readiness preoccupation, rather than focusing on what really matters: children’s well-being, the experience of unintruded-upon free play, and joy and inspiration for learning. And as Donald Winnicott showed many years ago, the first casualty of compliance is creativity.

Ofsted’s effrontery in criticising schools for doing precisely what educators have been forced to do – after decades of compliance-inculcating micro-management and regimentation, a narrow exam focus and grade-focused inspections – is breathtaking. Ofsted’s immersion in the league-tables ideology takes no account of the unique challenges schools in particular areas face, or of the uniqueness of every living institution. In Ofsted’s bean-counter world, politically correct standardisation is all that counts – and, worse still, all that counts is what can be counted (with apologies to Albert Einstein).

We’ve been mesmerised by an imagination-hostile Gradgrind mentality that puts abstract quantity measures before quality, with Ofsted’s pseudo-scientific, highly questionable assumption that measurable data-points have an important relationship to educational progress and prospects. Evidence suggests they bear no consistent relationship to either – as Professor Frank Coffield outlines in Radical Ideas to Transform Ofsted (https://tinyurl.com/yyk7lqmo).

Children at ever-younger ages are stressed by schooling and alienated from learning, with mental health issues increasing alarmingly. Our over-tested children are suffering, yet the Government just doesn’t connect the dots. The old paradigm erroneously assumes that if things are firmly enough controlled and exhaustively measured, with metrics accurately monitoring input and output, this will generate prosperity.

The mantra ‘education is for the economy’ still dominates; yet we’ve merely transformed Dickensian child workhouses into modern exam factories, with the same thinking still operating. As psychologist Abe Maslow aptly put it, ‘When your only tool is a hammer, the world becomes a nail.’ What an apt epitaph for Ofsted’s gravestone!

Mental well-being requires a comprehensive, holistic approach – an approach Government shows no signs of taking. They have recently latched on to prescient issues such as the overuse of media, smartphones, etc., yet are promoting IT and screen use in nurseries!

Testing times

Government and its faithful deliverer Ofsted push ever more exams (baseline, times-table tests, stricter SATs, GCSEs, A-levels); yet when former mental-health ‘tsar’ Natasha Devon discovered exam pressures, with the corresponding fear of failure, were a major component in generating mental-health issues, she was duly sacked. Any causal link between these observations and her dismissal was denied, but Devon’s subsequent FoI requests for internal communications revealed otherwise.

All psychologists know control-orientated, punishment–reward systems have often severe negative consequences. Given the mass of countervailing arguments against the Ofsted approach, the punitive regime is continued out of fear of change, and for wanting to hold on to centralised, power-based models of ‘disciplinary’ accountability.

Graham Donaldson’s review of Estyn (the Welsh inspectorate) says it all (https://tinyurl.com/y6r7jejt): ‘High-stakes accountability systems can lead to significant, negative unintended consequences… like the stress that these systems inevitably place on schools and their pupils, [and] schools seek[ing] to disguise weaknesses and present themselves in as good a light as possible… it can inculcate a culture of fear, inhibiting creativity and genuine professional analysis and discussion.’

All of this is happening before our eyes, yet politicians and Ofsted are in abject denial about it. And schools and teachers understandably fear the consequences if they were to put their heads above the parapet.

Mere tinkering with the current failed paradigm doesn’t go nearly far enough. An Ofsted PR campaign is pushing the positives of its new ‘Framework’, yet the only positive is that the curriculum focus will widen beyond STEM subject results. The same control- and punishment-orientated, top-down thinking will remain untouched. All-knowing Ofsted will have the answers, not the teaching profession – which Ofsted has done so much to discredit and demoralise, going right back to Chris Woodhead and his crusade to ‘weed out’ 15,000 allegedly ‘incompetent’ teachers.

The old ‘control and discipline’ paradigm always was inappropriate in pre-school settings (‘Office for Standards in Education’ in nurseries?), and it is now outdated and harmful. The education world must find the courage to push for a constructive, collaborative approach to accountability – one that respects teachers’ professionalism and places children’s well-being at its heart.

Our new campaign to fundamentally reform or replace Ofsted will be continuing in the autumn, with our launching of INSTED – or ‘Inspiring New Standards in Education’. This campaign will enable all erstwhile silent, cowed voices to be heard, generating a momentum for change that will be impossible for the political class to resist. Everyone – teachers, parents, pupils, citizens – needs to raise our collective voice and demand change.

We know there’s a better way for creating an excellent nursery and schooling system that nourishes rather than mercilessly bludgeons our children and teachers. The old paradigm is threadbare: together, we can, must and will create a new one.

Richard Brinton

is a former teacher and principal, a co-founder of the Open EYE campaign (2007–11), and is now a writer and campaigner on issues around education. richardbrinton@aol.com

Richard House

Ph.D. is a former senior university lecturer in early childhood, co-founder of the Open EYE campaign (2007–11), and a chartered psychologist. richardahouse@hotmail.com

Both live in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

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