The policy calls for the abolition of Ofsted, which has become unduly dictatorial, oppressive and rigid in its views, while also being subject to political meddling.
It calls for its replacement with continuous collaborative assessment and for national council educational excellence working closely with local authorities. To further encourage local accountability and reaction to local needs, the policy calls for education authorities to encourage schools to set up parent councils or forums, providing a mechanism for direct local input, and also for representatives of older students to be able to attend governing body meetings and have input into their decisions.
This all reflects the fact that a general revolt against Ofsted is growing, with schools around the country (and their communities) saying that its processes are not fair or reasonable, its criteria arbitrary, and its inspections incredibly stressful and destructive.
From Hogarth Primary in London, to a range of Stoke-on-Trent schools; from Oldfield School in Bath to Sandy Lane Primary in Reading, and many more, there’s grave dissatisfaction at Ofsted’s behaviour and a failure of transparency and apparent fairness in its decisions.
Schools that serve disadvantaged communities, and community schools that the government wants to convert to free status, often despite the wishes of parents, seem particularly vulnerable to negative Ofsted inspections, despite the views of parents and their communities.
That’s in part a function of the increasing pressure on all schools to produce test results at the expense of any broader quality of education, and to follow narrowly prescriptive recipes for teaching, of which perhaps the worst example is the phonics test.
The ideological attachment of our current education secretary to this single method, based on an extraordinarily narrow evidence base, is possibly the worst single example of ‘goveism’ – the attempts to decide the nature and content of what our children are taught according to the whims, prejudices and preferences of a single man.
It’s telling that when I talk to sixth formers and university students around the country, one comment that invariably gets enthusiastic support is my call for pupils to no longer be treated like the material in a sausage machine, shoved through a series of gauges to force them into a uniform shape and size, with ‘failure’ penalised by them being thrown aside into the ‘waste’ bin. That’s why we’re calling for an end to the current testing regime and rigid age-related benchmarking.
Our new policy also highlights the way in which free schools, like academies, lack local democratic accountability and oversight, and calls for them to be incorporated back into the state system, with oversight from local authorities.
That reflects growing signs of collapse in the free and academies school systems, with disasters ranging from the E-Act education charity, which is to have nearly a third of its 34 schools taken off it, to the frankly incredible disaster of the Al-Madinah school in Derby.
There are huge numbers of empty places in free schools, and the lack of planning for future pupil numbers is having disruptive impacts around the country. The government certainly won’t admit it, but this is an utterly failed policy. It was always clear that the free school programme was an attempt to open the way for private companies to make profits from teaching our students – threatening the same kind of destruction and chaos that companies like G4S, A4E and Atos have brought to so many other public services. But there’s increasing hope now that the whole system will fall apart before getting to that point – which is great for the long-term future of our school system, but dreadful for the many thousands of pupils and parents caught up in this Govian mess.
There is an even broader problem with the nature of our education system that needs to be tackled. We’re increasingly being told that its purpose is narrowly instrumental – to prepare pupils for jobs – despite the fact that many of the states we’re now trying to copy – from Singapore to China – have released the limitations and problems of that approach and are frantically seeking to improve their students’ creativity and general skills development.
Training pupils for jobs that often don’t exist now, or may well not exist in the future, is an obvious, enormous waste. We’re in a fast-moving world, and young people need to develop their ability and desire to learn throughout their life, to have flexible skills, whether intellectual or hands-on, to deal with what is going to be a rapidly changing economy and society. To prepare pupils for the narrow conditions of our failed economic model is a massive error that betrays our young people.
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