April 01, 2004
The inspectors call

In the latest issue of Prospect, Philip Collins writes about the public sector generally, and Ofsted inspections in particular:

The better regulation task force recently asked government to tell it how many regulators now existed because it was struggling to count them. No doubt there could be fewer of them. And, of course, the inspectorate has never been exactly popular with professionals. David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, has recently responded to criticism by saying that Ofsted needs to become more rigorous in its methods, to drop in at shorter notice and leave well-performing schools alone. Inspection in the future will be less burdensome, less intent on naming and shaming and more directly concentrated on dispersing good ideas. This change of focus is possible partly because Ofsted's initial work, attacking entrenched failure, has been a success. Its alarming report on reading standards in London was the catalyst for the national literacy strategy in 1998. Ninety per cent of schools now show satisfactory improvement between their first and second inspection. The proportion of 16 year olds who obtained no GCSEs above grade D has fallen every year since 1994, when inspections were introduced. For all the anguish that Ofsted inspections create, most teachers would prefer to reform the system rather than abolish it. And the information provided is indispensable for parents. Britain probably now has the most transparent schools system in the world. As David Bell said recently: "It is easy to forget what the education system was like without the publication of examination and test results."

Well, that's one way of looking at the public sector. I am of course a public sector pessimist, but Collins writes throughout his piece as if the right (instead of wrong) new procedures, the right (instead of wrong) new reforms, the right (instead of wrong) new initiatives, will finally make it all work well. At one point, for example, he even lists some massive spending increases as prima facie evidence of improvement, when for those of us who oppose the whole idea of a large and active public sector the ever increasing cost of the thing as all part of what a catastrophe it is.

Collins is a sort of friend, in the sense that he is a very good friend of a very good friend, and I therefore wish I could say that I liked his article more than I did.

I take friends, and therefore friends of friends, seriously, not just for their own sake, but as sources of information. I pick up some of my best postings at social gatherings, when trusted individual friends report to me on individual experiences which I can pretty much guarantee are true, and one of the more vivid such recollections I gathered recently was from my friend John Washington. He works at what it is most definitely a good school, by practically any way you care to measure these things. Certainly the parents involved think it's good, or they wouldn't be paying the quite large fees. Yet Ofsted insists on an elaborate inspection of this place every few years.

When I last spoke to John, they had just been having such an inspection. He and all his colleagues had been filling in lots of forms about their pre-prepared written "lesson plans", even though this not a procedure which John actually follows; he just turns up and teaches.

A few things I recall in particular from what John said. One, his guestimate of what all this was costing was "around £40,000 I suppose". Two, the school had to pay this. Three, the amount of paperwork involved filled, if I recall John's hand gestures accurately, about half a room.

Who the hell is going to read this report? And what possible purpose does it serve? It seems to me that inspections like this embody the same error that Philip Collins himself makes in his Prospect article, namely the belief that if enough things are done, and (in this case) if enough "information" is gathered, eventually the gatherers will chance upon the perfect system (in this case of state education). Actually, the endless and ever more expensive search by bureaucrats for systemic perfection is one of the major problems of the system, and will go on being for as long as the search persists.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:04 PM
Category: Politics