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Category archive: OFSTED

Sunday June 22 2008

As already reported in this earlier posting, I have been reading Nick Cowen’s Civitas pamphlet entitled Swedish Lessons.  It consists of three chapters, the first being about Sweden’s education reforms, the second about Britain’s current educational problems, and the third proposes British solutions.  The chunk that follows is from chapter two, about what’s going wrong with British education.  Things aren’t that bad, says Cowen.  But they’re getting rather worse, and here (pp. 48-52) is one of the reasons:

GCSEs and A-levels, the current official indicators of what makes a good school and what defines a successful pupil, are bad measures of how well pupils are doing.  Yet the government treats exam results as a proxy for school productivity, with the Department for Schools, Children and Families, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) placing primary emphasis on good exam results representing success and achievement. Under this regime the actual skills and abilities of pupils come to be disregarded.

This problem becomes more acute when the interests of pupils come to be directly at odds with the interests of the school as judged by the exam and assessment system.  The continual drive to improve results creates a damaging incentive for schools to find qualifications that are likely to produce good results with the least amount of effort and talent.  General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) taken at the same time as and often in lieu of GCSEs offers perhaps the most widely used ‘loophole’ used to drive up standards on paper while not actually tackling students educational outcomes.  Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research found that thousands of students took courses in these ‘quasi-academic’ subjects, which include science, information and communication technology and business.  However, ‘entry to the more practically-sounding fields is miniscule.  Hospitality and catering, manufacturing, construction, retail and distributive trades, land and environment together account for only 1.2 per cent of the Intermediate GNVQ’. Indeed, over half of all the GNVQs taken are in the single subject, ICT.  Smithers has also noted that the influence these subjects have had on results is significant: ‘from 2001 the proportion achieving five good GCSEs themselves has plateaued at about 50 per cent and the increase [up to 2005] has been through intermediate GNVQs which count as four GCSEs’.  David Brown, a reitred head teacher, calculated that since GNVQs are valued so highly compared to GCSEs, studying the ICT GNVQ was 13 times as effective in boosting a school’s league table position as studying maths.

A-levels have suffered a similar commute to easier subjects that appear to offer improved results for schools.  From 1996 to 2007, the number of A-level entries has increased by nearly 100,000. However, this increase has not been reflected in traditional subjects.  In fact, many have declining numbers of entries: physics, French and German have all registered reductions of more than 4,000, 10,000 and 3,000 respectively.  By contrast, psychology has increased by 30,000; media & film studies by 16,000 and PE by nearly 12,000.

Officially, qualifications in all A-level subjects are worth exactly the same but, as Peter Tymms and Robert Coe of Durham University have demonstrated, some A-level subjects are less demanding than others: ‘It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others.’ Their research found that students with Bs in JSCSE history, economics, geography, English language and literature, sociology and business studies went on to attain C on average in the same subjects at A-level.  However, Coe and Tymms found that those with Bs in GCSE maths, computing, German, French, chemistry, physics and biology were more likely to get Ds at A-level.

The result is not just a case of students themselves choosing easier subjects.  There is evidence that some schools have been actively discouraging pupils from taking subjects that are deemed more challenging and are therefore less ‘safe’ for league table purposes.  An ICM survey commissioned by the Association of Colleges in 2006 showed that 55 per cent of students felt that teachers steer them towards courses in which their school does best, rather than what they needed.

It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term consequences of disregarding challenging subjects will be, but a number of experts have described their fears.  Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has argued that schools are discouraging students from taking maths A-level.  He noted: ‘This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation’s economy.’

David Hart, then general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argued that ‘soft’ subjects may be helping students get into higher education but that ‘in the long term I’m not sure it does very much for their career prospects’.  Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, has also argued that exams present a ‘crazy situation’ in which A-level students are opting for subjects which have ‘poor career prospects’.  In addition, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Education Assessors, has described how history, in particular, is becoming an endangered subject as more students opt for subjects such as media studies and photography.

The irony is that this focus on exam results and regulated assessment is meant to ensure high standards of teaching in all schools, but the flaws in the system have created incentives that act to undermine standards and to direct the efforts of both teachers and pupils in the wrong direction.  Of course, there are still very good teachers and some very good schools in the maintained sector, and there are many successful pupils.  However, the structures and incentives operating at the centre are working against those successful outcomes rather than for them.  It means, for example, that when a school begins to struggle, its first priority is not to concentrate on getting genuinely better outcomes for their pupils, but on creating better outcomes on paper, the ones that are acceptable to the central bureaucracy.

Hence, the very mechanism designed to assure some quality in every school has led, when implemented systematically, to a lower quality of education being generated in practice.

Thursday June 05 2008

A central plank of present education policy is that school excellence can be measured.  But this has always been a dubious assumption and it is becoming more so.

Many parents have always helped with their children’s education, some a great deal.  I know mine did, as did my older brothers and older sister.  So, if someone measured the excellence of what the various schools I went to were doing when I was there, they might have missed the contribution made to my education by my family.  And now, with the inexorable rise of all kinds of out-of-hours clubs and top-up arrangements - like Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday, the two Civitas enterprises where I help out - the process of measuring school excellence becomes even more complicated.

Suppose a regular school has a seriously bad maths teacher.  But suppose there is also a very fine Saturday maths school in the immediate vicinity, to which many of the pupils of the bad maths teacher go, to be rescued from utter maths confusion.  You can easily see how the incompetence of the regular teacher might be missed by the official testing regime.  He might not even realise himself what a crap teacher he really is.  Likewise his school might miss what was really going on.  After all, there are his kids, lots of them learning lots of maths, sailing through their exams.  Hurrah, he’s a great teacher.

The more supplementary privately-paid-for education there is, around the edges of the regular school timetable, the harder it will get for the schools or anybody else to work out how well they are really doing.

So, who should be deciding on school quality?  No prizes for guessing that I think it should be the parents.  At the end of last Tuesday night at Kings Cross Supplementary I had a quick chat with Small Boy’s Mother.  I asked: Am I teaching him anything?  I can’t tell. He is definitely learning things. But it could be you (Small Boy’s Mother is herself a teacher), or his regular school, and not me at all.  Oh yes, said Small Boy’s Mother, he is definitely learning things here.  It isn’t easy to get here, and I wouldn’t keep bringing him and keep paying if it wasn’t doing any good.

Small Boy’s Mother is my personal OFSTED inspector.  A better, less nerve-racking and more efficient version of the real thing, I think.

Tuesday June 03 2008

This evening at Kings Cross Supplementary, I greeted Mrs Maths.  How are you?  Did you have a good holiday?  I’m knackered, she said.  Ah yes, holidays will do that, I said.  No, no, she said, the holiday was delightfully relaxing.  It’s what’s just happened at her school, she said.  OFSTED rang up today, to say that there will be an inspection at the school tomorrow.

This makes sense to me, and rather cruelly I said so to Mrs Maths.  Clearly OFSTED will get a better idea of how the school regularly functions if they don’t give the school weeks of warning that they will be arriving.  And second, surely it’s nicer for the school not to be bent out of shape for weeks, just for a few frantic hours.  (Of course, it might be better if they weren’t bent out of shape at all, and OFSTED went paddling at the seaside.  But that’s a different argument.)

Monday March 31 2008

"Are schools being inspected to death?” I saw that title on the right, while reading this implausible piece, and thought, hm, another piece about too many inspections and not much improvement.  Worth a look.  I never expected it to be about an actual death:


The death of Irene Hogg was, in the normal run of things, a very local tragedy. The popular and apparently devoted head teacher of a small rural primary school was found dead in a remote area, in an apparent act of suicide. The shock resonated within the families of her 81 pupils; flowers were left at the school and her local authority chief spoke of losing one of his most experienced and valuable staff. “The word ‘love’ keeps coming though,” he said. “She was so highly regarded.”

More condolences here.

And there, frankly, the story would usually have ended. The passing of a 54-year-old unmarried woman - a dedicated professional who lived for her job and a round of golf at the weekend - could easily be put down at the door of secret sadness, hidden depression: the myriad private disappointments and inner conflicts that can overcome people at a certain point in their lives. Very sad, of course, but none of our business, and of no larger significance.

But the ripples from Irene Hogg’s death, which would ordinarily have stopped at the borders of her community, have spread. Because in the week preceding her death, two school inspectors came to visit for five days. The head had spent weeks beforehand in preparation, ensuring the school, which she had run for ten years, was at its best. It seems her best was not enough. At the end of their visit, the inspectors told her verbally of their criticisms. No one knows officially what they are, for the report on the school, in the Scottish Borders, will not be published until June.

I wouldn’t like to be writing that report now.

A friend, however, has claimed that the criticisms were “silly”. They are believed to include that a wooded area at the back of the school was not used (when locals knew it was contaminated by dog dirt); and that Ms Hogg was to be reported to the council for not filling in a complaint form. Ms Hogg was apparently angered and “very disillusioned” by what was said to her, and she failed to reappear after the Easter weekend. Her body was found the next night in a lonely part of the hills.

At Kings Cross Supplementary we are constantly inspected, by the parents.  You can see them looking around when they arrive, at the beginning to deliver their progeny, and at the end to collect them.  They listen carefully to what we say about whatever progress we are able to report, and no doubt compare it equally carefully with what the teachers at their regular schools are saying, and with what the children themselves say about it all.

If their conclusions about us are negative, they can cease paying for the service, and cease receiving it.  This means that if there is bad news about KCS, it will come in a trickle, and none of us teachers will be so discouraged that we will contemplate suicide.  If, on the other hand, they decide that their regular schools are not up to their mark, whatever that may be, their only recourse is to purchase help, from the likes of us.

If the parents are satisfied with our efforts, no second guessing inspectors have the power to make us miserable, or if they have I have not been told about it.  “OFSTED” is not a word I have heard mentioned in all my times at KCS.

Wednesday March 12 2008

It’s not a good time ...

A Seventh Day Adventist who persuaded churchgoers to invest millions of pounds in a City scam that funded his extravagant lifestyle has been jailed for seven years.

Lindani Mangena, 24, of Romford, east London, was described as a “modern-day Moses” for his promises to deliver profits of up to 3,000% to fellow worshippers.

At Southwark crown court judge Peter Testar condemned Mangena as “pitiless and arrogant” for deceiving more than 1,000 Seventh Day Adventists.

... to be a Seventh Day Adventist.  Here comes the education angle:

The first “faith school” from a non Anglican or Catholic tradition to be funded by the taxpayer is in crisis. A hit squad has been sent in to try to rescue the John Loughborough School in Haringey, founded by a fundamentalist cult, the Seventh-day Adventists.

Haringey council has - with the Government’s backing - sent in its own appointees to take over from headteacher June Alexis at a time of mounting concern that the school is in “meltdown”. The council has refused to confirm or deny claims that Dr Alexis has been suspended.

The school is facing the prospect of a damning report from Ofsted after the education watchdog warned Dr Alexis last year that pupils’ standards of achievement and behaviour were not good enough. Ofsted served a formal “notice to improve” on John Loughborough a year ago and the Evening Standard understands that senior inspectors have visited the school in recent weeks to see if it is making progress.

You have to wonder if these two events are in any way connected, if only by a general culture of incompetence and of vulnerability to fantasists and/or con-artists.  Miracles don’t just happen.  Someone has to work them.