Education lights the flame

4 April 2023


Hard cases.

By Robert Kilconner

One cannot but be sorry for the family of Ruth Perry who committed suicide following an Ofsted downgrading of her school but I am afraid that this tragic incident, and indeed the challenging by a school in Cambridge of procedures used in its Ofsted review, cannot of themselves justify teachers pulling out of the process. Of course the media focus on the human angle, particularly when, as here, it is a tragic one, but as the lawyers say “hard cases make bad law” and any review of the inspectorate and how it works must look beyond individual cases.

Let us begin at the beginning. Clearly a process of inspection is needed and that will involve an element of grading.  In a monopoly like the state education sector, a tough process is needed to keep schools up to the mark, and indeed, because of the room for abuse, a similar process must, as it does, extend across the private schools too.

Now grading schools is very difficult. They have different problems and different opportunities. More to the point good teaching can take many different forms and systems which are disastrous applied by one team will work brilliantly with another. The grading, then, cannot be a checkbox exercise but needs to be carried out by people with a thorough understanding of teaching and of how schools work. That means that the Ofsted inspection teams need to contain teachers or people with experience of teaching. For them to withdraw from the process, as has been suggested, could only make it cruder and unfairer.

Because of the subtlety of the judgements which have to be made, it is inevitable that different teams will come out with different answers. Some schools will, according to the critics, draw too much praise. In other cases schools will be marked down for failings which they will feel unfair. That means there will always be people who feel they have been short changed and presumably that is what happened in the case of Ms Perry’s school. In some cases that will be unfair but that unfairness is the price we are prepared to pay for a thorough inspection system

I do not have the expertise to say whether in the case of Ms Perry’s school the rating it received from Ofsted was fair or not. Neither can I comment on the tests which Ofsted applies and how effectively it applies them. What I can say, however, is this. One would hope that Ofsted keeps its tests and its systems under continuous review and hones them to carry out the difficult task with which it is entrusted. I have no reason to believe that it does not but, if it did not, it would be right for people to call for it to improve its practices. That is a very different thing, however, from taking hard cases, and there will always be hard cases, and arguing from them that the organisation should be replaced or dismantled. That is neither sensible nor fair.

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