The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, believes that supporters of Michael Gove are running a ‘dirty tricks campaign’ against him. In the Sunday Times, Sir Michael claimed that his critics were annoyed because Ofsted had criticised two free schools: the Al-Madinah in Derby and the Discovery New School in West Sussex.

Civitas, the think tank of which I am director, is one of two think tanks whose criticisms he seems to have taken very personally. In reality (naively, it now seems) we were carrying out our study in the belief that Sir Michael had a philosophically similar view  and that he was struggling to change Ofsted’s direction because so many of its inspectors were committed to the now-discredited child-led methods of the 1960s and hostile to more-modern teacher-led approaches.

During Sir Michael’s outburst he claimed that Ofsted was the chief protector of education standards and that recent criticism was undermining its authority. He went on to say that  ‘extreme educational philosophies’ had no place in modern schools. And he used decades-old caricatures of teacher-led education. He suggested that some of his critics want  ‘children to be lectured for six hours a day in serried ranks’. Such ‘rote learning’, he mused, would not produce successful learners who can think for themselves.

But it is common ground that a good school should aim for children to be able to think for themselves. The dispute that seems to have so angered him is about the best way of encouraging independent thought. Ofsted is under criticism not for being too rigorous in maintaining standards, but for failing to achieve its primary purpose. Sir Michael made the extraordinary claim that: ‘We have done more to raise standards in 21 years of existence than any other organisation.’ His contention suggests a refusal to accept any criticism. In truth, Ofsted was silent during the years when education achievements were falling while the exam results appeared to show rising standards. Ofsted said nothing when exams were being watered down and when the results were being ‘gamed’ in the fifteen years up to 2010. Its silence allowed the public to go on being deceived and many of the officials from that era are still there.

In addition, Sir Michael showed hints of the insolence of the bureaucratic monopolist who will brook no criticism when he said:

‘I am not having government or anyone else tell inspectors what they should assess as good teaching.’

If schools are to be given ‘feedback’ and held to account, should Ofsted not do the same?

Sir Michael’s claim that the Civitas study was inspired by Ofsted’s criticism of two free schools is simply incorrect. Criticism of the two schools came to a head in November and December 2013, but our proposal to create a separate inspectorate for free schools and academies was first put forward at a conference of free schools last June. And we had first published a criticism of Ofsted much earlier in 2006, under the heading ‘Inspection, Inspection, Inspection: How Ofsted Crushes Independent Schools and Independent Teachers’. It was followed by a second study, ‘Inspecting the Inspectorate’ in 2008.

So what’s bothering us? That at least a third of children in successive year groups have been under-performing in recent years. They tend to be children who come from disadvantaged homes and their best chance of success is go to a school that will take them to new realms of understanding outside their day-to-day experience. That means that schools should be teacher-led (As opposed to schools under bureaucratic control of local government).

Free schools and academies were introduced to encourage innovation, and it is Civitas’  contention that this independence is being undermined by Ofsted. We see three problems.

1) Ofsted’s ethos is still influenced by the desire to enforce compliance with centrally-imposed targets, rather than to encourage the professional development of school leaders and teachers. Ofsted may be under the control of Sir Michael, a former head teacher thought to be in favour of free schools and academies. But many of its inspectors are still enforcing the doctrines they learned under the compliance regime of the Blair/Brown era.

2) Ofsted’s imposition of standards is erratic and often varies with the personal tastes of individual inspectors. The style of inspection should be more about senior teachers giving professional advice to colleagues than grading schools. It’s true that it can be useful to have an agency that says when a school is so inadequate that it ought to be subject to special measures, but Ofsted’s ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ and ‘requires improvement’ categories are too subjective to be of real value.

3) Ofsted’s approach is based on a narrow theory of human nature, which assumes that individuals are self-serving and must be motivated by external sticks and carrots. The rival view is that we are all guided by conscience and are, therefore, capable of self-motivation. In schools, ethical conduct is best achieved when teachers identify themselves with the moral obligation to do the right thing for their pupils. Moral obligations are best reinforced by a shared professional ethos and by the mutual oversight of colleagues. The objective should be continuous personal improvement, rather than public ‘naming and shaming’.

Here’s an example. Ofsted’s top two classifications are ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’. One free school was recently given ‘outstanding’ for ‘leadership and management’, ‘behaviour and safety’, and ‘pupil achievement’, but only ‘good’ for the quality of its teaching. When the head asked the inspector why, he was told that some of the teaching was ‘too didactic’. Whole-class teaching was frowned on before 2010, but it is no longer supposed to be an Ofsted-proscribed activity. And yet, the Ofsted inspector was enforcing the theory that lessons should be pupil initiated and not teacher led.

During teacher training, this doctrine is often encapsulated by the rule of thumb that lessons should be 10% the teacher and 90% the pupils. Good teachers, however, may well need to talk to the whole class for much of the lesson, perhaps in order to explain something in two or three different ways, to get through to all the children so that they can go on to work independently. With a class of 30, there isn’t time to give one-to-one attention to more than a few pupils and many teachers recognise that whole-class explanation is an unavoidable necessity for empowering children to think for themselves.

For the last 30 years the state school system has failed miserably to serve the interests of children from disadvantaged homes. That’s why free schools were introduced: to make sure that everyone gets a fighting chance. To break out of this cycle, schools need to help children reach beyond their everyday lives, which implies teachers imparting knowledge that children don’t have and would never encounter. This activist approach is based on the belief that teachers are custodians of the best interests of children.

Teaching is a vocation. The teacher’s role is not to facilitate learning defined or initiated by the children themselves – because they think it’s interesting or relevant to their lives. The teacher’s calling is to open up new possibilities that children simply don’t know about. If pupils come from homes with lots of books and computers and educated parents, they may get enough help to overcome the inadequacies of a bad school. But if they rely almost entirely on the school for knowledge and skills, they will fall behind and stay there.

A well-run school, even when children are drawn primarily from poor backgrounds, can make a vast difference. It is why free schools should be allowed to innovate without Ofsted imposing failed doctrines.

Ofsted is feared by schools, but not so much because they don’t want their underperformance to be exposed. Rather, it is because Ofsted’s power is unpredictable. Sir Michael  has made speeches that seem  supportive of teacher-initiated learning and some inspectors share his views. But many do not. As a result, schools can’t be sure what to expect. Ofsted’s classification is arbitrary. Often judgements depend on the subjective beliefs of individual inspectors. As a result, schools have become ultra-cautious – and the result is something that doesn’t help pupils, or society: a belief, in schools, that it’s safer to go along with the shibboleths of the last 30 years than to innovate.

Dr David G. Green is Director of Civitas.

Tags: Michael Gove, Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted, school reform