Teaching neoliberalism: time to replace Ofsted

Calls to reform Ofsted don't go far enough - it's become a tool for the neoliberal take-over of our education, and needs to be replaced.

Martin Francis
11 November 2014

At its Spring 2014 Conference the Green Party of England and Wales adopted a policy to replace Ofsted, the school inspections body for England, with an independent National Council for Education Excellence, working collaboratively with local authorities and schools and informed by educational research.

Since the policy was adopted Ofsted has come under increased criticism with the Local Government Association calling for a review of an organisation that has become ‘media driven’, revelations that an academy chain was tipped off about the dates of its inspections, alleged conflicts of interest when inspectors are also employed by academy chains that would benefit from the forced academisation of schools deemed to be failing, and confusion over what Ofsted requires of schools.

All this has resulted in calls for reform of Ofsted but Green Party policy goes further, locating the role of Ofsted within the neo-liberal project for the marketisation of education, commonly known as the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM).

Ofsted has become a political tool of the GERM project not merely because of senior staff links with academy chains, the recently appointed chair is a trustee of the AET academies chain, but through its judgements on schools being used by the DfE to force academisation of local authority schools, often against vehement parent opposition.

The GERM not only seeks to privatise education and make what was public sector provision a source of profit for private companies such as Murdoch and Pearsons, but to narrow the purposes of education to one that links it directly to the country’s competitive position in the global market.

The GERM thus encourages competition between schools with success or failure in that competition being measured by standardised tests the results of which are then used as marketing tools.

In England the competition has been intensified by a Government programme of building new academies that are independent of local democratic control and run by private (currently not for profit) academy chains, voluntary conversion of existing local authority schools to academy status, forced academy conversion of failing local authority schools, and the ‘free school’ programme of centrally funded schools which operate independently of their local local authority.

The Government intervenes further in the market by requiring any new schools to be academies or free schools.

Teaching is reduced to ‘teaching to the test’ and pressure is passed down the line from local authority/academy chain to headteachers, teachers, parents and ultimately the pupil.

Ofsted makes a preliminary judgement of a school based on the data produced by this process and the grade given by their inspection becomes another marketing tool with schools hanging banners on their gates boasting of their Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ ranking.

Ofsted judgements are used by the Department for Education to force ‘failing schools’ to become academies thus involving Ofsted in the process of the privatisation of the education system.

From this year teachers’ pay will be linked to their performance as measured by their pupils’ test performance alongside other data, thus acting as an instrument disciplining teachers into serving the interests of the GERM.

The GERM is sold to parents, as consumers in a market, through concepts such as choice and accountability. School league tables and Ofsted reports become the method parents use to exercise choice in that market.

The consequence has been an increase in the workload of teachers as schools become subservient to WOW (What Ofsted Wants), the de-skilling of teachers as they ‘deliver’ lessons to fulfil narrow targets, and a perpetual fear of what the next Ofsted inspection may bring in terms of the future of a school as well as individual careers.

The result has been increased staff turnover and a crisis in the recruitment of headteachers.

The issues were well illustrated at a personal level by Green MP Caroline Lucas in a recent adjournment debate on education, when she read into the House of Commons record testimonies of teachers about the impact of the reforms.

Although Ofsted is a vital part of this process the Green Party recognises that the GERM needs to be tackled in its entirety as an ideological project. The introduction to its Education Policy states that:

Education should provide everyone with the knowledge and full range of skills they require to participate fully in society and lead a fulfilled life. We reject market driven models of education that see its role only in terms of international economic competitiveness and preparation for work.

This premise leads to the Greens, in addition to the abolition and replacement of Ofsted, to call for:

* The abolition of Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs) and league tables

* A curriculum based on broad ‘Learning Entitlements’ within which teachers and learners can develop their own curriculum based on their interest and enthusiasms

* Parent Forums and Pupil Councils in every school

* The restoration of the role of local authorities in education provision and reintegration of free schools and academies into the LA system

* Restoration of local authorities’ powers to plan and build new schools where needed

* Require every class to be taught by a qualified teacher

* Tackle the process by which teachers have become de-skilled and their professional autonomy eroded

* Abolition of Performance Related Pay

Although the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the UK General Election in 2015 will make a few policy tweaks they remain neo-liberal parties thoroughly enmeshed in the assumptions of the GERM.

There is however a popular movement developing in England against the GERM exemplified by the NUT’s Manifesto: Stand Up for Education and their work in setting up stalls in town centres to spread the message, resistance by parent groups to academisation with the recent notable success at Hove Park in Brighton, the grass roots twitter revolt by teachers orchestrated by the wonderful @TeacherROAR, and parent groups such as Parents 4 Education (@par4ed) joining with teachers in calling for a broader curriculum and more creative methods to engage children in real learning rather than mere training for the tests.

The GERM is also, fittingly, being fought on an international basis, and Twitter in particular has enabled its opponents to share experience and solidarity. The website sets out its purpose clearly:

Education in almost every country in the world is subject to the grip of neo-liberal education 'reform' which is slowly starving out public schooling, promoting privatisation, destroying teacher professionalism and aims only to produce a minimally educated workforce, which can read instructions and advertisements but is discouraged from thinking critically about the world.

Teachersolidarity is an independent website which records the resistance to such reform of teachers, their unions, communities and researchers, who are fighting to defend public and democratic education. It aims to bring such people together, through sharing experiences, learning from one another and giving and receiving solidarity.

In May 2014 the NUT brought international speakers together in a conference aimed at Building Resistance and Solidarity to the GERM and this report on the conference its report is well worth reading

Just as the sacking of Michael Gove did not mean the end of the GERM in England so the abolition of Ofsted will not mark its demise, but both are part of the broader struggle to reclaim our education system.

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