Secretary of State Nicky Morgan is reportedly looking to recruit the next head of Ofsted from the United States.
Even if she were to locate, with due objectivity and rigour (words much used by ministers but seldom exemplified in their actions), a variety of American educators with the requisite expertise and professional standing, her quest would be perplexing. For it would signal that no home-grown British talent can match that imported from an education system which reflects a national culture very different from ours, is mired in controversy, and, though it has individual teachers, schools and school districts of matchless quality, performs as a system below the UK on international measures of pupil achievement.
But that is not all. A check on the touted names makes it clear that the search is less about talent than ideology. The reputation of every US candidate in which the Secretary of State is said to be interested rests on their messianic zeal for the universalisation of charter schools (the US model for England’s academies), against public schools (the equivalent of our LA-maintained schools), and against the teaching unions. This, then, is the mission that the government wants the new Chief Inspector to serve.
Too bad that the majority of England’s primary schools are not, or not yet, academies. Too bad that Ofsted, according to its website, is supposed to be ‘independent and impartial’; and that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills is required to report to Parliament, not to the political party in power; and that he/she must do so without fear or favour, judging the performance of all schools, whether maintained or academies, not by their legal status or political allegiance but by the standards they achieve and the way they are run. Too bad that on the question of the relative efficacy of academies and maintained schools the jury is still out, though Ofsted reports that while some truly outstanding schools are academies, many are not. And too bad that the teaching unions are legally-constituted organisations that every teacher has a right to join and that, by the way, they have an excellent track record in assembling reliable evidence on what works and what does not.
When we consider the paragons across the pond who are reportedly being considered or wooed in Morgan’s search for Michael Wilshaw’s successor, mere ideology descends into dangerous folly. One of them runs a charter school chain in which the brutal treatment of young children in the name of standards has been captured on a video that has gone viral. Another leads a business, recently sold by the Murdoch empire (yes, he’s there too), that having failed to generate profits in digital education is now trying to make money from core curriculum and testing. A third is the union-bashing founder of a charter school chain that has received millions of dollars from right-wing foundations and individuals but whose dubious classroom practices have been exposed not just as morally unacceptable but, in terms of standards, educationally ineffective. A fourth, yet again a charter chain leader, has published a proselytising set text for the chain’s teachers tagged ‘the Bible of pedagogy for no-excuses charter schools’ that, according to critics, makes teaching uniform, shallow, simplistic and test-obsessed. Finally, the most prominent member of the group has been feted by American and British politicians alike for ostensibly turning round one of America’s biggest urban school systems by closing schools in the teeth of parental protest, imposing a narrow curriculum and high stakes tests, and making teacher tenure dependent on student scores; yet after eight years, fewer than a quarter of the system’s students have reached the ‘expected standard’ in literacy and numeracy.
As head of Ofsted, every one of these would be a disaster. As for the US charter school movement for which such heroic individuals serve as models and cheerleaders, we would do well to pay less attention to ministerial hype and more to the evidence. In England we are familiar with occasional tales of financial irregularity and faltering accountability, and of DfE using Ofsted inspections to bludgeon academy-light communities into submission. But this is as nothing compared with the widely-documented American experience of lies, fraud, corruption, rigged student enrolment, random teacher hiring and firing and student misery in some US school districts and charters, all of which is generating growing parental and community opposition. Witness the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and this week’s nationwide ‘walk-in’ in defence of public education. Yet the culture that American parents, teachers, children and communities are combining to resist is the one the UK government wishes, through Ofsted, to impose. Ministers believe in homework: have they done their own?
However, as prudent fallback Nicky Morgan is said to have identified five British candidates. While these don’t hail from the wilder shores of US charter evangelism, their affiliations confirm the mission ‘to make local authorities running schools a thing of the past’ (Prime Minister Cameron last December), and, to avoid any lingering ambiguity, ‘The government believes that all schools should become academies or free schools’ (from the DfE website).
In pursuit of this agenda, the reported British candidates have immaculate academy and/or Teach First credentials (Teach First is the British teacher training cousin of the evangelistic Teach for America, like charter schools an essential part of the package of corporate reform). Most take home eye-watering salaries. All are within the inner ministerial circle of school leaders whose politically compliant views are rewarded with access, patronage, gongs, and seats on this or that DfE ‘expert group’ whose job is to dress up as independent advice what the government wishes to hear.
Home-spun this second list may be, but it is hardly likely to meet the Ofsted criterion of ‘independent and impartial.’
It should not be like this, and it does not need to be. Like the United States, England has many more outstanding schools, talented teachers and inspirational educational leaders than those few who are repeatedly praised in party conference speeches and with which ministers assiduously pack their ‘expert groups’. The talent worthy of celebration and reward is not located exclusively in academies or Teach First any more than in individual schools it resides solely in the office of the head (for these days rank and file teachers barely merit a mention even though without their unsung dedication and skill all schools would be in special measures).
The problem with the much longer list of potential candidates for the top Ofsted post is that those who ought to be on it – and they come from maintained schools, academies and other walks of life – don’t necessarily toe the ministerial line. They are not, in Thatcher’s still resonant words, ‘one of us’. Such independent-minded and genuinely talented people may conclude from inspection or research evidence that flagship policy x, on which minister y’s reputation depends, isn’t all it is cracked up to be. They put children before their own advancement. They dare to speak truth to power.
Yet isn’t this exactly what an ‘independent and impartial’ Ofsted is required to do, and what, give or take the odd hiatus, most HM Chief Inspectors have done – so far? And isn’t it exactly what a genuine democracy needs in order that well-founded policies gain a hearing, ill-founded policies are abandoned before they do lasting damage, and the education system is ‘reformed’ in the ameliorative sense rather than merely reorganised as part of the latest ministerial vanity project?
But no, for by politicising public education to the extent heralded by the 1988 Education ‘Reform’ Act and entrenched ever more deeply by each successive government since then, ministers are signalling that power matters more than improvement, compliance more than honesty, dogma more than reasoned argument; and that in the battle between ideology and evidence – a battle in which the Cambridge Primary Review and CPRT have been strenuously engaged for the past ten years, often to their cost – ideology trumps every time. The government’s attempt to ‘fix’ the agenda of England’s independent inspectorate by appointing one of its own persuasion as chief inspector is not just an ideological step too far. It is an indefensible abuse of political power.
Talking of Trump, is he on Nicky Morgan’s bucket list too? Go on, Secretary of State – in for a penny, in for a trillion dollars.
If you would like to learn more about educational ‘reform’ in the United States, try the blogs of Diane Ravitch and Gene Glass, and recent books by Ravitch and Berliner and Glass. For a catalogue of US charter school irregularity see Charter School Scandals. For Jeff Bryant’s reflections on this week’s ‘walk-ins’ in support of US public schooling, click here.