It’s often said that no one ever signed up to be an Ofsted inspector to boost their popularity ratings. The job of Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) is to report without fear or favour – to commend excellence where they find it, but also to hold up a mirror to poorly performing schools, colleges, nurseries and local children’s
It can be hard to deliver unwelcome and uncomfortable news to often dedicated, well-intentioned professionals, especially when they’re not expecting it. Teachers work with passion. Inspectors have to deal in detachment. In doing this, they do not shirk their responsibilities if they find that children are being let down or put at risk.
In my experience, HMIs are tough as teak. They have to be. But they are also well trained, vastly experienced professionals, drawn almost exclusively nowadays from the ranks of successful leaders in education or children’s social care, who absolutely understand the need to behave with sensitivity and integrity when talking to young people.
This is particularly important when they are following up serious allegations of prejudice-based bullying and derogatory name-calling, as in a number of recent well-publicised cases. Inspectors had to couch their questions using age-appropriate language that the children would understand in order to get to the heart of what was happening – and, crucially, to determine what the schools were doing about it.
The idea that this constitutes harassment of unsuspecting 10-year-olds or a sinister attempt to force a particular metro-liberal, politically correct orthodoxy on the nation’s schools couldn’t be more wrong.
Those who have accused Ofsted of being too heavy-handed in establishing whether these allegations have substance would, no doubt, be the first to criticise us if we had failed to uncover serious bullying and the damage it was doing to children’s lives.
As I told MPs on the education select committee last month, Ofsted has also put a number of schools serving predominantly Muslim children into special measures for failing to promote tolerance and for narrowing the curriculum. We will apply the very same inspection principles to every type of school we inspect, faith or non-faith. This has nothing to do with equivalence and everything to do with fairness.
And yet anyone basing their understanding of some recent inspections on a sample of the more lurid press reports would be forgiven for thinking Ofsted is rampaging through the education system on an aggressively secular mission to tear up the very fabric of England’s proud faith school tradition.
That’s a portrayal so far removed from the reality of how we conduct our inspections that it must have governors, leaders, teachers and children across the country scratching their heads in bafflement.
So allow me to restore some balance to the debate and to take on some of the claims that have been levelled at the inspectorate in recent weeks.
The charge that I, a former headteacher of a Catholic secondary school, am presiding over some sort of state-sponsored anti-faith school “witch-hunt” would be laughable were it not so serious. I have long been a staunch supporter and proponent of faith schools in this country, believing, as I do, that they are a valuable and enduring feature of our education landscape.
Let me offer this unequivocal reassurance: the vast majority of faith schools have nothing to fear either from Ofsted or from the recent guidance issued by the Department for Education on promoting British values as part of the curriculum.
But don’t just take my word for it. Since the start of this academic year alone, Ofsted has inspected approximately 600 schools with a religious designation or character. Many of these schools have drawn praise from inspectors for quietly getting on with the task of ensuring all their children are safe and are being prepared for life in the complex, diverse society in which we now live.
A common characteristic these schools share is immense pride in their own particular religious heritage, alongside a clear demonstration of open-mindedness and tolerance towards other cultures and beliefs.
Schools such as Sinai Jewish Primary School in Brent, where inspectors found pupils “proud to be Jewish” but who also “enjoy working with pupils from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. They are exceptionally well prepared for life in modern Britain.”
Or take St Ethelbert’s Catholic Primary in Slough, where inspectors last month praised a curriculum that “encourages pupils to see the world from different perspectives and has the notion of tolerance and mutual respect running through its core”.
Then there is Christ the King in Bristol, where “the ethos of the school is clear, but running alongside it are opportunities for pupils to learn about the other faiths and cultures of people in their local community and across the UK”.
And Tauheedul Islam Boys’ School in Blackburn, where inspectors recently noted that leaders had established an ethos in which students were encouraged “to live out their faith through a school culture based upon equality and philanthropy”, where students were “very well prepared to take their place in modern British society and embrace British values”, and where “their understanding of different faiths and their work to help others are exemplary”.
There are many other excellent, unheralded examples of schools getting this absolutely right. Although they don’t grab the headlines, they are far more typical than the minority of schools that Ofsted has criticised for weaknesses in this increasingly important aspect of the curriculum. I also suspect that the great majority of schools would struggle to reconcile the picture painted by some commentators with their own experience of inspection. Indeed, the headteacher of Sinai has branded a recent claim that Ofsted is unfairly targeting Jewish schools as “preposterous”.
And yet there seems to be a tendency on the part of an unrepresentative handful of schools – and their defenders – to presume they are speaking up for many others by accusing Ofsted of all manner of inappropriate conduct and dubious motives. Quite simply, I don’t accept that they are.
As Chief Inspector, I am the first to concede that Ofsted is not perfect and certainly shouldn’t be above criticism.
We carry out around 30,000 inspections every year, so we aren’t going to get it right every time. But I can’t help feeling that some of the criticism is being used as a smokescreen for the palpable weaknesses of leadership and management that inspectors sometimes observe.
Would children and parents not be better served if these leaders focused their energies on learning from the wealth of good practice available in hundreds of faith and non-faith schools around the country? Indeed, inspectors observe and report on this good practice week in and week out.
Dennis Sewell was right to say, in these pages last month, that the values of democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and respect are inherently good things. I can assure him that here at Ofsted we embrace these values as tightly and warmly as anyone else.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/2/15)