When Michael Wilshaw was HMCI, he had a very bad habit of announcing his opinions in The Sunday Times. One particularly striking moment was when he called for a “Renaissance of Respect” in the nation’s schools, which first of all made me laugh, and which then made me so cross that I found myself using the words “a tidal wave of tripe” in a blog for the first and hopefully the last time. The new HMCI, Amanda Spielman, has been a lot quieter than her predecessor since she took up her post. Some might feel that this is evidence that she is thinking things through. Being of a cynical nature, I suspect that it is more because she has been too busy wondering how on earth the DfE made such an almighty mess of the accountability system, and trying to figure out what the hell she can do to fix it, to have time to sound off in the Sunday press. Clearly, she has been taking a different approach to Mr Wilshaw’s combative one (which let’s face it, isn’t hard.) And then today’s ‘commentary‘ brought an abrupt end to her silence.
The ‘commentary’ was a strangely robotic sounding piece that used phrases such as “Exams are our best measure of what has been successfully transmitted to the pupil’s cognition” and “the new SATs at the end of key stage 2 … are set an appropriate level of rigour.” (This despite Ofqual telling us a week ago that the 2016 reading test was “unduly hard“.) No one would dispute most of her findings – that accountability has led to a narrowing of the curriculum. (I was going to call this blog “Stating the Bleeding Obvious”.) Clearly, there is an issue with schools putting ethics to one side, to focus on getting good test results, as I explored here. This is not okay. We’ve all been shouting about this for years. But the problem is not with her findings, the problem is with the way she skates over the role of the DfE and Ofsted in creating the situation that schools find themselves in (particularly those schools in areas of disadvantage). There are a few hints that Ofsted might have had something to do with it, but effectively it is an exercise in passing the buck.
Oddly, for a speech that claims to be about the substance that knowledge can bring, it is hard to find much that is substantive in this piece. I have to admit that I smiled at the obligatory paragraph on how skills are killing off knowledge – this is such an oft visited trope that no speech on education emanating from the government can do without it. There are some strangely political sounding claims that “the new SATs at the end of key stage 2 and revised GCSE and A-level qualifications are a marked improvement on their predecessors” and that schools should be “fulfilling the promise and potential of the 2014 national curriculum”. (I was under the impression that Ofsted was meant to be apolitical.) The DfE seems to get off scot-free, and despite a couple of admissions that Ofsted might just possibly have had some role to play in the problems we face, the underlying message of the speech is that it’s all the fault of schools and teachers.
No matter how much I wish that some schools wouldn’t game the exams system, no matter how much it infuriates me when school leaders narrow the curriculum and focus on endless mock tests, I cannot bring myself to lay the blame more than partly at the door of the worst offenders. No matter how much it pains me to see writing being taught as an exercise in naming the parts, or how much I hate the thought that some children’s last year of primary is little more than getting ready for and hopefully passing SATs, there is no way that I can lay the majority of the fault at the feet of hard pressed school staff. And this is because I know for a fact that they would not be in this position in the first place if it was not for Ofsted and the DfE. So they can state what the problem is all they like, but unless they change the way that schools are held accountable, they are never going to find a solution. And if Ofsted want to play the blame game, I know exactly where they should start. By taking a long hard look in the mirror.