“In an Ofsted preparation meeting, no-one can hear you scream” (Alien)
“..whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief” (WH Auden)
Some time ago, Eve Tuck warned in the most explicit terms that neoliberal models of education were not only incompatible with teacher education, but indeed “an extension of the most recent iteration of (settler) colonialism” (Tuck, 2014: 324), implying an occupation of once indigenously owned territory. It struck me recently in an Ofsted preparation meeting that even in HE, the Ofsted inspection represents the epitome of a rather unconvincing but ominous negotiation with an occupying force. And although the claim is made by my institution, our line managers and even otherwise dependable colleagues, that we’ll just document what we actually do and what we believe in, the Ofsted challenge always produces compromise both pragmatically and ethically. For this invader never looks at the provision in the same way twice. With each new framework and added areas of focus, the system becomes a little more disconnected from the lifeworld as if taunting us and inviting us to take a swing.
Nevertheless, however inappropriate and unworkable these models are, they persist unchallenged predominantly as myth: “an insidious, degraded survival” which “turns them into speaking corpses” (Barthes, 1972; 132). Getting a little roughed up by Ofsted, or at least the fear of it, is so ingrained that it’s hardly believable that before 2005 schools were inspected for one week every six years. Now Ofsted conversely produces a list of ways in which trainees might be made ready for their teaching duties which reads like Dickens’ brilliant satire of teacher training in Hard Times: “lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs”.
Turning it up to 11
Having been involved in the Ofqual-supervised but Gove-inspired reform of A levels, I saw the techniques of occupation close at hand. The idea was to make A levels harder, even in the knowledge that standards are actually created by an algorithm, which in 2019 produced better results for the new ‘harder’ version! One crude feature was the annexation of forms of assessment and particularly marking guidelines which had been developed by experts at exam boards over many years and their replacement with postures of ‘stretch and challenge’ reminiscent of Spinal Tap’s ‘turning it up to 11’!
More shameful even than the introduction of the A* grade some years ago, this change was quite simply the victory of ideology. If you need to understand the notion of a post-truth world, start here: not Trump but trumped up, the risible as aspirational: high standard, high risk, high jinks! Let’s leave aside the ‘cult of excellence’ which grows bigger year by year because we want ever more of it till our ‘outstanding’ performers have nobody much to stand out from. The problem here is simpler: ‘excellence’ is not an aspiration or even unattainable. It is simply not feasible and therefore it has no meaning or purchase save as an ideological gesture and a source of real frustration and despair.
Quality as threat
Colleges are beset by the enemy within, in this case an element that didn’t exist when I started teaching in the 80s but now constitutes a whole department, policing the reservation. The ‘Quality’ team bring a supermarket retail model, where it is called ‘Quality Control’, to Dewey’s project of human flourishing, dropping the ‘Control’ presumably out of shame, though dropping ‘Quality’ would perhaps have been more honest (and less shameful). It is not the fault of the individuals involved that they make no obvious contribution to the great idea of education. Their employment is predicated on the improper use of public resources.
It never is, was or will be your job to ensure that all of your students pass the courses they enrol onto (even when this does happen). This is how the ‘unreason’ overcomes us, in battalions of imprecision, non-specific and interminable demands. This is the way we live now in a morass of empty signifiers, long emptied of meaning: achievement, learning, learner, improvement, value, even education. For all they pretend of empiricism, they are artfully vague, so we are reliant on ‘updates’, looking out for this season’s semantic trends (British Values, Employer Engagement, Subject Specialism) with Ofsted like a travelling fair, packed up to be reassembled slightly differently elsewhere.
You’ll only have yourself to blame
Why then, if we know these are games with fairly restricted forms of satisfaction do we continue to allow ourselves to play? What might compel us to spend time and energy on a relationship that seems to produce only frustration, tension and despair? Superficially we have accepted that we somehow have to, but I sense something darker. I remember being told by colleagues not to challenge what managers said, for fear I would never get on (their fear not mine). I remember somebody suggesting, tongue in cheek I hope, that I should be given a week’s holiday when Ofsted visited. But mostly I remember the stress, the chaos and in some a kind of borderline terror. I don’t blame Ofsted directly for the occasional suicide, but as apparent partners in the project of worthwhile educational experience, I do remind them that there are no ‘borderline’ abusive relationships. These are abusive relationships in the same way that our ‘strategic compliance’ is merely compliance. I can no longer stomach the kinds of excuses that teachers, academics and institutions have been making for their collaborations with neoliberal educational policy.
Imagine a partner who takes an obsessive interest in where you are going, what you are doing and how you are being. Imagine a blueprint detailing the skills you are required to demonstrate, the faces you must make to meet the faces that you meet, the commitment you must make to be better. Imagine your friends telling you that it’s best not to make a fuss or to speak out because there will be consequences. You’ll only have yourself to blame. Imagine a relationship in which you need to compromise your personal principles to prove you want the relationship to work, worse still, just to survive. This is often a teacher’s relationship with management, with ‘quality’ and with Ofsted.
This must stop now.
Pete Bennett is Senior Lecturer in Post Compulsory Education at the University of Wolverhampton, where he runs a top-up degree and jointly leads the MA in Professional Practice and Lifelong Education.
Barthes, R. (1972) Mythologies . London: Jonathan Cape.
Dickens, C. (1995) Hard Times. London: Penguin.
Tuck, E. (2014) Neoliberalism as nihilism? A commentary on educational accountability, teacher education, and school reform, Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 11(2), 324-347.