There is a line in the film ‘The Fugitive’ where, in response to Harrison Ford’s earnest protestations that he didn’t murder his wife, Tommy Lee Jones says: I don’t care. Never have three words of dialogue summed up a character so perfectly. Within those three words contain the very DNA of Tommy Lee Jones’ Samuel Gerard, a bloodhound of a US Marshall, who cares more about the scent than the sentiment. When he delivers that line, with a facial expression that would make a plank of wood seem lively, you immediately understand that we are in the company of a true professional. A man who is able to do his job to exacting standards because he focusses on the right thing with absolute clarity.
As you walk into the staffroom of Ofsted HQ there is, I imagine, a large banner stretching right across the far wall, just above the washing up rota and the comedy postcards saying ‘Keep calm and carry on inspecting’, ‘You don’t have to be a failed teacher to work here but it helps’ and ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, teach PE; those who can’t teach PE become Ofsted inspectors’. The banner, written in comic sans, was put up just after their Christmas party, by Sean Harford himself, and contains the 2016 mantra for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate: Myth-busting makes us feel good.
This mantra has already brought us a document on what inspectors don’t want to see during an inspection. I imagine that every self-respecting Head has already had every word of this tattooed all over their body, in a variety of gothic fonts, so that, during a rogue inspection, they can tear open their shirt and scream ‘Read the small print you rogue son-of-a-bitch, you can’t expect to see any sort of marking in our spelling books.’ The mantra banner or ‘bantra’ (as I believe Sean likes to call it) has also resulted in a series of videos where Ofsted inspectors give us the lowdown on how to survive an Ofsted inspection like a pro (in short, Heads should concentrate on doing whatever it is that is important for their children and sod everything else). These will be followed by a series of myth-busting blogs, tweets and memes, culminating in a fancy dress vine video of all the Ofsted gang dancing along to an edited version of ‘Who you gonna call?’
It’s difficult not to admire, or even fall hopelessly in love with, this top-down rhetoric. Even if it feels a bit like Stockholm syndrome. I, for one, am happy to be seduced by my former abuser – I only hope that I can remember the safe word the next time we meet and I’m subjected to a data-enema. The thought of staring down an inspector whilst saying ‘But my children don’t need learning objectives that are also linked to British Values’ and getting away with it makes me giddy with excitement.
Gone is the old Ofsted tagline of ‘raising standards, improving lives’. That was, after all, directed towards children and, in doing so, it muddied rather than purified the water inside the education chalice from which we all sup. With every inspection that passed, a raft of analysts were looking at features of all the reports and compiling lists of things schools must and must not do if they wanted to be judged positively. Planning. Marking. Teaching styles. Learning objectives. Targets. Text books. Consolidation. Challenge. Differentiation. The delicate tools of our trade were being blunted by short-sighted leaders and their obsession with doing what they thought someone else would like to see, as opposed to what worked in their school. In trying to raise standards through superficial measures it was the lives of teachers that suffered. Over-worked, under-valued and not listened to. Well, no more. We are entering a brave new world of Ofsted that promises to make sense of a once mad world and restore order and (work-life) balance. Ofsted: Busting myths, improving lives.
Now, we can all be like Tommy Lee Jones. The next time we are told that in order to teach like champions we should be using a shared vocabulary that makes us all sound like the illicit love child of Siri and Cortana rather than a human being we can simply say: ‘I don’t care.’ The next time some piece of education policy around new times tables tests for three year olds gets announced through your twitter timeline, you can roll your eyes, swipe to refresh and say: ‘I don’t care’. The next time you’re sat on a table with an ‘outstanding’ Head who is telling you how their new approach to marking includes teachers skyping every child at weekends in order to counteract the weekend progress slump that was impacting on their Monday morning maths mastery assessment tests, you can take a bite out of their croissant, drain their coffee cup, look them dead in the eye and say: ‘I don’t care’.
How liberating. All we have to care about is doing what’s right for our children and our teachers. I love it when a plan comes together.
The one tiny fly in Ofsted’s myth-busting ointment is, and well, it’s such a small matter I almost feel silly mentioning it, but the one teeny-tiny flaw in the plan is that we no longer know what is expected of us. Thanks to the edu-brains of the DfE and Whitehall there isn’t anyone who actually knows if, whatever it is we have deemed appropriate to teach and assess our pupils this year, is on the money. Add to this absence of clarity surrounding progress measures the smorgasbord of options in terms of curriculum material and assessment tracking systems and you’re left feeling like a four-year-old trying to choose which option of free school meal to have on their first day at school. I mean, you know it’s not a good sign when Sean Harford is having to write to all Ofsted inspectors telling them to be ‘flexible and understanding when they consider the outcomes next year’ for schools. This might as well have an additional subtitle saying ‘look, it’s not schools’ fault we’re in this mess so go easy on them’ but I’m sure politicians don’t read subtitles – it’s probably against their British values.
I, for one, have never been prouder of the education that the children in my school are receiving but I have no clue as to whether this is going to be reflected at the end of the year. I’m also reasonably secure that I’m not working my teachers into an early grave. But I’m yet to work out if that is enough. Now, logic tells me that if we teach what the children don’t know, everything will work out, but, until this has all played out in real time, that still feels like a bit of a gamble. I may be trying to act like Tommy Lee Jones and stick to the Ofsted bantra, but I have a bad feeling that I’ll be the Head teacher equivalent of a fugitive on the run, trying to protest my innocence as an inspector, struggling to track down my progress data, stonewalls me with three words: I don’t care.