From education to employment

Resistance is not only fertile, it’s contagious

I spoke recently at a conference in London to a paper called “Resistance is fertile: The demands the FE and Skills sector must make of the next government.”1

Proclaiming loudly what’s happening is a revolutionary thing to do, especially if people see that change is possible when they act collectively: in short, resistance is highly contagious. The debates at the conference made me reflect on three themes: the role of Ofsted, the aspirations of young people and the need for Tutors’ Voices.

The Man from Ofsted was the first speaker and within a minute my heart had sunk into my shoes. Not another inspection framework. Not more changes in the methods of inspection. Not another set of performance measures. It’s only three years since I wrote a critique of the then new format, which contained 159 criteria in 66 pages2. When will Ofsted get it right? Why a new framework every three years? Does it appreciate the vast amount of useless work this creates, time that could be better spent teaching students?

I began momentarily to feel sorry for Ofsted, because it’s responding to five major policy changes imposed by the coalition. The source of the problem has been the same for 30 years: hyperactive policy-makers. Ofsted is also under the cosh. But the way it leaps to respond to every command from its political masters shows that its much vaunted independence is a joke.

We were told that Sir Michael Wilshaw is asking: “is the FE sector fit for purpose?” He’d be better employed answering a different question: “Is Ofsted fit for purpose?” I’ll save Sir Michael time by answering the question for him. It’s not. But please, don’t take my word for it. The recent report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Education came to this conclusion about alleged extremism in schools:

“Ofsted’s inability to identify problems at some Birmingham schools … raises questions about the appropriateness of the framework and the reliability and robustness of Ofsted’s judgements and how they are reached.” (2015, para 41).3

How could the Committee have come to any other conclusion? Ofsted judged schools to be “outstanding” and within a year returned to record them as “inadequate”, when the main characteristics of the schools had remained the same – students, teachers and governors.

Let Sir Michael seize the historic opportunity of introducing a new model of inspection for the new government – in order to release the creativity of educators which is stifled by the instrument of torture otherwise known as the Common Inspection Framework. Intelligent accountability would ask: where is the education at this Further Education College? Are the students at 19, 25 or 65 better educated and trained than when they enrolled? What would count as an educated and trained 19 or 25 or 65 year old today? Richard Pring and his colleagues have researched these questions and produced creative, practical answers to them.4

So, Sir Michael, why not act as you are always urging teachers to act? Demonstrate some innovation. Many practitioners will help you produce a model of inspection geared to improvement and not just diagnosis, an enabling and collaborative model rather than the impoverishing and punitive one you are revising which is driving good teachers out of the profession in droves. You seem convinced of the efficacy of Student Voice to improve teaching so why not respond to Tutors’ Voices to improve inspection?

The conference also debated the aspirations of working-class people. It’s insulting to say they have no aspirations. They do. Their aspirations are modest but not ignoble: a “decent” job paying them a wage sufficient to have a “decent” life, ie get married, have kids and save for their own home. But they cannot fulfil even these modest aims. They feel trapped by the choices open to them: in their words, “shit jobs, govvie (government) schemes or the dole”. Their prospects of a decent job or of affording their own home are desperately poor in many parts of the country. Low paid, dead-end jobs and zero-hour contracts are a source of deep insecurity which lock families into in-work poverty.

What they don’t have is the knowledge, advice and contacts which would allow them to choose the right subjects to study in order to apply to elite universities or choose the most appropriate course or apprenticeship. But that’s a failure of the Information, Advice and Guidance on offer at school, a failure in the structure of opportunities. Saying they have no aspirations is to blame the victim. Education isn’t a silver bullet which on its own can deal with the lack of incentives to learn in a low skill, low wage labour market.5

Robert Winston made the useful point that celebrity culture, typified by “Big Brother” and the “X Factor”, doesn’t help. Nor does “The Apprentice”, which suggests that only aggressively unpleasant self-seekers succeed in industry.

Finally, the notion of an independent, democratic association to promote Tutors’ Voices has lit a spark that is spreading like an Australian bushfire, with colleagues eagerly discussing the most appropriate name. If you want to join and influence its development, please contact: [email protected]. It’s fast becoming a coalition of resistance to government bunglers and hectoring inspectors.

Frank Coffield is a professor at the Institute of Education

Copies of my conference paper are available from [email protected]

2 See Coffield, F (2012) “Ofsted Re-inspected”, Adults Learning, Winter, 24, 2, 20-21.

3 House of Commons Education Select Committee (2015) Extremism in schools: the Trojan Horse affair, Accessed 23 March 2015.

4 Pring, R et al (2009) Education for All, Abingdon: Routledge.

5 Keep, E and Mayhew, K (2014) “Inequality, wicked problems, labour market outcomes and the search for silver bullets”, Oxford Review of Education, 40, 6, 764-781.

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