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Ofsted is a ‘reign of terror’, Dame Alison Peacock tells The Times Education Commission

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Ofsted is a ‘reign of terror’, Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching, has told The Times Education Commission  

She goes on to explain, ‘I think the issue with Ofsted is that they pretty much have a script’ and that Ofsted expect teachers to ‘be like robots’. Instead she believes to create confident teachers they should be enabled to make decisions in their own classrooms.

She, along with other experts were participating in today’s Times Education Commission evidence session focused on school teaching.

Author and former teacher, Ryan Wilson, also gave evidence today and agreed about Ofsted;

‘I would get rid of Ofsted….Ofsted has become a toxic brand.’

Baroness Gillian Shephard, a former Secretary of State for Education, suggested we should be clapping for teachers and educators, like we did for healthcare workers during the pandemic. 


The full list of experts at this (Tuesday 19th October) session include:

  • David Albury, Senior Associate of The Innovation Unit; previously Principal Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.

  • Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching.

  • Baroness Gillian Shephard, Conservative Peer, former MP for South West Norfolk (1987-2005) and Secretary of State for Education (1994-1997).

  • Ryan Wilson, former teacher turned radio producer and author

  • Mehreen Baig, former teacher turned broadcaster and author. 

  • Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First

  • Bernie Kaye, an SLT lead at South Shore Academy in Blackpool.

David Albury: What makes schools great?

I’m struck in my work around the world and visiting some not so good schools but also some great schools that, really, there are two things that characterise really great schools. One is, of course, the belief that all students can succeed, that each and every student is capable of great things, and that the way in which this happens is by building on the needs and wants, the passions and interests of students with an education and learning experience that’s personalised, that’s anytime-anywhere, that’s authentic, that’s real world – I’m sure you’ve heard all these words before – to be the very best that they can be. Crucially, it seems to me, people often ask me what outcomes would I want from school education? And I guess I’d always say, to encourage a love of learning and the ability to learn would be the two fundamental things that we’re trying to achieve in that.

David Albury: Our education system is failing students

I think it’s very easy to assume that people accept what I believe is now a growing consensus that the education system as it is now is failing our students. And, I don’t mean just the lower end of performance, I’m very struck, we do lots of ethnographic work with students and you find lots of high performers who say: ‘It’s all a game. I know how to play this game and it has no real relevance to the life that I want to lead.’ And I think we need to make the case and give voice to employers and students, parents and higher education organisations.

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Dame Alison Peacock on Ofsted’s “reign of terror”

Teaching in 2021 is driven by a need for compliance. Teachers are constantly looking over their shoulder, whether it’s about Ofsted judgments, whether it’s about attainment, whether it’s about workload, you know, teachers are being driven. And, from my point of view, we need teachers to be inspired, we need them to be joyful, we need them to love working with children, we need them to feel that the reason they come to work everyday is because they can make a difference and that they can contribute to society. You know, we saw that at the beginning of the pandemic. There were many, many schools, many, many school leaders and teachers who stepped forward, who provided food in the pandemic to their local communities, who went out and visited houses and, you know, did everything they could to keep their community safe. And how were they thanked? Well, they were thanked by a Chief Inspector who told them, ‘Well, they should have been focusing on teaching maths and not worrying about whether the children were hungry.’

So, what we’re trying to do at the Chartered College is to enable teachers to go beyond the kind of requirements that Ofsted are saying they need. You know, Ofsted, frankly, it’s a reign of terror. They come in, they start to sort of talk in, kind of, highfalutin language about research outcomes and so on and curriculum coherence. It’s designed to put people on the backfoot. The more that we can enable teachers to be research literate themselves, to be able to make decisions that are informed by evidence in their classroom, that they feel confident about, that they can see the impact of, they’re more likely to be able to stand their ground and actually supersede whatever an inspection regime wants. That was my experience as a headteacher. Because I was involved with research with the University of Cambridge, I was more worried about impressing the academics than I was about Ofsted. And so essentially, what we did as a school was we transcended the requirements of inspection. So, we need to be in a position as a profession to build our expertise, our confidence, our certainty for ourselves about what works in our classrooms, and then when people make pronouncements about, whether it’s about, I don’t know, Nick Gibb kind of phonics-type things, or whatever it may be, if you can listen to what that says and then put it in the context of: ‘Yes, I understand this, but also this’, then you can be in a position to make a professional judgment about what your young people need.

There’s something about the teachers’ psyche that is all about gold-plating everything so if you know someone is  going to come and look at your books, you’re going to spend hours, you know, making them look pretty, but actually, that’s the wrong priority. The priority is what have the children understood during the lesson and what have I understood so that I know what I’m going to teach them tomorrow…

I think the issue with Ofsted is that they pretty much have a script – a set of things they have to follow. And they do that, even HMI when they lead online training it’s all to the script because it will have been checked by Amanda. It’s pretty difficult, you know. And I think she thinks teachers just ought to be like that, we should just be like robots, and then we would all stick to the script and it would all be fine and anyone who couldn’t control themselves would just have to be chucked out. But that doesn’t work at scale.

Ryan Wilson: On getting rid of Ofsted

For me, the one thing is that I would get rid of Ofsted. You know, I’m happy for there to be an inspection system – of course there has to be accountability in the education system, of course there does. But, in my view, Ofsted has become a toxic brand, if you like. It’s become synonymous with stress and, what’s the word, sort of a punitive approach to inspection. I just feel that, you know, people talk about reform of Ofsted, I just feel it needs to be replaced with a different system and the stakes need to be lowered. People shouldn’t be in fear that their jobs are at stake if a particular child doesn’t get a particular result. Of course there are bad teachers and of course there are teachers, those teachers need to be supported or encouraged out of the profession, but it’s completely skewed, the whole system is skewed towards weeding them out and monitoring them and surveillance culture. So, yeah, if there was one thing, I would get rid of Ofsted.

I’m not against accountability in the education system, it has to be there. But it’s so skewed and so, in my view, over the top and skewed towards finding fault. And one of the things that when you’re a teacher, one of the things that I learnt was that you don’t try and find the kid that’s doing the bad thing and pick them out and shout at them in class, you try and find the kid that is doing the right thing and praise them for it and that has an effect on the whole class, it improves your relationship and actually it makes the kid who’s doing whatever they’re not supposed to be, want to get your praise. And I know that as a teacher, and actually, isn’t that a lesson for the Government as well? Don’t invest all your energy in trying to catch people out, trying to find fault, trying to, you know, feel that they’re on edge, that they’re going to be caught out. That was the feeling I had towards the end of my teaching career, that one class or one kid, even, could underperform and you were on a knife edge and the Sword of Damocles was hanging over your head, and that’s not an environment in which anyone, I think, does their best work.

Mehreen Baig: On Ofsted

Ofsted’s specific list is based on what you’re doing wrong. It’s not done as supportive or to help you improve. There’s a threat of league tables and bad ratings that loom. And then, on the day, we used to kick out the naughty kids and tell them to stay at home or send them off on a trip. So, how is that in the interests of the child?

Gillian Shephard: “If I had my time over…”

If I had my time over, I would try to influence the development of a curriculum so that it was aiming first of all to produce confident people and to develop in people, in young people, a curiosity: I want to know about this, should be the result of a lesson, but now I want to know more about this. But I also would want a curriculum that encouraged creativity. Now, in our insistence on league tables, on grades and all the rest of it, I believe that, what you say is right, that we produce people who can perhaps perform well, but haven’t been given the time or space to develop more thoughtfulness. Now, I think it depends entirely on which schools they’ve come from, but you know, that’s how we measure at the moment – it’s the results, it’s the league tables. And there isn’t much time to stand and stare.

Gillian Shephard: Let’s clap for teachers

It’s just being unremitting, I think. I think, you’ve just got, the Secretaries of State, the Prime Ministers should just be unremitting in talking up the importance of education, teaching and learning – I think you have to say all those things – just as they have been during lockdown and Covid about the health service. “Let’s hear it for the health service.” “Let’s clap for the NHS.” Well, you know, we might get a situation where we could perhaps clap for education or clap for our schools or clap for our teachers. Why would we not have that?

Russell Hobby: On reducing timetable time by 20% in disadvantaged schools (Teach First Manifesto) to incentivise teachers in these areas

So, monetary incentives work better than we like to admit, in moving people around the system. It does matter when you’re trying to weigh up can you afford to live on what you’ve got. That can be a significant difference. But, to me, of greater leverage is a proposal we made earlier in the year, is whether we could give teachers who serve more disadvantaged communities more time, rather than more money. So, what we’re talking about is overstaffing these schools so that we can reduce the timetable load, so that there’s more time for the pastoral work, for the planning and preparation. And I think if we created more capacity in these so that the job was more doable and that you had time to do your best work, I think that would get teachers flocking to those sorts of schools. And I’d love to see a pilot of that, to test, that’s my hypothesis. I know some schools have tried it and it’s worked, but I’d love to see a proper trial of that to see if that makes a difference.

The Times Education Commission is a year-long project expected to inform government policy and to lead to radical change across schools, colleges and universities.

The commission brings together experts including senior MPs, business leaders, scientists, head teachers, academics, vice-chancellors and a children’s author. It has a wide-ranging remit, including the curriculum, qualifications, social mobility, exclusions, new technology, lifelong learning and the number of people going to university.

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