|Volume 53 Number 14, May 19, 2023
Schools Week, February 1
Ofsted - the Office for Standards in Education - and its system of inspections is having a deleterious effect on education standards, contrary to its claims, and inextricably linked with this is its devastating effect on teachers and their well-being. Its practice runs counter to the ability of teachers themselves to be in control of education, and participate in setting the direction for teaching and education in a modern society. Everything is being reduced to the delivery of what are called standards, as though children were inanimate products of a production process.
Ofsted is a non-ministerial government department, reporting to Parliament. The Conservative government of John Major introduced the inspectorate under the Education (Schools) Act 1992, to supervise the inspection of and report on each state-funded school in the country. Its remit was expanded in 2007 to include other children's services and care.
Aside from reporting on schools in the form of a written document, Ofsted publishes all qualitative aspects of a school's performance in the form of a single overall score, meaning that all schools are graded on a four-point scale: outstanding, good, requires improvement, and inadequate. Until November 2020, mainstream schools judged outstanding at their last full inspection were exempt from further routine inspection.
Ruth Perry, a headteacher, took her own life while waiting for an Ofsted report. Workers' Weekly sends heartfelt condolences to her and her family. Many educators worldwide share her families' grief. The Ofsted report downgraded her school, Caversham Primary in Reading, Berkshire, from "outstanding" to "inadequate", due to so-called "safeguarding" issues.
On April 21, her sister, Prof Julia Waters, said that she wanted inspections to be suspended to allow an independent inquiry into both what happened at the school and of Ofsted's inspection culture. Speaking to BBC News, she said it was a "potentially dangerous system", and that a pause the "decent, empathetic, human thing to do". Her request has been denied by the government. 
Chief inspector Amanda Spielman has simply said that Ofsted "will continue to listen" and is trialling changes to its complaints process. She stressed that its single overall grade would remain.
The creation of Ofsted continued what had been initiated by Margaret Thatcher under the Education Reform Act 1988. That Act had established the National Curriculum, and had introduced extensive testing in schools and the publication of league tables. A major feature of this line of development was centralisation and erosion of the role of Local Education Authorities (LEAs), aimed at consolidating a capital-centred content for education and abiding by neo-liberal norms and rules .
Before 1992, schools were inspected by the LEAs, but this system became a block at that time to the furthering of the anti-social offensive in education. A new centralised bureaucratic overseer was therefore set up to break down the remnants of the old social democratic arrangements in education and impose the new neo-liberal direction. Gone was any veneer of an aim of enlightenment; the aim of what was demanded by business was now overt and was to be enforced and monitored.
During its early years, Ofsted was particularly controversial due to the deliberately confrontational style of its first Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, whose departure in 2000 was widely celebrated by teachers. In this period, Ofsted pursued a strong-arm policy, naming and shaming allegedly "failing" schools and staff. Woodhead also campaigned against "fashionable" teaching methods and falling standards in schools in favour of "old fashioned" education. 
Alongside seizing control and restructuring education around neo-liberal aims, and as part of this agenda, was the introduction of market forces in education. Ofsted is a crucial component part of the schools market, with the single headline figure being a school's selling point by which to compare it to other schools in an area, and a key factor in house prices.
Successive governments have assumed wide powers over education authorities and, particularly under New Labour and after, have amalgamated control into various capital-centred education schemes such as academisation. Thus an Ofsted rating became a powerful tool in implementing this agenda. For a maintained school, an overall Ofsted rating of inadequate triggers the compulsory conversion into an academy, which not only introduces the private interests of multi-academy trusts, but imposes a change of management and school culture.
The NEU conference in April launched a new campaign to abolish Ofsted. According to the union, "this toxic inspectorate is driving school leaders and teachers out of the profession and fuelling a mental health crisis among school staff."  Earlier in March, NEU members had delivered the union's Replace Ofsted petition to the Department for Education, signed by over 52,000 teachers, school leaders, parents and school students.
"Ofsted has been the thorn in the side of both teachers and education for decades. No school expects to not have an accountability system in place, but Ofsted represents all that is wrong about the tick-box approach to education that successive governments have pursued," NEU Joint General Secretary Dr Mary Bousted said. "For too long, this unfair and unreliable inspectorate has driven up unnecessary workload and stress for education professionals, significantly contributing to the alarming numbers leaving the profession every year. Research shows that Ofsted is unfairly biased against schools and colleges in poor areas and is far more likely to slap them with an unjust negative judgment - even if they are improving."
Dr Bousted added, "This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Ofsted's establishment, but the National Audit Office (NAO) have recently concluded that even Ofsted itself doesn't know if its measures are having the intended impact."
The union has also urged school leaders to refuse to work as Ofsted inspectors until a health and safety assessment of the system is carried out.
Since its inception thirty years ago, teachers have demanded an end to Ofsted and given many warnings of its consequences. Consistent with the move towards rule by police powers and imposition at that stage of the anti-social offensive, Ofsted brought a mentality of the overseer in a position of power, undermining teaching by attacking the dignity and ability of teachers, rather than assisting teachers to exercise control over the work they do and to deliver education as a right for all. Many teachers have suffered stress-related illness, anxiety and depression because of Ofsted inspections and the culture of continuous monitoring of teaching practice.
The tragedy at Caversham has itself sparked widespread outrage, and in the ensuing ongoing debate the strength of feeling is evident. There are widespread concerns over teachers' pay, causing many to struggle to pay their bills and plunging many below the poverty line, as well as the threats to teachers' pensions, the lack of investment in school buildings and infrastructure, including a lack of funding for textbooks, basic supplies and school meals for children. Amidst these concerns, with the expectation and conviction of teachers during the pandemic that they would carry on delivering an education for the young people in their care even if doing so placed their own lives at risk, and the growing stress of an increasing workload where many are simply leaving the profession altogether, the government's response has been an almost callous and brutal increasing of an Ofsted inspection regime that for many is the final straw. This situation comes at a time of the growing sentiment that Enough is Enough. All teachers' unions are now joining together in co-ordinated strike action. There is also a growing consciousness of the need to safeguard the future of education. Generally, conditions are deteriorating, and a serious staffing crisis plagues the education system nationwide, made worse by years of under-investment.
The current education strikes have proven that educators are not going to support cutbacks in education funding, which will do nothing to solve problems and to ensure decent education will be delivered as of right. A challenge facing the workers' movement as a whole is how to organise itself further so that it can put the justice of its cause into play to favour its own interests. The movement faces stepped-up attempts from governments to eliminate any say, dismissing the demand against Ofsted and other issues. A realisation has emerged that conditions have changed and that working people must act in new ways, while Ofsted stands as a bastion of the old and its conception of "deliverology".
The defiance of the workers' movement unites in self-defence to assert its No! to dictate. Teachers and education workers across the country are following this lead by speaking out about their conditions and refusing to be silenced. The demand that Ofsted be replaced is just and should be supported.
1. "Halt Ofsted inspections after Ruth Perry's death, says sister", BBC News, April 21, 2023
2. "London Political Forum Discusses Opposing the Offensive against Education", Workers' Weekly, May 18, 2001
3. "The Ofsted Inspection Framework - Time For A Change?", politics.co.uk
4. "Replace Ofsted", NEU