The spate of snap school inspections, in order to clamp down on what the media have termed ‘a Trojan horse plot’ by hard-line Muslims to insert extremist beliefs into their school curricula, marks yet another chapter in the continuing saga of the Government education watchdog Ofsted and its role in the fragmented system of education that exists in England today. Park View School, Birmingham, placed in special measures this Easter by Ofsted, is the latest intervention, and others more may be threatened in the city.
Ofsted is no stranger to controversy – the English schools inspectorate has been at the centre of educational debate since its inception some 20 years ago. But one of the most heated and enduring accusations levelled at it over the past four years is that rather than being the quasi-independent agency it was designed to be, it has, since the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition took power, substantially compromised its independent stance, and become a mere tool of government to be used in order to wage its ideological battle on the English education system.
Standards still lagging
Despite efforts by the inspectorate to counter perceptions that – notwithstanding its longevity, high maintenance costs and central profile within education – there is a distinct lack of conclusive evidence that it does in fact drive school improvement, international comparisons such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) have recently served to compound the issue, showing English standards in education to be lagging behind their OECD counterparts.
In 2012 these efforts led to a radical overhaul of OFSTED's modus operandi and a re-modelling of the workforce to include a greater proportion of in-service head teachers with current experience of leading good and outstanding schools. But in spite of these efforts to re-invigorate the Ofsted brand, the inspectorate’s core mantra and mission ‘We inspect without fear or favour’ has been repeatedly called into question over allegations by head teachers that its reports on schools have been prematurely leaked in order to put them under pressure to convert to academy status.
In addition to this, free schools, run by a mix of teacher- and parent-based groups, private sponsored and faith-based organisations, possessing curricular freedom and based around market principles of choice, have proved no less contentious. Not all have been a resounding success and a spate of high-profile failures has led to yet more challenges for an inspectorate established to guarantee quality and equity of provision within the state system.
Piling on the criticism
The Birmingham issue brings the super sensitive aspects of religion and culture to an inspectorate that is already creaking under the weight of teacher and political criticism. And closing schools in areas of high Muslim population – even if accusations of extremism prove correct – is going to have substantial impact not only on local communities, but also in terms of the inspectorate’s own role in policing this. This is particularly in view of the fact that these inspections have again been mandated at the direct behest of Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, and there is substantial concern that the so-called Trojan Horse Document may yet turn out to be a hoax.
Allegations that the inspectorate is politically partial may pale into insignificance, compared to any possible public perception that the inspectorate is part of a crackdown on particular religious groups –provoking yet more controversy around the inspectorate’s perceived ability to inspect without fear or favour.
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