In 2019, after a nearly 30-year career in education, I retired from frontline teaching as a Reader (assistant professor) in a university to become an honorary research fellow. It was a chance to extend and write up research that I had not previously had the time to pay attention to, and to try my hand at writing fiction. I had not intended to become a journalist-commentator on the Department of Education, Ofsted, and their management of schools. But like everything else this government does, the issues that have arisen in education over the time since then concerned me so deeply, I was gradually drawn into this pursuit.
Troubling times for education in England
My home page on Yorkshire Bylines now lists a catalogue of articles about state education and children’s services; approximately half of its content. This is not something I would have predicted in 2019, but while I can use my time to encourage professional and political reflection, particularly given the increasing de-toothing of mainstream media in the UK, I will continue to do so, despite having surprisingly (to me, anyway) generated a ‘dissenter’ record at the Department of Education by so doing.
So here is a round-up of articles from 2023, which has been a very sobering year for education in England. The issue which captured most mainstream education headlines over this year began to unfold in late 2022.
The case of the Caversham Primary School Ofsted inspection
Caversham Primary School in Reading was inspected in November 2022. In January 2023, its head teacher, Ruth Perry, took her own life, distraught at what she viewed as her own professional failure, the school having been allocated an ‘inadequate’ grade. She had indicated to others that she was deeply worried about the impact on her own family’s lives and the children and families for whom she cared so deeply. Ruth’s coroners’ inquest took place in early December. It turned up disturbing evidence of officials blocking her appeal to Ofsted for a review of the grade allocated to the school.
In July 2023, Caversham’s Ofsted grade was revised to ‘good’.
On 7 December, the coroner concluded that the Ofsted inspection that took place at Caversham contributed to Ruth’s deteriorating mental health and consequent death; that it was “rude and intimidating, lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity”.
The coroner found the local authority reluctant to raise issues relating to Caversham with Ofsted, due to concern about whether such an action would lead to “making things worse for all Reading schools”.
This describes a classic bullying situation between government agency and education provider, and this sets a keynote for other topics that I have discussed in my education-related articles over this year.
My first education article of 2023, ‘Toxic Schools’, which I wrote in early April, referenced Ruth’s tragic death, and looked at some of the issues underlying the bleak, sombre atmosphere in many of England’s state schools. It considered the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, harsh zero tolerance discipline policies causing anger and dissent amongst pupils and their parents, and the rise of a government-funded online distance-learning ‘academy’, which received an untendered contract during the Covid crisis, subsequently creating unease amongst teachers.
My second education article ‘Five Failing Schools’ reflected on the similarity between the process and result of the inspection at Caversham, and inspections at four other schools carried out at around the same time.
Queen Emma’s Primary in Cambridge, also mentioned in this article, was regraded as ‘good’ in September 2023, after a challenge by governors to the original ‘inadequate’ grade awarded. The chair of governors at the school said of the first inspection:
“The lead inspector refused to listen, stormed out … when questioned and threw evidence across the room.”
In this article, I additionally quoted the outgoing joint general secretary of the teachers’ union, the NEU, Kevin Courtney, who raised concerns that recent inspections may be part of “a trend which provides further evidence that that the inspectorate’s role is not to support schools, but to produce labels which the government can use for its increasingly authoritarian interventions around academisation”.
‘We felt like criminals’
In late April 2023, a spreadsheet appeared online containing anonymous reports from over 3,000 teachers and head teachers on their experience of Ofsted inspections. The title of the article, ‘We felt like criminals’, was drawn verbatim from one of these reports.
The accounts, as a batch, were so harrowing I thought their content should reach a wider audience than teachers visiting the spreadsheet online. So, I sampled some of the most poignant entries and reproduced them in this article, with a minimal amount of commentary. It went on to be my most read Bylines Network article ever.
At the recent coroner’s inquiry on Ruth Perry, it was reported that an inspector lifted a hand to stop one of Ruth’s colleagues remonstrating about what she considered to be a sweeping and unjust judgement.
This was familiar from the ‘We felt like criminals’ spreadsheet. Several reported inspectors using ‘speak to the hand’ gestures:
“Our Ofsted inspector held her hand up in front and asked us to ‘stop talking, I’ve heard enough’… We felt like criminals being interrogated.”
“Ofsted [Inspectors] put their hands in front of staff faces and said: ‘I don’t want to listen to you anymore’.”
“During my interview with the inspector, she said I had five minutes to justify all I had done. Whilst I was talking, she put her hand in my face and … shouted ‘Stop, I can’t type that fast’.”
Whilst professional evaluation procedures are always going to be somewhat stressful, there is substantial evidence to suggest that the current Ofsted process is prone to degenerate into deeply dysfunctional bullying and oppression, with some circumstantial evidence that there may be additional, troubling underlying agendas.
This is an issue that will no doubt be revisited in 2024, particularly given the government’s choice of the new incoming chief Ofsted inspector.
Looking under the MAT again
In January 2022, I focused on some troubling schools administration issues that had arisen over the past few years in Wakefield, in an article entitled ‘Looking under the MAT’. In this, I questioned the (mis-)management of funding that had allowed a whole multi-academy trust to go bankrupt, unable even to refund the parent-teacher association for monies raised, while there was evidence that the chief executive had been “spending lavishly on equipment for his own office and giving contracts to his own company for school supplies”. I also considered the ‘zero tolerance’ discipline techniques so prevalent in MATs and issues that had arisen over such practices in Yorkshire.
In 2023, I picked this thread up again in ‘The Dark Arts of MAT Management’, casting my net more widely to look at similar issues across England as a whole, and the apparent inability of Ofsted to investigate such concerns. This is despite the apparently unrestrained power Ofsted appear to have to frighten and humiliate teachers and head teachers, based on evidence currently being given in the Ruth Perry inquest and the reports made by teachers and head teachers on the ‘We felt like criminals’ spreadsheet. It is a mystery that will no doubt continue to be contemplated as we head into 2024.
Finally, in ‘The Creeping Erosion of the Democratic Debate’, I reflected upon a series of stories first broken by Anna Fazakerley in The Observer, of records being kept by government ministries on the social media posts of academics and professionals in their administration area, and the banning of such people from speaking at government-sponsored events. My take on it considered social media responses from a small group of prominent ‘EduTweeters’ who seemed to think that those who questioned government orthodoxy deserved to be ‘cancelled’, including the Department for Education’s own ‘behaviour tsar’.
This was inevitably a personal take, because I am one of those who has a ‘dissident record’, although I have never been ‘cancelled’ from presenting at a government-sponsored meeting – because I have never applied to speak at one. It gave me yet another dimension from which to consider the sentiment ‘we felt like criminals’; a very personal one this time.
I’m still bemused by what danger those spending time and public money linking to and emailing my tweets around their colleagues think a retired academic-turned-novelist could possibly pose to them.
Looking forward …
2024 is bound to be another eventful year for education and schools in England, not least because it will be a general election year. Most of the issues I have raised this year have not yet been resolved and will therefore extend into 2024.
Recently announced PISA results which pinpoint British children as the second most deprived in the post-industrial world, with only the US ranking lower, will hopefully continue to be discussed, and not be swiftly swept under the carpet to disappear along with the Christmas wrapping paper.
My hope is that, possibly under a new government, the national administration of education in England will become less fraught and controversial, and I may feel more able to retreat into academic and fiction writing as I originally intended. But until such time, as I stated in The Observer, I will continue to speak truth to power in one of the most successful and innovative news carriers of the 21st century, alongside many colleagues who draw on their own professional and academic expertise to do likewise.
So, thank you for all you do, Bylines Network; Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. It’s going to be a busy one!