Carpet-bombing is not, of course, the preferred usage: politicians call it “driving up standards”. But there are surprising similarities between the desire of Air Chief Marshal Harris in 1944 to raze Nazi German cities to the ground, and the desire of our ministers of education to inspect schools to death. For there are different methods of bombing, and different methods of inspection. There was a time when Her Majesty’s Inspectorate was a smallish group of former heads and senior staff, carefully selected for their understanding of schools and education, who would occasionally drop by to see how a school was getting on. On rare occasions, two or three HMI would visit for a few days, and then send the head and governors a confidential report, written in continuous prose, offering their opinions on all aspects of the school. Teachers were rarely mentioned by name, but the views of the inspectors were always valuable. It was a civilised and helpful engagement between school and state, all the better for being discreet and professional. Transparency can be a false god.
The appalling 1988 Act changed all that. A huge army of retired teachers, business types and assorted part-time operators now take quickie training courses and descend on schools to clockwork schedules, furiously making snap judgments, ticking boxes, and distributing their verdicts in computerised phraseology to all and sundry. And there must be enough schools to inspect, to make sure they are all kept busy. So Ofsted has now decided that a school can no longer be deemed “satisfactory” – inspection is to become a world without end, and Ofsted’s judgments will flow for ever, unreliable though they often are. It’s hard to think of a better way of discouraging lively graduates from entering the profession. Ofsted has become an agent of intimidation, if not destruction.
Which brings us back to Air Marshal Harris, who had an unshakeable belief that dropping bombs all over civilians going about their domestic and professional activities would instil so much terror into the populace that they would all surrender. He thought he knew best, ignoring requests to concentrate on communication targets and synthetic-fuel plants. And his approach didn’t work: it made people angry, and more determined than ever to press on regardless.
Of course there is no suggestion that education ministers and Ofsted actually enjoy intimidating schools – it’s simply that, like Harris, they know no better: it’s what they think “driving up standards” is all about. They are unaware that many management theorists believe that inspection and assessment applied to complex organisations are threatening devices that rarely work, and indeed often have a destructive effect. To improve the results of any operation, you have to address the process, which is embedded in the way the school curriculum works; it can only be improved from within by those who design and operate the process. The essence of it all is learning – but not what Whitehead famously termed “inert knowledge” – the kind of stuff that students have to disgorge in the conventional exams that define official “standards.” What really matters is learning for understanding, and to achieve this, teachers need a repertoire of approaches and devices. They need to shape the curriculum themselves and continuously keep it under review: they have to discover each pupil’s strengths and build on them. As a colleague of mine once said, It’s not a case of finding a gifted child – our job is to find a gift in a child. Indeed – and it can take time.
One way of doing this is to slow down the incessant ritual of learning and regurgitating, and instead make time for more prolonged encounters that allow deep learning and promote understanding. And that is what the slow school is all about. But until sense prevails, Ofsted is in full cry, and carpet-bombing will continue.