Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble




Hostile inspections




Politicians remember their own education and think it should be replicated. What they forget is that they were among the most able pupils. All children, they seem to think, ought to be able to do as well as they did. They have schools inspected to find out whether this is happening.

The general level of morality among politicians in general does not suggest that their ethical education was altogether successful.

Their mathematical education also appears to have been inadequate, as is shown by their frequent failure to understand the term 'average'. (They require a definition of an average level of attainment, and then expect all children to attain it. Below average, they suggest, is not good enough. By this definition, half of all pupils will always be failing.)

Under the current government the system is becoming punitive. Schools that do not achieve 'average' results in the SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) are condemned without reference to their social context, let alone the individual needs of the children. As a result of this schools doing excellent work with large numbers of disadvantaged children find themselves condemned as underperforming.

There must be many examples of inspections by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), conducted in accordance with political instruction, which have produced unreasonable results. The attempt to force Summerhill School to change was defeated by an expensive court case, but state schools do not have the resources to defend themselves. The William Booth School in Nottingham is a case in point.

In the spring of 2009 I visited it and was deeply impressed. The school is in a poor area of the city and has an unusually high proportion of children for whom English is a second language, and others with a variety of special needs. After my visit I read their 2007 OFSTED report, which was broadly approving and in some areas considered the school to be outstanding. 'Children plan their days and staff encourage and guide them, in order to reflect their needs and interests. The school's individual style of teaching, based on guided intervention rather than traditional class teaching, helps to ensure that children learn well and make good progress.'

Then the national requirements began to change. In December 2010 William Booth was inspected by a different OFSTED team with a different agenda. They arrived determined to find fault, and by distorting the facts they succeeded in doing so. They said there were no formal lessons, which after a day and a half in the school they must have known to be untrue. They failed to mention that the standard of numeracy, as tested in the Early Years Foundation Profile, was slightly higher than the national average. There was no acknowledgement of the successful inclusion of the high proportion of children with special educational needs or with English as an additional language. The prescribed format for inspectors' reports forced them to admit that responses to the questionnaire for parents were 'mostly' positive, but they did not admit that the responses were all positive apart one mildly negative comment among a total of 624.

The school objected strongly, but various changes were imposed, and it was 'placed in special measures' and inspected again in May 2011. The conclusion of this new inspection was: 'Progress since being subject to special measures satisfactory.' Among the improvements noted was the fact that the children now understood the terms 'adjective' and 'simile,' and among the failings was the way children are allowed to read to each other, without adult supervision.

The inspectors who had produced the negative report had felt able to ignore the opinions of parents and did not even consult the opinions of the children. The inspectors in May 2011 commended the school for the teaching of inappropriate vocabulary and apparently disapproved of children working together to improve their reading. The reactionaries are powerful, and it is difficult for any school to innovate, however good the results.

Even the first inspectors had had some reservations in 2007. 'Behaviour is good,' they observed, 'though there is some restlessness at times when children learn more formally in groups.' Unfortunately this did not bring them to conclude that the children should have more time for their own activities, where they were helped to 'learn well and make good progress,' in the words of the report, but instead that they should spend more time under instruction, where they were obviously bored. The inspectors decided, 'There are not yet enough focused reading and writing sessions, such as the workshops, to accelerate children's progress further in reading and writing.'

It is apparently thought more important for children to learn to sit quietly than to follow up their own interests, because, the inspectors assume, that if you sit quietly your learning will be 'accelerated'. The distinction between what is taught and what is learnt is one that inspectors and politicians find hard to understand.

One result of the national curriculum is that most children are 'taught' information and skills when they can see no use for them, and much of what they are taught they neither understand nor remember. Children can learn fast, much faster than adults, but they only learn fast if they are interested and can see a purpose in what they are doing.

There is a true story of a boy new to his primary school who, when his mother asked him the ordinary question, 'What did you learn in school today?' replied, 'I learnt how to be bored, quietly.' From the official point of view, the quietness, which is observable, matters, and the boredom, which is invisible, can be ignored.