For some time now it has been clear that Ofsted functions as the political instrument of central government. Until recently this instrumentalization was mostly manifest in general terms; for governments intent on scapegoating teachers for the many failings of British society, Ofsted’s inquisitorial inspection system constituted a useful blunt instrument for intimidating and bullying schools, subjecting the entire education system to factory-style production quotas and markers of achievement of the type that Stalin would have approved of.
Initially introduced by John Major as a means of empowering parents, Ofsted has become a tool of both Labour and Conservative governments, enforcing and imposing constantly shifting educational targets and criteria that too often appear designed either to gain political kudos for raising ‘standards’, on one hand, or for ensuring that schools fail and fall short in order to justify the further privatisation of schools and the dismantling of the state education system.
Under the Coalition, Ofsted has essentially acted as a battering ram for the government’s academy/free schools program. In 2010 new inspection criteria introduced under Michael Wilshaw resulted in an exponential increase in the numbers of schools downgraded or placed into special measures, and a concomitant decrease in the numbers labelled outstanding.
This system has had an extraordinarily destructive impact, which I have seen here in my own town, where two fine schools were savaged by recent Ofsted inspections, one of which was placed into special measures. From the government’s point of view, all this has been extremely convenient, because the more schools fail, or are seen to fail, the more it can present academies and free schools as a solution.
This has been the essential project of Michael Gove, one of the most blinkered, ideological, egocentric and incompetent education secretaries in modern times. Gove is a man who has spent much of his time peering at the world through a very narrow keyhole, who despises the state education system and anyone who disagrees with him – a category that includes a lot of people.
In Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw, a former academy head teacher, he appears to have found a more-than-willing accomplice. Like Gove, Wilshaw is clearly an ambitious man who cannot be accused of a lack of self-regard, and he has generally done what the Education Secretary expects him to do.
This collusion was blatant enough even before the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ scandal, but the events of the last week have comprehensively destroyed Ofsted’s claims to be impartial and free from political interference. As a result of Gove’s wildly over-the-top response to a hoax letter concerning a purported Islamist plot to take over Birmingham schools, Ofsted re-inspected 21 schools, six of which have been placed under special measures.
Two of the schools it downgraded had been previously found to be outstanding. These reassessments were not based on educational criteria, but on the supposed promotion of a conservative religious agenda in Muslim-majority schools – an agenda that Ofsted, like Gove himself, has mindlessly and dangerously conflated with ‘extremism’. Not only has Ofsted avoided any attempt to define what exactly constitutes ‘extremism’, but it has admitted in its own report that it did not find any evidence of it.
What it did find was somewhat inconclusive evidence of some attempts to promote/impose a religious education into some of the schools inspected, that included a school trip to Mecca and Medina, a statement rejecting evolution, and an attempt by some school governors in one primary school to ban same-sex swimming classes.
There is certainly an argument to be had here about the role of religion in the state education system – particularly in its more reactionary manifestations, whether Islamic or Christian, and also about the undue influence that school governors may have on particular schools.
But this is not the discussion that Gove and Ofsted are interested in having. Long before Gove assumed his gimlet-eyed grip on the education system that we have all come to know and love, he was a British neocon, who echoed the ‘moral clarity’ idiocies emanating from the likes of American war on terror ideologues like Richard Perle and William Bennett.
In his book Celsius 7/7, Gove warned of a ‘widespread reluctance to acknowledge the real scale and nature of the Islamist terror threat’ in Britain, which he attributed to ‘ the failure to scrutinise, monitor or check the actions, funding and operation of those committed to spreading the Islamist word in Britain’.
For Gove, and for those who think like him, the ‘Islamist word’ is a fairly broad category, which enables him to imagine a seamless conveyor belt that starts with segregated classrooms and swimming classes and ends up with suicide bombers. Like Melanie Philipps or Bat Ye’or, Gove imagines ‘Islamism’ in essentially conspiratorial terms, and is certainly not the type to look skeptically at allegations of an Islamist ‘trojan horse’ – especially if uncovering such a conspiracy is likely to further his political ambitions.
To its eternal discredit, Ofsted and Wilshaw have done everything possible to help make Gove’s fantasies real. Like so many managerial bullies, Wilshaw likes other people to fail, not himself. In his letter to Gove he is at pains to point out that culture of fear and intimidation has developed in some of the schools since their previous inspection.’ One of those schools is Park View academy, which Wilshaw personally visited in 2012 when Ofsted rated it ‘outstanding.’
Wilshaw was fulsome in his praises of the school declaring ‘ If a school like this does well, why shouldn’t any school do well?’ Now Park View has been placed in special measures, and one of its governors Tahrir Aram- who was also present during Wilshaw’s 2012 visit – has been singled out for promoting this ‘culture of fear and intimidation.’
Having exonerated himself from any involvement in this outcome, Wilshaw goes on to indict everyone else in accordance with His Master’s instructions. Yet despite the excessive Islamism that Wilshaw attributes to certain governors and schools, which has mysteriously sprouted up since he last visited them, Ofsted has found no evidence of extremist behavior amongst any pupils or staff.
Knowing that this won’t be good enough for Gove however, Wilshaw nevertheless indicts Birmingham’s schools for having failed to protect students from ‘the risks’ of radicalisation and extremism. In Oldknow primary, Wilshaw declares that ‘ pupils and staff are poorly equipped to understand, respond to or calculate risks associated with extreme or intolerant views.’
Birmingham City Council, on the other hand, is accused of failing support schools ‘in their efforts to keep pupils safe from the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism.’ What are these ‘risks’ or ‘potential risks’? And what makes Ofsted qualified to assess them? What in fact does Ofsted understand by ‘radicalisation and extremism?’
Ofsted doesn’t say and clearly has no interest in finding out. Instead it merely parrots the empirically-dubious conceptualisation of Islamist ‘radicalization’ that seeks to explain political violence in terms of inherent cultural or religious practices. It also assumes that the government’s ‘Prevent’ program is the antidote to such radicalization, without any attempt to assess whether these strategies are even effective.
Even the Gracelands nursery is accused of being ‘unaware of local authority or government guidelines on the prevention of extreme and radical behavior.’ Given that the pupils at Gracelands range from three to five years old, more rational observers might conclude that preventing extreme and radical behavior was not a high priority.
But when the pupils are Muslims, it’s clearly a different matter, and Wilshaw, like Gove, appears to assume that without due vigilance these kids would probably be bowing down to their dark cult or strapping on toy explosives. In the same way Wilshaw worries that the inspected schools ‘ do not ensure that a broad and balanced curriculum equips pupils to live and work in a multi-cultural, multi-faith and democratic Britain’ and that ‘children are not being encouraged to develop tolerant attitudes towards all faiths and all cultures.’
Is that a problem in these schools? Maybe or maybe not, but I really doubt Ofsted’s ability to assess the matter dispassionately one way or another. And in any case these criticisms have a very different weighting when applied to Muslim-majority schools. My daughter, for example, when to a Church of England-aided primary. During that time I don’t remember any attempts to ‘encourage’ the children to develop ‘tolerant attitudes towards all faiths and all cultures’, though I do remember a fair amount of Christianity.
But ‘intolerance’ whether real or imagined, always has more sinister ramifications when Muslims are involved, at least according to Gove and Ofsted. And now, the antidote to their intolerance is a good dose of ‘British values’ in order to help Muslim children prepare to live in a multicultural society; the imposition of a new policing regime based entirely on Gove and Ofsted’s limited understanding of terrorism and terrorism-prevention; and yet another recasting of British Muslims as cultural aliens and the enemy within.
So Ofsted and Wilshaw must surely be congratulated for contributing to this outcome. They may not have found a Trojan Horse, but no one can fault them for trying. And the rest of us can only think ourselves lucky once again that the nation’s education system is in the hands of such wise, thoughtful, and enlightened men, who will always put the public interest before their own.