Death by Inspection

“The more you trust people the thinner the rulebook, while the less you trust them, the thicker the book becomes,” declaimed the late, redoubtable Al Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers some years ago at a conference in London.

It is such an obvious truth you would think it unnecessary to say it.

But it is not trust that dominates the good ordering of today’s schools.  It is compliance which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means the act of conforming to, or with, the wishes or commands of a superior.  It is the way in which the state, now with enhanced opportunities offered through information technology, ensures conformity at every level.

English politicians, like the public at large, long ago persuaded themselves that they would not be able to recruit sufficient teachers worthy to be trusted on their own and so, as was explained to me in the Downing Street Policy Unit 13 years ago, “Instead we’re going for a teacher-proof system of organising schools – that way we can get a uniform standard.”  For more than a decade teachers have been denied the opportunity of exercising their own judgements in favour of meeting what Tony Blair once called “standards of performability.”  To every possible eventuality, there has to be a pre-prepared statement of procedures.  The rulebook grows remorselessly.

Ofsted was set up in 1993 to ensure compliance to a government-defined curriculum through the extensive monitoring of teaching, and the analysis of exam results.  It replaced the more gentle role of HMI whose traditional confidential advice it turned around into highly public criticisms.  “Name and shame” is the sting in Ofsted’s tail.  In 2007 Ofsted was expanded to include social services, so making it the biggest regulator in the country.

“The question needs to be asked as to whether Ofsted has the appropriate skills and experience to carry [such a broad responsibility],” asked one of its own former Chief Inspectors, “[for] systems that rely too heavily on data and tick boxes is not what we need.”  A primary head comments; “Many millions of pounds of public money and unethical quantities of time and emotional energy are being thrown at surviving the latest incarnation of inspection.”  There is a climate of fear driving a panic response that is ignoring the needs of the moment in order to meet an increasingly massive and seemingly bizarre range of preparatory measures, that are politically motivated, decorative nonsense with little or no basis in really caring for children.”  As if to bear that out Christine Gilbert, the Chief Inspector, is reputed to have said, “Fear is an excellent motivator in school improvement.”

Can that really be true?  Fear leads to stress, and stress is an intrinsic part of the human condition.  Stress causes the brain to inject the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream.  When faced with challenging, personal or social opportunities it is this higher level of cortisol that gives you the edge necessary to “rise to the occasion.”  However if the stress is excessive (distress) then still higher levels of cortisol in the blood cause exactly the reverse reaction, leading to the brain “downshifting” – in simple survival terms this is a good thing for it focuses all your energy exactly where it is needed.  All else is ignored, especially any form of higher-order thinking or sophisticated routines.  It is rather like watching Sergeant Majors barking instructions as they drill terrified new recruits and very quickly getting the desired result.  The recruits quickly learn to ignore everything other than following the orders.

PhDs, and quality ‘A’ levels are not written on noisy parade grounds, but in silent, or near silent, libraries.  Downshifted brains do routine operations remarkably well, but are useless in dealing with complex, original thinking.  It is this disproportionate emphasis on compliance that is trivialising England’s classrooms, and undermining the professionalism of teachers.  It is killing adult creativity, and destroying pupil’s imagination.  No wonder English 15-19 year-olds want even less to do with further education than do adolescents in almost any other country.  Compliance, it seems, destroys what it seeks to achieve.