Surprise School Visits

In the light of the ‘Trojan Horse’ plot in Birmingham schools, Amina Ahmed talks about whether Michael Gove’s plan for surprise school inspections is a good idea

Michael GoveMichael Gove seems to be always under attack. Every time the news is turned on, there is some kind of educational problem blighting society. But then, it is a sensitive area and such scandals are popular with readers, especially parents. This time though, matters seemed to spiral out of control when the so called ‘Trojan Horse’ row between Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Education minister about Islamic extremism in Birmingham schools hit the newspapers like a storm. The issue grew worse when Ofsted boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw went on to accuse Gove of blocking plans to carry out surprise inspections in schools because it was unpopular with head teachers. This led to accusations that the Islamic extremism in Birmingham schools could have been avoided, if not for the man himself.

However, Sir Michael had to back track and according to the Telegraph website, he said: “When I first became Chief Inspector in early 2012, I set out plans to introduce no notice inspections for all schools as part of a wider package of reforms to improve the inspection system. As a result of representations I received from head teachers and others during the consultation, I decided to move instead from two days’ notice to much shorter half-day notice inspections from September 2012.

Events of recent weeks have served to reinforce my original view that no-notice inspections for all schools are the best way to make sure that, for every school we visit, inspectors see schools as they normally are. I recognise that the Secretary of State’s commitment to this principle is also long standing.”

One working mum I spoke to had much to say about the education system in this country. Hajirah Darr said: “Personally, I think the education system in the UK needs a good shake up. Why can’t these average or poor achieving schools all be given the same guidance or use the same techniques as the grammar schools so at least all the children have a better chance of achieving good grades and also the ones which are not achieving can be given more one-to-one guidance and support. The British government owe at least that much to the children of tomorrow.”

When the first Ofsted inspections took place in 1992, schools received a year’s notice.  Currently three-day notices are given.

So as plans to carry out no-notice inspections in schools and colleges take place, is it really a good idea? Well, personally, I think it would help show a more realistic view of teaching because staff members will not be given a chance to plan ‘special classes’ just because Ofsted is visiting. I remember when I was at school and college and Ofsted visits were planned. The teachers would beg us to arrive on time, plan special activities for the visits – it wasn’t that usual classes were badly taught; it was that lessons during inspections were hugely different to what they normally were.

As mother of two children in primary schools, Natalie Copeland, said: “I think it’s [surprise inspections] a good idea; if they are good schools they will have nothing to hide.  It will be a more accurate and transparent reflection of the school. As a parent, I think this move is a good thing.”

Uzma Ahmed has been a private day care nursery manager for five years, with ten years of experience in the sector. She seemed a little indignant about the fact that private nurseries are not given a notice before inspection and that, therefore, neither should schools. “Day nurseries and schools do the same job; they all educate children using the government curriculum, they all follow Ofsted requirements and so why should they be given prior notice before inspections?” she asked.

She went on to say that planned inspections only meant that children and teachers could be on their “best behaviour” and as a result the inspections would be ineffective.

On the other hand, the National Union of Teachers, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country, rejected this proposal because they claimed it would only add to the stress of teachers. Commenting on no-notice inspections of schools by Ofsted, Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, said: “Snapshot, no-notice inspections by Ofsted are not an appropriate way to pass judgement on a school. For accountability to be meaningful there needs to be proper professional and respectful dialogue. It should not be an exercise in walking in and out, giving no chance to see the work of the school in the round.

“No-notice inspections will keep schools looking over their shoulders in anxiety at the prospect of Ofsted’s arrival. This will simply add to the stress levels of teachers and do nothing to improve teaching. The Government should look to and learn from the ‘light touch’ accountability systems of high-performing countries such as Finland and New Zealand which are predicated on trusting schools and teachers to do the best by their students, rather than based on the idea that this can only be achieved through threats or penalties.

“Ofsted is now tarnished. It is time we replaced it with a system that works for children and teachers.”

There are arguments for either side of the story but what is clear is that Michael Gove won’t be left in peace any time soon.

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