This is an edited version of an introduction given at the Academy of Ideas discussion - Is Ofsted becoming too political? - on Monday 21st February, 2022
By Neil Davenport
We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the creation of Ofsted, introduced by the Conservative Party as part of wider educational reforms. In many ways, it’s a significant date to look back on. This moment represented the start of re-organising state institutions and their relationship to mass society. The demise of the Labour Party as a mediating bridge between the elites and the working classes was over. New points of connection had to be embedded. Consequently, state education has increasingly been relied upon as a mediator of elite ideas at any given time. So in this sense, of it's ideological role, Ofsted has always been political. Even when Ofsted appears to be engaged in just teaching and learning guidelines, they still reflected wider establishment concerns too. For example, in the 2000s Ofsted were preoccupied on instrumental approaches to learning and devaluing academic content. It reflected the new elite’s shift towards toward anti-intellectualism, presentism and ‘learning for skills’ dogmas.
Over the past six to seven years, though, the approach by Ofsted has dramatically changed. There are explicit and punitive moral directives that are enforced upon on state schools. It reflects the broader cranking up of identity politics as a way of creating new moral purposes for state institutions and to discipline society as a whole. (Such developments relate back to the discussions on the New Elites conference back in November, 2021). Consequently, the inspection of teaching and learning - the apparent purpose of Ofsted - is increasingly becoming second place. What matters is whether state schools are compliant on a whole range of moral instructions from the civil service. And I think it is in this area, in particular, that the gulf between an ostensibly anti-woke government with a deeply woke state has made itself felt. And yet, it is fair to say that the Tory Party are completely in tune with the new morality on identity politics and LGBT issues. They just allow Quangos to appear that they are driving these changes through independently, not the Tory Party itself.
For us teachers, it became apparent that after lockdown, Ofsted guidelines prioritised combating homophobia and transphobia, as well as #MeToo related panic on sexual harassment. This was more pressing than the quality of teaching and learning. Consequently, a number of schools which, despite having excellent teaching and stellar exam results, were rapidly downgraded and put into special measures. Broader moral questions, and compliance on moral questions, have become more important than the academic content of lessons.
Some of these responses, particularly on combating homophobia, have their roots in the Trojan Horse scandal back in 2014. There was a panic that religious extremism was taking grip in Muslim majority schools, whilst this also tipped into inspecting Jewish schools, particularly the quasi home schooling in the Hasidic community, as well as some Catholic schools. This is why Ofsted started insisting on the teaching of British values in state schools, campaigns against FGM and looking out for signs of extremism. The 2010 Equality Act was also a key justification for greater scrutiny of religious schools, but clearly some ‘protected characteristics’ are more protected than others. Nevertheless, the need to combat the pernicious influence of Islamic social conservatism is not the full story here either. Ofsted approved material on combating ‘religious extremism’ often does not mention the type of religious extremism. They will often downplay the threat of Islamic terrorism in the process.
What’s not widely known, however, is that after Brexit some educationalists promoted the idea that support for Leaving the EU could be classified as a form of political extremism and thus ‘prevented’ in the classroom. A questionnaire sent around by universities and exam boards on teaching content in sixth forms slipped in Brexit as a game changing ‘danger’. Attempting to paint Brexit as an example of ‘far right extremism’ was always a stretch outside of the Guardian. But as Claire Fox noted, the cranking up of identity politics in state schools has become a galvanising mechanism against the populist revolt of Brexit. It is the need to contain ‘populism’ that helps explain the drive on identity politics and LGBT issues in schools.
Finally, the other contentious issue with Ofsted is the catch all word of Safeguarding. This has become a blank cheque to write anything that the state believes poses 'risk' or 'harm' to children. Of course, schools have always ensured children’s safety and wellbeing, and that is important. But Safeguarding has become a justification for a whole range of petty authoritarianism. More often, it translates to snooping on a child’s home life and undermining parental authority. Again, Ofsted can downgrade schools if they feel they’re not encouraging children to report wellbeing and safety issues to teachers. In this respect, the SNP’s Named Persons Act - essentially making all children wards of the state - is steadily being introduced through the back door, by way of threatening schools with a special measures grading if they don’t comply.
Ofsted has always been political, ensuring that the ideological needs of the ruling elite can be transmitted into state schools at any given time. It was created once older mediators of elite rule had collapsed in the post-Cold War era. The difference today is that Ofsted have become a key institution to enforce new elite authoritarianism onto the next generation; to provide moral purpose for an out-at-sea political class and contain what they see as the dreaded spectre of populism.