Ofsted/Tribal bans use of the phrase ‘independent learning’

I’ve seen a document sent out by a company called Tribal that undertakes a large proportion of inspections for the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education).  Tribal is one of a new breed of companies that takes on large contracts with the public sector to deliver key services. Others include Serco and G4S. These companies will manage your council’s payroll, do security for your student union or magistrates court, drive you to prison, lock you up in prison,  fit your electronic tag, transport you on the Docklands Light Railway, issue you with penalty fares, clean the hospital ward you end up in when you see how much the penalty fare is …. etc., etc.. Lots of things we think the government or council or other public body does for us are actually done by Tribal, Serco, etc., etc.. You might remember the government had to call in the army when G4s screwed up the security for the 2012 Olympics?

So Tribal. Tribal does a lot of school inspections under contract to Ofsted. They have, shall we say, a mixed reputation. Stupendous education blog teacherROAR recently published an excellent post on concerns about Tribal’s track record.

And now they have written to inspectors who work for them and inspect schools under an Ofsted badge ‘banning… with immediate effect’ the phrase ‘independent learning’ from inspection reports. Pupils learn just as well if ‘teacher talk dominates lessons’, they say; pupil ‘passivity’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Inspectors should not expect to see independent learning and, moreover, should not even dare to use the phrase.

I think it’s very interesting that Tribal wrote to its inspectors banning reference to independent learning but also that they are reacting against independent learning per se. First of all, what is it that has prompted a reaction to independent learning in general to the extent that they will put in writing that the phrase is to be banned with immediate effect? Second, what is it about independent learning that deserves to be banned from all reference in inspection reports. The document says that Ofsted does not wish to endorse any particular instructional method or approach. But surely that is the sole purpose of Ofsted in that it is intended to maintain a standard and to police compliance with certain national benchmarks? To say that Ofsted is disinterested in method and disinterested in the means to achieve the goal of improved test scores is surely to undermine the principles upon which the organisation has been founded. Otherwise it would be genuinely disinterested in what happens in classrooms as long as test results exceeded expected national outcomes. In which case it would not be interested in banning the phrase ‘independent learning’ nor writing to inspectors to say so.

One can only speculate that independent learning has become closely associated with methods and approaches from which Ofsted feels the need to distance itself. Independent learning has become a proxy for liberal-progressive pedagogies that have come to distrust teacher-dominated, lecture-style teaching. In fact, Ofsted wishes to endorse or at least excuse the kind of teaching that happens when people who know a lot about something decide to spout off regardless of who is listening.

Either way, this document and its instruction to inspectors is a clear example of  the way in which school inspection in England has become explicitly ideological and far from disinterested or impartial. It is a very clear example of the worst kind of political influence on education policy in England.

Even more interestingly (for me, at least, dear cyber-reader), a flurry of stories appeared in the British press at the weekend – starting in The Times on Friday – describing (on the basis of briefings close to the government, it seems) a move to either abolish Ofsted or replace it with a separate inspectorate for free schools and academies. ‘Think-tanks’ Civitas and Policy Exchange are said to be publishing reports that argue that Ofsted is too wedded to educationists’ views of what constitutes good teaching (i.e. too ‘progressive’) or that its inspection framework is too draconian and stifles innovation. The newspapers reported this in the context of a number of free schools (one of Mr Gove’s new ideas) failing Ofsted inspections for low standards and incompetent leadership. The attack on Ofsted was related in the reports to the inspectorate’s temerity in not giving a clean bill of health to anything that pops out of Mr Gove’s brain regardless of quality. How very dare they!

So, who knows, maybe the banning of ‘independent learning’ is a part of the real-politik horse-trading necessary to keep Ofsted as a quasi-independent organisation, at least. Either that, or have a new inspectorate explicitly tasked with saying nice things about the policies of the government of the day? Flipping heck, is that what it’s come to?