Thursday, November 26, 2009

Layer 230 . . . Accountability, Ofsted, ResPublica, Trust, The Boat Race and the Human Race.

In the news today, the big question – have the water companies been handing out enormous profits to shareholders, when they should have been re-investing them in service improvements, and indeed cutting charges to consumers? Hello? Do bears shit in the woods?

The new Tory guru, one Phillip Blond, is today launching his very own think tank – ResPublica. Mr Blond (sounds like a character from Reservoir Dogs) has had a big thunk about the “Trust Economy”, and says that we need to reconsider how we approach 'public accountability'  - replacing oppressive bureaucracy with 'trust' and the presumption of efficiency and effectiveness unless clear evidence becomes available through 'normal' scrutiny by clients and the public.

Interesting idea. Especially in an era where bankers and financiers, and water companies, as well as politicians and senior civil servants, have shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy. Still – it's clear we need to become a more trusting society, and for that the happen there needs to be a revolution in the consciousness of those who have completely fallen down in this respect.

On the other hand, the vast majority of public service professions can certainly be trusted to manage their own affairs, through peer-review, etc, and ought not to suffer oppressive management and scrutiny by layers of highly paid bureaucrats and ignorant politicians.


Guardian letters

Time to exclude Ofsted from schools

Ofsted is a creature of New Labour's obsession with raising standards by central micromanagement enforced by ruthless inspection: it fails to accept that social deprivation can mean that, however hard-working and committed the teachers and social workers are, the "expected" standards cannot be reached overnight (Flawed Ofsted fails barrage of inspections, 23 November). Ofsted provides an ineffective form of accountability. Its £70m could be better spent.
Eight objections to Ofsted are set out at These show how it acts as a ruthless enforcer of inept government policies with a narrow vision which totally fails to take account of local circumstances, that it is fear-inducing in a way alien to most teachers and social workers, that it undermines their professional status, fails to provide support to those needing it, and there is a dearth of firm evidence that it has succeeded in raising educational standards.
A spokesman says that current criticisms are not in accord with what frontline workers are telling them. Who tells a dragon that its breath is too hot?
Michael Bassey
Emeritus professor of education, Nottingham Trent University

It is to be hoped that the MPs' report on Ofsted will be a firm nail in this laughable watchdog's coffin. Having experienced several inspections, I was appalled at the subjective and occasionally inane comments used to grade my teaching and that of the schools I have taught in.
Christine Gilbert confirmed my worst suspicions when she said Ofsted might ask students if they are bored as a means of analysing a school. Any educationist, parent or indeed student knows that if you catch a pupil on a bad day or if they have lingering resentments against a teacher, they will give any response necessary to denigrate him or her.
Those of us concerned about good education must never lose a chance to remind people that Ofsted is a political creation whose purpose is to remove accountability from elected officials.
We need to return to a sane and fair way of providing environments where teachers teach and children learn.
Michael Ayers

Ofsted's inspection methodology is flawed not only for its imbalanced reliance on paper, form-filling and abstracted data (ie without adequate context) but because its judgments are never moderated. The five private companies that carry out the inspections are never asked to look at the same institution independently of each other as a most basic check on their reliability.

The result is an unaccountable quango, highly susceptible to government pressure, the individual prejudices of its inspectors and the need of the inspection companies to conform to government expectations in order to get their contracts renewed. Ofsted's recent volte-face with Haringey council after the Baby Peter tragedy is a case in point.
Keith Lichman
Campaign for State Education

Why Ofsted Inspection Of Schools Should Be Abolished

It is clear from the evidence that there is tremendous and grave concern about SATs, Ofsted and, to a lesser extent, the national curriculum - across the teaching profession and the research community. Each has served its purpose in the past, but now, for the sake of effective education of the children in our schools, should be taken off the statute book. This section sets out the main arguments against inspection of schools by the Office for Standards in Education.
Ofsted has contributed to a culture of compliance under which schools and teachers prepare for evaluation out of fear rather than commitment and enthusiasm. National Union of Teachers (2004)
What school leaders need is not more pressure and constantly moving goalposts, but an environment that trusts them as professionals to do the job they were employed to do. … Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (2006)

Campaign for State Education

Kate Humble spoke very eloquently on R4 today about how much she disliked her own schooldays, and hated having to go through a system that cared only about processing children through tests, due to the obsession with league tables.

“One of life’s great joys is dancing naked in the sun. It makes me feel so good. Even now, there are all sorts of places in the world where you can take your clothes off and not be seen”. -- Kate Humble


The Boat Race and the Human Race

I really like my multicultural neighbourhood, where you can see in my local newsagent copies of the Wall Street Journal sandwiched between copies of the Morning Star and the Socialist Worker; where the Guardians lie slightly to the right of them, but to the left of the Times, the Sun and the Sport. For some unknown reason - which now that I come to think about it I'll have to look into - the Mails sit on the counter, alongside the local rag and the evening sub-standard.

So – back to the papers.

Richard Williams had his usual excellent column on the back page of the sport section yesterday, which isn't his usual slot. He was writing about the Boat Race.

You may be as surprised as I was to discover the existence of something called the Boat Race Company. This week its chairman emerged to announce that, after 180 years of being identified by a simplest possible title, the annual Putney-to-Mortlake eight‑oared rowing contest between Oxford and Cambridge will be known from this day forward as the Xchanging Boat Race.
Bizarrely, or so it must seem to today's legions of marketing executives, for the vast majority of its history the race managed to get along quite nicely without the benefit of a sponsor or even a limited company dedicated to its upkeep.
Personally, I could never see the excuse for taking any sponsorship money at all for this event. The crews are composed of undergraduate and post-graduate students, whom the universities should be able to supply with the necessary boats, boathouses and coaches. Not much else should be required, you might think.
It was patiently explained to me yesterday that the annual costs include paying top coaches to create crews of "world-class standard", buying a new boat every couple of years at £30K a pop, subsidising the cost of morning and afternoon training six days a week from September to April, paying the Port of London Authority to clear the river of debris on training and race days, and hiring giant screens for the spectators.
But why do Boat Race crews, who exist only to race against each other, with no need of external yardsticks, have to be of "world-class standard"? Why can't they make their boats last longer? Why do we expect students to behave like professional sportsmen when they ought to be attending their lectures and tutorials? Why can't the river authorities bear the cost of preparing the Tideway for an event that enhances London's standing as a tourist destination? Rather than training on the course, wouldn't it be more fun to get the oarsmen to treat it like a French unseen? And why should the spectators be given additional viewing facilities that deprive them of the ancient thrill of watching the two distant specks grow larger until their identities can be distinguished?
Of course I know the fundamental answer, which is that the universities have grown to depend on the tuition fees paid by post-graduate students from abroad, who are mostly 6ft 7in, 220lb giants in their mid-30s, with Olympic medals already in their possession, plenty of time on their hands and very little interest in, say, deciphering the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

Looking back from the future, decades from now (?), people in more moral societies will feel a deep sense of digust that so much money was squandered on futile and inane nonsense like boat races and spectator conveniences when the planet was in such dire straits with millions struggling to survive, and indeed millions dying from hunger, disease and starvation.

We live in a global village, we know full well what happens in every part of the village, and yet we behave as though the people at the other end of our village don't even exist as they cry out for help and support, whilst we get on with our ludicrous and outrageous over-consumption of things that take us away from developing and fulfilling ourselves as human beings.

By all means let's have boat races if we must, but let's boycott everything that reeks of the commercialisation of a thing that ought to be cheap, cheerful and joyful, as opposed to expensive, grim and dull.

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