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Macbeth's Ghost: No-Notice Ofsted Inspections Risk an Educational Witch-Hunt

13/06/2014 12:57 BST | Updated 11/08/2014 10:59 BST

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After the 'Trojan Horse' scandal that has hit some of Birmingham's schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, controversial head of Ofsted, has been given the go-ahead by Michael Gove to allow no-notice inspections. Wilshaw had pushed for their introduction around 2 years ago but, meeting enormous resistance from teachers and heads, was told he could not. Schools were told they would be given a half-day notice period.

It is difficult for those outside of education to understand the anxiety this inspection regime already causes. At any time, at any moment, in any lesson, an inspector can turn up and demand to know what's going on. It is akin to judging the Oscars on a single freeze-frame from a film. The stress that the half-day notice period has caused teachers has been enormous; with the introduction of no-notice visits, this is only going to increase - meaning more stress-related illness, more anxiety and, in the long run, a far worse experience for pupils. To carry on the Hollywood metaphor: the worry that each frame that is shot could be grabbed at any time and used to make important judgements that really do affect careers and livelihoods will lead to a less rich overall production.

More worryingly though, history suggests that this sort of omni-observation at a time like this could lead to a form of educational witch-hunt.

Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Macbeth for the new King James of England - a man who had terrorised Scotland with his witch-hunting, even writing a popular book on how to spot them. Northern Europe at this time was undergoing great theological turmoil, with great changes in the religious make-up in numerous countries, greatly linked to parallel changes in political climates too. Catholics were being persecuted and Protestant puritanism was sweeping across many lands. Coming with it was the idea that God was always watching and the devil always wanting to find a foothold, and that one's salvation was constantly at risk: one move too close to dance, one angry word at a neighbour and the jaws of hell could open right up.

The result of this was a great show of external piety, accompanied with mass moral panic. Difference was suddenly suspicious. The lonely lady on the edge of the village was suddenly to blame for failed crops or illness. People began making wild accusations, with colleagues, one-time friends and even family members being accused of witchcraft so that they themselves were seen as devoted and faithful. Fear gripped the land.

The unintended consequence of Wilshaw's regime could be a parallel educational witch hunt. The underlying message of no-notice inspections is not simply that 'we can come and observe you any time,' but that 'you should feel that we are observing you any time.' Any teacher could be dangerous. All reputations are permanently at risk.

'Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!' the famous Monty Python sketch went, and if it weren't so serious an issue the parallels would be hilarious. Schools will now be expected to function in a climate where they are permanently being observed. If you keep opening the oven door, what you end up with is a deflated cake and a regime of omni-inspection will lead to deflated teachers, flat lessons and students who feel less like learners than bacteria living under a microscope.

Every classroom is a delicate ecology. If education were no more than uploading information to a child's brain we'd be doing schooling factories under production-line conditions. OK, that can seem like what Gove actually wants, but what all parents and educators know is that real education is an alchemical process, one that refuses simple codification. It relies on the relationship between student and teacher - and this is an on-going, evolving, long-term, everyday relationship that adapts to unkind words said at youth club the previous night, what someone had for breakfast, what the weather is like, what happened on the news and someone's sister falling ill.

All teachers understand the value of monitoring the quality of education being provided and the need to assess what is being taught in schools, but the acute pressure of no-notice inspections risks distorting all of this as teachers are placed on permanent high alert, with their reputations and livelihoods open to interrogation at any moment. This is unkind to children as well as staff.

But, equally importantly, at another time of religious and cultural challenge, this regime of omni-observation risks bringing about a culture of accusation too. When those in power above come knocking, the risk is that those who are a little different, those who are non-conformist, those who are doing nothing wrong but don't always toe the line will be pointed at and find themselves under a harsh spotlight. Muslim students, teachers and governors may find themselves ostracised and judged as leaders panic, while others use this opportunity to push their agenda of 'British Values' at the expense of equality and religious liberty.

Macbeth turned out to be such a terrible leader because he put too much weight on the 'words from on high' that told him what his future would be. Uncritical of them, he abdicated any responsibility for the violence he committed. If this was what had been prophesied, it was God's will he slayed and murdered.

More sceptical of these prophesies from above, Banquo suggested caution:

Oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

the instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray's

in deepest consequence.

They are words that should ring throughout staff rooms country-wide. Gove has pushed forward Free Schools and Academies, and is now responding in knee-jerk fashion to have their culture and curricula scrutinised. But these measures, he must be warned, could 'win us to our harm.' Ofsted has rarely seemed to have the best for a school at its heart. It purports to 'tell us truths' - with little evidence base that its findings do anything to raise standards, and plenty that it damages teachers' health and creativity in lesson delivery.

What has gone on in Birmingham needs intervention, of that there is no doubt. But using this as a back-door for the introduction of a no-notice inspection regime is wrong, risky and, for many in education from 'other' cultures, a worrying development that is likely to do little for fairness, integration and equality.

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