Dear Ofsted

I met one of your inspectors today. He was visiting my children’s primary school and wanted to talk to some parents.

When I say “talk to”, as it turns out, I mean “talk to”. For some reason, before the meeting, I assumed it really meant “listen to”. What would be the point, after all, of talking to some parents?

He asked us some open questions about what we thought of the school. We answered the open questions. He said “Yes”. Then he talked to us. There were a couple of specific things he thought were not good about the school. He really wanted to make sure he told us this. I have no idea why.

We told him, when permitted to, that we didn’t think that his problems were big problems. We told him that our experience didn’t quite fit with what he was describing. We told him that in any case we cared about different things. Did he perhaps want to know, for example, how enthusiastic our children were about their topic work? Or how quickly the teachers responded whenever anyone raised a concern? Or how much my colleague admired the children’s behaviour and maturity when they came to visit the university? Or even, since I understand that stretching more able children is a current hot topic, how much my son enjoyed doing his “tricky maths”?

Nope, not really, as far as I could see.He wanted to tell us about the two things he thought weren’t good. At considerable length, and whatever we said. Fairly soon, the conversation felt like a competition in which he wanted to win every point (and had the advantage of being entitled to make up the rules). It was, to be honest, deeply unpleasant, not to mention a waste of my time. And I’m not even a teacher at the school, and he’s not even assessing me. There was nothing at stake in that conversation for any of us, other than who was going to be listened to.

Thinking about it afterwards, though, I don’t exactly blame this one inspector, and I doubt that sending him for extra training in communication skills would solve anything. I think he’s part of a system that finds it easier to talk to people than to listen to them. He’s part of a system that trusts the simple numbers, rather than the complex people. As far as I can see, that’s the DfE approach to teachers, and indeed to academics, and presumably also to other education professionals, like inspectors. This inspector has probably been talked to a lot himself, about exactly what he should expect to find in each school and exactly what he’s allowed to pay attention to. Right now, he’s probably trying to avoid another talking-to. In his professional role he’s probably, in various ways, systematically disempowered from listening.

Now, if I thought that was the approach of the education system as a whole, I’d aim to take my children out of it. Fortunately, the people who actually educate my children have exactly the opposite approach. I just wish that you and yours would extend to them the courtesy that they routinely extend to everyone with whom they come into professional contact, and listen to them.

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