On being seduced by OfSTED

In May 2002 Initial Teacher Education (Further Education) at my then University was inspected by OfSTED – mainly 3s and a few 4s meant the area was considered as inadequate: bad department. 

We work in a partnership with two other local colleges – and while each are distinct institutions with their own organisational culture, the unit of performance is ‘The Partnership’. The inspection process ties us together; something like a three legged race. Despite OfSTED’s designation, there were glimmering shards of fluorescence amidst the devastation

OfSTED does not resonate with the same degree of authority in Higher Education as it does within schooling. The reaction of the University has been – until recently benignly supportive.
At some point in December the reaction changed from polite supportive indifference (with the assumption that the re-inspection would be a pass) to an anxiety driven aggression.  I understand this. The Teacher Education team at my former University – Primary and Secondary – were graded as 2 and 1 respectively: good department. They are in a desperate and vulnerable situation as the Coalition plans to move teacher education out of Universities into Training Schools, takes hold. They are firmly of the opinion that another 4 for  ITE FE will have repercussions beyond the minuscule FE team, smearing the credibility of the Centre for Educational Studies. There are so many theoretical tropes to draw on in attempting to make sense of this.
What I am experiencing here is the brutish force of what Lyotard (1984) refers to as performativity.    
What do I mean by performativity? Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change, based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organizations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organization within a field of judgement.
Lytotard 1994, cited by Ball (2003) 
The classifications driven by OfSTED and the coercive power encoded within them define the professional (and personal) worth of not the department as an abstraction, but of named individuals. With decisive implications. As our consultant made clear, whispered supportively to me over a buffet lunch, ‘You’re in the firing line.’ The terrors of performativity are a totalising terror: an embodied, physical terror.  The assault is to more than reputation or creditability
But it is not just fear and avoidance that drives the willingness to colonise the self to the OfSTED process.  Gallies’ (2007) analyses the rhetoric of excellence by reference to condensation symbols.  The physical threat coercively encoded in OfSTED grade 1 and grade 2 demand a passionate commitment to excellence as a mask for personal and professional aspirations, fears, subconscious desires and beliefs. It is a deeply embedded metaphor that, when we suspend criticality, when we operate in the day-to-day mode we are unable to recognise or resist. Quality is a commonsensical Desirable Thing. To place yourself beyond a framework that values excellence is to place yourself beyond a framework that confers intelligibility and worth.
And so – the seductions of OfSTED.  
For Bjerrum-Nielsen (1995) seductive texts as texts which operate somewhere between an assault and a conversation.  Where the reader is disarmed in the process of reading and as such suspends critical faculty.  The reader is willingly swept off their feet; all texts aim to be seductive texts. Yet the seductive text bases its claims to credibility not on persuasion or force of argument but on empiricism.  This matters. A credible charming and extraordinarily authoritative inspector has made a decisive and welcome intervention in the re-inspection process. Without her – we would have been headed for another inadequate. Yet, this same credible charming and extraordinarily authoritative inspector consultant convinced me – for more than a moment – that the purpose of OfSTED was not – to promote government policy, was not to instil in each professional an acquiescent and suicidal ‘technology of self’, was not the promotion of an externally persuasive, government sponsored version of quality but was rather to promote equality. The data driven analysis of quality was premised on the desire to ensure that all were being treated as equals. This is a proactive strain in the framework. The compulsion was to not only to treat all as equals but to actively promote equity.

If presented well, even elephants dung is beautiful.

I do not doubt the integrity or charm of our consultant. My refusal is not inter-subjective.  What I am making clear is that the assault and conversation in this instance although embodied, but not with a person.  I am willingly subject in the process of being disarmed, I am passionate about equity. My life depends on it. There are 13 black female professors in the UK, Mirza (2009) points this out in Black Women and Educational Desire, I will work, a proud resident of strivers’ row for equity and social justice in ITE FE. I conduct myself with a vigilance that notices that discrimination come in all sorts of shades and tones. My colleague’s blitheness: ‘the reason Pakistani boys do less well in FE is because they leave college to work in the family business’; this area is typically white working class – by implication, before the Polish, the Africans and all the ‘others’ we were all the same.  I remind myself of difference, of diversity not only as a source of strength but as a source of power (Hall 2011).

The belief  – a belief I was seduced for more than a moment into accepting – that OfSTED’s coercive apparatus is deployed to promote equity is an abstraction, a defining aspect of quality; it is a belief that makes OfSTED’s data obsessed version of e/quality beautiful.  A beauty reminiscent of Ofili’s paintings. 

Incompressible guidelines

We spent – all of us – teachers, managers, academics with years experience – 2 full days with a consultant explaining a text. A framework all of us felt we knew. And even if we didn’t know, all us with the skill, passion and expertise to read and understand. We were reassured that there are no surprises in OfSTED. It is all explicit. But if it is explicit – why is it so troubling to understand. Why does it take 2 days – 2 very expensive days and the request for more and the assertion that it was worth every penny spent for us to understand this document.  The organisation has more than 1 OfSTED expert. There is a contradiction here between quality as generic and quality as highly contextualised and specific, an incomprehensibility I have explored elsewhere, (Dennis 2011).

The abstract nature of guidelines
create awkward spaces, interstices within which professionals are required to act.  An awkwardness that when coupled with the exclusive colonisation of an area enclosed by policy and defined as quality, as e/quality and desirable – an incomprehensibility that seduces professionals, compelling them to define themselves – and what they do – in ways that subject their selves to damaging designations. 

During the meeting our consultant – charming, authoritative and worth every penny – a consultant who has changed what would have been in adequate into something that is potentially good, a consultant who has made my job infinitely easier advises us of the link OfSTED will make between recruitment and retention  If students do not stay on courses, and achieve – it is because you have not selected them appropriately. 

On hearing this, a colleague who had temporarily zoned out asked if such a judgement would persist, ‘…even if they died?’


Ball, S. (2003). “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity.” Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215 – 228.
Bjerrum Nielsen, H. (1995). “Seductive Texts With Serious Intentions.” Educational Researcher, 24(1), 4-12.
Dennis, C. (2011). “Measuring quality, framing what we know: a critical discourse analysis of the Common Inspection Framework.” Literacy, 45(3), 119-125.
Gillies, D. (2007). “Excellence and education: rhetoric and reality.” Education, Knowledge and Economy, 1(1), 19-35.
Mirza, H. S. (2009). Race, gender and educational desire: Why black women succeed and fail: Taylor & Francis.

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