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Under pressure: inspection regimes and the institutionalisation of failure


Under pressure: inspection regimes and the institutionalisation of failure

Dr Chris Beighton and Dr Zahid Naz ask if institutional inspections are effective, following recent questioning of Oftsed and calls for it to be reformed.

The recent news that a group of teachers from Kent and Medway has written to Ofsted, the regulator for the education sector, follows the suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry, whose death in March 2023 has been linked to an impending Ofsted judgment.

Perry’s death has revived long-standing criticisms about how various parts of the education sector are regulated. Critics argue that that bodies such as Ofsted are not themselves as effective as we might like: in a recent article (Beighton and Naz, 2023) we discuss how inspections can, in Further Education contexts, be “gamed” by those involved. Often, our data suggests, inspections represent a chance to display artificial practices honed precisely in order to meet expectations while having little or no impact on the substance of the teaching and learning taking place.

The idea that inspection (un)knowingly produces these “phantom organisations” has been frequently critiqued, and our research suggests that many are complicit in a regime with greater concern for judgmental soundbites than quality. The reasons for this are complex, long-standing and discussed at length elsewhere (e.g. Naz, 2021;  Beighton, 2021; Powell and Beighton, 2023), but they may indicate a creeping “spectacular disconnection” between image and reality in the public sphere.

More concretely, they matter right now when teachers – and other professionals – are pursuing strike action. Falling pay is on the table, but when Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) asks for an inspection system which is “supportive, effective and fair.’’, she joins the long list of critics who welcome effective inspection while doubting the ability of current organisations to actually provide it.

Moreover, it’s possible that such remarks also apply to other parts of the institutional inspection world. Sector-specific bodies, which have developed significantly over the last few years, aim to “professionalise” and “regulate” many of the services at the heart of our society.  Schools have Ofsted; water companies have Ofwat; energy companies have Ofgem; care homes have the CQC. All have recently faced scathing questions about their failure to guarantee even basic standards of fairness, efficacy, and even safety.

Perhaps the most striking example is that of the Police force’s College of Policing, a body created to “set standards”, “share good practice”, “reduce crime” and of course “keep people safe”. A key part of this mission is its 2014 Code of Ethics, which is: “intended to encourage personal responsibility and the exercise of professional judgement; empowering everyone in policing to ensure they always do the right thing.”

Nearly a decade later, the death of Sarah Everard and the related 2023 Casey review of Policing indicate that the Metropolitan police is, code of ethics notwithstanding, “institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic”.  Those following such institutionalised failures among public regulatory bodies might be forgiven for greeting their “intention” to “do the right thing” with some scepticism.

Dr Chris Beighton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Education Studies. Dr Zahid Naz is a Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London.

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