How Ofsted helped create the cotton-wool kids

Gareth Sturdy

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Anyone who has taught a class of 14-year-olds knows Tommy Two-Face. He is the loudest in the class. But, as you’re quietening them all down, he hams up a load of frustration and shouts ‘shush, you lot!’, as if he alone was blameless.

I thought about hypocritical Tommy at the weekend, when I read the latest declaration from Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, she blamed schools for a culture of over-protection. Children are being wrapped in cotton wool, she argued, by headteachers who are unable to distinguish between real and imagined risk.

Readers of spiked will raise two cheers to this. Learning should be about physical and intellectual adventure, and today’s risk-averse culture stops kids from getting the most out of their education. Wearing hi-vis jackets on school trips and banning conkers in the playground does indeed hold children back.

But as much as Spielman is right to declare that health-and-safety policies are denying pupils the opportunity to develop resilience, she needs to go further to tackle the problem of mollycoddled kids.

There is an underlying trend in education to treat students as emotionally fragile. Mindfulness classes, using fidget spinners to deal with lack of concentration, routinely blaming under-achievement on poor self-esteem, an obsession with talking up adolescent difficulties as a ‘mental-health crisis’ – these are all routine expressions of the belief that kids are just too soft for intellectual rigour. Last autumn, Anthony Seldon, the former master of Wellington College, took a leaf out of Ofsted’s book and proposed a new kind of league table for schools based on wellbeing measures. If Spielman wants to promote grit, she should start by shouting down this kind of talk.

But perhaps the biggest reason to be sceptical of Spielman’s defence of resilience is that no entity has done more to entrench a precautionary mindset in schools than Ofsted. Safeguarding is one of the key measures by which Ofsted judges schools. Staff and visitors are treated as potential threats the moment they walk through the gate, and Ofsted has promoted this way of thinking.

I’m glad that Spielman said what she did. Her speech at this summer’s Festival of Education marked a step-change when she said that ‘the real substance of education is getting lost in our schools’, due to a ‘wretched’ functional reductionism. Under her leadership, there is a chance that Ofsted’s mindless instrumentalism and bureaucracy will be cut back. But if she doesn’t start taking an axe to the real causes of the cotton-wool kids, she’ll end up every bit as wretched as Tommy Two-Face.

Gareth Sturdy is a science teacher in south London and an organiser of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum. Follow him on Twitter @stickyphysics

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