Ofsted succumbing to Parkinson's Law?

On 1st April this year Ofsted was re-launched as the Office for Standards in Education, Children'sServices and Skills, with an increased remit to inspect children’s homes, adult learning and fostering agencies. There is already concern that that this bureaucratic expansion has only increased Ofsted’s complexity, meaning it is no longer able to perform its original duties of inspecting schools. In a damning report by the education and skills committee, MPs expressed their “concern as to the fitness for purpose of the organisation at the present moment." Two important points should be drawn from Ofsted’s experience.

Firstly, there are serious problems in relying on a single bureaucratic government agency to inspect and so hold our schools accountable. Bloated bureaucracies are inefficient, wasteful and incompetent. Relying on such bodies to inform us on the state of our schools can only end in poor inspections and so appalling schools falling through the net. Schools and teachers should be accountable not to unelected government bureaucrats, but to parents. Parents clearly have a far greater incentive than travelling inspectors to ensure that their child’s school is really up to standard. They are able to subject the school to constant scrutiny and so see through the temporary veneer of respectability often constructed by schools to prepare for inspections. Not only would parents be far better at holding schools to account, it is surely a priori right that parents should have a greater say in the running of schools, and better information on how the school is performing so that they can make informed decisions when making educational decisions for their children.

Secondly, the broader point is that we find this pattern repeated in all government agencies. Government agencies are given a specific role and target. Officials then start to make work for each other and hire subordinates to increase their own powers. Officials build their own mini-empires, channelling taxpayers’ money into their pet projects and so unsurprisingly lose sight of their original objective.

This is the lesson learnt from Parkinson’s Law, famously derived from observing the expansion of the  Colonial Office at the same time as the British Empire was declining. Parkinson noted that bureaucracies grow 5-7% year on year irrespective of the amount of work to be done. Government has become a leviathan of unaccountable bureaucratic agencies that continue to expand and so cost taxpayers’ more and more each year.

To rub yet more salt into the wound, these expanded bureaucracies actually provide a poorer service than their smaller counterparts, as they become distracted from their original purpose, instead diverting resources to ensure their own funding and expansion. Government has lost sight of its real purpose, forgotten those things it can do well, and it is ultimately taxpayers’ who have to foot the bill for this perennial folly.

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