A matter of philosophy

I would like, briefly, to shoot the breeze, starting with a summary of three very old and more or less pessimistic points of view about people.


In De Civitate Dei, St Augustine argued that authority exists to restrain what Hobbes would later call the “war of all against all.” People, in short, were usually up to no good and had to be policed.


Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, argued in Summa Theologiae that the first precept of natural law was that ‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.’ So man, created to attain his end, naturally tends toward good.


In Defensor Pacis, his treatise of 1324, Marsiglio of Padua argued that men had to assemble together for this common good but were prone to conflict and therefore needed to be governed.

If we were to apply these to the assurance of quality in education, we might see a spectrum of approaches to inspection.

a) In an Augustinian model, schools need snap inspections, rigorously undertaken because, naturally, they will do whatever they can to avoid being considered inadequate and will do anything for ‘outstanding’.

b) In a Marsiglian model, schools want the best for their pupils, but are in competition with each other and need an impartial arbiter. Some you can trust, but some need policing.

c) If we pursue a Thomist view, however, schools can be trusted to improve themselves and each other, for the betterment of their pupils.

Inspection seems to have wavered somewhere between a) and b). I would like to imagine, with somewhat starry eyes, a situation where c) were possible, where schools would seek not merely to be above average but desire the overall improvement of education.

What if we could stop competing with each other as if education were a nationwide Hunger Game? What if we could take the best principles of peer working that have been adopted within schools and apply them to groups of schools? And what if we could look on, say, an annual review by peers from other schools as a supportive health check? It would require a huge change in our attitudes and perceptions.

I would like to imagine that one day all schools could benefit from peer reviews. I can see no reason why Ofsted-led assurance and peer-led improvement shouldn’t coexist, just as Church and State did for our three philosophers.

For the time being, I will watch and learn. I will give Andrew Morrish, someone far more experienced than I am, the final word, as our starter for ten…


“I very much see [peer review] as the way ahead for inspection, especially for those outstanding schools that are now exempt. As I see it, one of the many advantages … is that you feel as a headteacher that good has been very much done unto you. It is system-led and impact driven, focussing entirely on the core purposes of education. If we can avoid the pitfalls of the cosy-fireside-chat syndrome, then in terms of doing good, peer review is here to stay.”

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