Too many pupils miss lessons, says Ofsted, and that’s right. Call it the Michael Gove effect

The bond is breaking between many children, parents and schools, with rising absences and more disruption. Even allowing for post-pandemic mental illness keeping more pupils from school, Amanda Spielman’s final Ofsted report, published last week, finds that in England “far too many children are missing school far too often”, with parents less likely to back schools over discipline, rules and uniform, but more likely to complain.

Did she ever consider Ofsted’s role in this decline? This has been a decade in which the inspectorate tormented schools and headteachers with a miserably narrow notion of “good”, when it was school resources that were most “inadequate”. That children are alienated from education is no surprise when schools are stunted by “examification” and a rigid, overstuffed curriculum offering so much less to spark their enthusiasm.

Art, music, dance and drama have been cut and 23% of arts teachers in England shed, so 40% fewer pupils take GCSE arts subjects than in 2010: children are less likely ever to sing in a choir or play in an orchestra. The chancellor himself says cultural industries grow at twice the rate of the rest of the economy, so where’s the arts seed corn, if not in schools? Michael Gove’s Gradgrind Ebacc excludes all arts subjects.

Love of sport attaches many children to school, but playing fields are sold, PE hours cut. Overburdened teachers have less time for out-of-school clubs and plays, with school trips rarer, and exams and Progress 8 scores (for added attainment) driving out all else. English? See Michael Rosen’s excoriation of grammar lessons – those fronted adverbials – for choking off pleasure in reading.

So why be surprised at more school refusers whose parents let them stay away? Understaffed schools have less sight of bullying. The number of children in elective “home education” reached 116,300 in the 2021–22 academic year; some are taught, but some aren’t.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says school costs are rising faster than general inflation. Capital defunding began when Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme was scrapped, so now the public accounts committee reports “unacceptable and alarming” deterioration, with 700,000 pupils in buildings so bad they “limit their educational achievements”.

Gove’s thunderous four years fixed government policy for the nine – yes nine – education secretaries who followed him, as he assailed the “blob” of teachers and cut 9% per pupil. Teacher pay cuts left only half the required trainees recruited this year. A third of new secondary school heads quit after five years.

Gove castigated Labour for the attainment gap between poorer and better-off children. But he made that worse by abolishing Labour’s “every child matters” wraparound agenda embracing everything a child needs: children with problems can’t learn, nor those who are hungry or constantly moving between rented homes. James Bowen, the director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, tells me that schools now do the work of all the vanished health visitors, school nurses, social workers and Sure Start centres. No surprise at the IFS’s grim assessment of the widening social gap in children’s attainment when the Tories shifted school funds from deprived to affluent (Tory) areas. Last week, the chancellor cut an extra 1% in school funding from next year.

A third of children fail and fail again, never jumping the barbed wire fence of crucial English and maths GCSEs: further education colleges, havens for second chances, must enforce perpetual resits until they reach 18. Only 20% of the 175,000 resitting maths will ever pass: this is educational punishment. If failing is a child’s school experience from the start, why turn up to be branded stupid, if anything else they might shine at is pared away? The exam obstacle is designed to weed them out and keep them down, ensuring they will pass school phobia on to their own children.

What’s remarkable is that so many heads and teachers manage to retain some of the joy of school life against all odds. Vic Goddard, the head of Passmores academy in Harlow, Essex, is full of praise for teachers who choose this hard area, despite plentiful, easier jobs: he has 60 children with special educational needs and disabilities, when the average is 25. Yet he’s kept music, with three school shows a year. “The world’s an angrier place,” he says, as more parents complain: he’s had death threats and anti-vaxxer protests. He’s all but abandoned ticking boxes for Ofsted and focuses most on every child reaching the right reading age: “that’s what matters most for their life”. (His father was a good plumber who never really learned reading – a loss – but now he wouldn’t get on a plumbing course without GCSE maths and English.)

Related: School leaders in England feel lockdown ‘broke spell’ of bond with parents

Four Ofsted inspections are looming: “It’s a lottery, depending what inspector you get. I want Ofsted to be an improver, helping me to do better”, instead of a one-word judgment. “We may not get outstanding, but we give a damn. That’s why we’re the most oversubscribed school in town,” he says, but he’s not rewarded for the care he’s proudest of.

Ofsted reform is the top demand from head teachers. Goddard is delighted that Labour’s Bridget Phillipson promises Ofsted will abandon one-word praise or damnation and replace it with a rounded report card. But that needs care not to produce obsessive teaching to that card. Second, for smaller classes, he urgently needs those 6,500 teachers Labour will pay for with £1.7bn VAT relief taken from private schools. Third, “Teachers need to feel valued again.” And every child needs one good reason why they should want to come to school.

Postscript: the Department for Education is currently recruiting a videographer, primarily to film the education secretary, Gillian Keegan – for a salary of £48,701 a year. Michael Gove sent every state primary and secondary school in England a King James Bible (“funded by philanthropists” to the tune of £375,000). An oak-framed portrait of the king for every school is costing £8m.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist