Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

The White Ear of Ofsted and the ‘Sonic Surveillance’ of Education

The focus on ‘language’ policing by the arbiters of educational standards exacerbates class and racial inequalities argues a new report

Photo: Roger Askew/Alamy

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

A new study published in the journal Language in Society has concluded the education inspectorate Ofsted conducts ‘sonic surveillance’ and polices the speech of teachers and students, particularly the racially marginalised and working-class.

Examining the role language plays in maintaining racial and class hierarchies the authors suggest that through the prism of standard language and raciolinguistic ideologies, the inspectorate’s aural perceptions of language mean that they exacerbate class and racial inequalities, and fail to focus on the issues that do matter with regards to classroom talk.

The authors, Dr Ian Cushing from Manchester Metropolitan University and Professor Julia Snell from the University of Leeds argue that it is a meritocratic myth that if marginalised speakers simply modify their language practices to conform with benchmarks set by privileged white listeners, then this will solve social inequality.

Unprofessionalism and Language Policing

The paper focuses on how speakers who deviate from ‘standard’ language patterns are shamed and delegitimised in school inspection reports.

For teachers, this is branded as unprofessionalism, symptomatic of poor quality teaching, and perceived as a failure to help their students make educational progress. For students, this is branded as a failure to meet the academic standards set by the school as well as a clear indication that their home language practices are not welcome. For schools, this potentially contributes to a damaging inspection report, which carries material consequences in terms of reputation, parental trust, funding, recruitment, performativity measures such as school rankings, and in some cases, the threat of closure and/or takeover.

The paper’s recommendations are likely to be at odds with the preferences of Sir Martyn Oliver, Amanda Speilman’s replacement as head of Ofsted. Oliver served on the Sewell Commission on race and ethnic disparities which was accused of using a methodology which excluded the possibility of finding that differences in outcomes are the result of race, as reported by the Byline Times

Race Report: Sewell Commission Couldn’t Find Something It Wasn’t Looking For

The methodology used by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities excluded the possibility of finding that differences in outcomes are the result of race, says Jonathan Portes

Analysing 3,000 inspection reports published between 2000-2020, randomly selected from a wider corpus of 102,592 reports, the study found Ofsted systematically made negative comments about the speech of racialised and working-class children, associating these perceptions of speech with bad behaviour, intellectual inferiority, and an unwillingness to learn.

Previous analysis of Ofsted judgements showed schools from more deprived areas are more likely to receive unfavourable judgements than schools with the same levels of progress in more affluent areas. Analysis of HMI inspection reports from the 1800s revealed how language policing is a foundational and institutionalised feature of the inspectorate.

The paper’s authors Ian Cushing and Julia Snell deployed a raciolinguistic genealogy to show how the inspectorate’s ideologies about language, filtered through predominantly white and economically privileged ears, work to normalise school cultures where certain bodies and ways of talking are commended, whilst others are silenced—‘Standard English’ constructed as normative and an auditory benchmark ‘to which all are expected to aspire.’ Structures of language policing were particularly marked for schools serving racialised speakers living in poverty.

“Standard English” is defined as the speaking style of a privileged group of speakers, ‘iconized’ as emblematic of educatedness, civility, and superior moral character. Consequently, regional dialects were stigmatised by Ofsted as ignorant, sloppy, and impure through their association with lower-class speakers. 

Linguists like Michael Rosen have argued, “There are many varieties within written English: legalese is not the same as tabloid journalism. No one speaks standard English. It’s a written code.”

While there was no overt mention of ‘Standard English’ or oral corrections in the 2013 inspection framework the authors explain how the Coalition government explicitly instructed Ofsted to police speech in inspections, a 2011 training document described how ‘inspectors might expect to see a more formal approach to correcting basic errors extended to pupils’ speech’.

Standard English

Between 2011–2021, Ofsted published six reports on  ‘Languages and Literacy’. These drew together deficit perspectives of classed and racialised language whilst commending schools deemed to engage in language policing and punitive correction of spoken language. Leaked Ofsted training materials show how inspectors are being instructed to reproduce problematic notions of ‘proper’, ‘correct’ and ‘standard’ language in inspections.


The Michaela School, Katharine Birbalsingh and the New Culture War Frontier

Byline Times delves into the Michaela Community School and its key backers.

These training guides for inspectors associate what Ofsted calls ‘stronger practice’ as being when teachers ‘speak standard English with pupils’. One guide states that “teachers should also appropriately correct pupils’ grammar when they are speaking formally”.

Another training guide claims that ‘standard English’ is “a term for accurate grammar use”, that if children “cannot speak grammatically correct language, they are often excluded from certain jobs and universities” and that “teaching standard English is a matter of social justice”. 

As such, Ofsted’s training materials instruct inspectors to perceive non-standardised English as a major barrier to social justice and mobility, and all marginalised children need to do to achieve social justice is modify their language so that it resembles white, middle-class children.

Additionally, the authors show how Ofsted’s research reviews rely on deficit notions of language and literacy, where marginalised children are described as having gaps, limitations and absences in their vocabulary and wider speech repertoires.

The authors conclude the inspectorate’s superficial focus on ‘correctness’ and ‘standards’ overshadows more productive approaches to language. They note Ofsted fails to make an important distinction between ‘talk for performance’ – public speaking and the language of written exam answers – and ‘talk for learning’, which refers to classroom discussions where more informal language can be useful in explaining and exploring the understanding of concepts

The paper argues this approach entrenches class and racial inequality, quoting other work from educational linguistics such as Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa which has shown how white middle-class speakers are often afforded greater flexibility in this regard, able to deviate from forms idealised as appropriate without censure, ‘while racialized people can adhere to these idealised linguistic practices and still face profound institutional exclusion’. 


Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and help to support fearless, independent journalism that breaks stories, shapes the agenda and holds power to account.

We’re not funded by a billionaire oligarch or an offshore hedge-fund. We rely on our readers to fund our journalism. If you like what we do, please subscribe.

After publicly raising concerns about Ofsted’s language ideologies, the authors had multiple private meetings with Ofsted representatives before ending engagement due to what they felt was an institutional inability to listen.

The paper calls on the inspectorate to engage with its lasting legacies of colonialism which continues to shape its contemporary practice, to bear responsibility for its role in the marginalisation of classed and racialised communities, and to reflect on its role as a powerful tool of sonic surveillance.

Instead of asking students and teachers to adjust their language practices to conform with standardised English and the ‘appropriate’ patterns expected of them by the state, they suggest the inspectorate modify its listening practices to begin undoing its classed and racialised modes of perception. 

Ofsted was approached by Byline Times for comment on this report but had not replied by the time of publication

Written by

This article was filed under
, , , ,