John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector who has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
Sir Michael Wilshaw’s talk to the Wellington Festival of Education is a survey of the errors of British education over the past half-century, and a final, desperate attempt to impose his values on a system which he believes continues to fail poor pupils. He has been, he says, “a chief inspector in a hurry,” motivated by passion. He makes a thin apology for any offence caused by blunt speaking, but believes inspection under his tenure has improved schools. This interview with Peter Wilby gives further insight into Sir Michael’s career and values.
Until his appointment as chief inspector, Sir Michael and I were fighting the same war against progressive education. When Mossbourne showed that good discipline, clear planning, and hard work could transform opportunities for children in Hackney, I told our shadow ministers, who were quick to visit and praise the school in the House. When his languages colleagues obtained 24 and 28 A* passes from their top sets in German and Spanish, I made sure the DfE and the progressive establishment in language teaching noticed it. When the Mossbourne ethos was extended to ARK and Harris academies, his approach had passed the test of sustainability, and become the basis for reforming British education. Sir Michael has done the country great service. He is, as Michael Gove said, a hero.
But heroes are not gods, and Sir Michael’s Achilles’ heel is inspection.
Labour’s changes to inspection in 2005, replaced the HMI tradition of basing judgements on first-hand observation, checked against data, with an approach that gave supremacy to data. This might have been viable had we had reliable and honest data, but we didn’t. The regime of continuous coursework and assessment, with its deep marking, excessive coaching and rewrites, had always been prone to gaming and corruption. Once heads’ careers depended on the outcome, it unleashed a perverse tyranny in which good people suffered and bullies and cheats prospered, and are still doing so.
Sir Michael ignored this, and did not care much about the competence of inspectors to make accurate judgements on teaching, even allowing them to inspect foreign languages without knowing a word of them. His later step of removing lesson grading from inspection left this to the uninformed, absolute discretion of headteachers giving them unbridled power over the careers of individual teachers. Combined with school-based assessment, this offered unhealthy opportunities for corruption, and probably contributed to current calls to get rid of Ofsted altogether.
Ofsted’s respect for parliament under Sir Michael was on a level with that of Sir Philip Green – it told the Select Committee that it had advisers in every subject, when the document it supplied in support of the claim listed just three, and only one of them – maths – in a core subject. I know of no-one outside Ofsted’s payroll who believes that Sir Michael’s Ofsted has improved schools, and am convinced that the abuses it has led to have contributed to current shortages of teachers. The headteacher of one outstanding school – and a Conservative supporter – told me she was terrified of it.
All of this leaves a lot on the shoulders of his successor, Amanda Spielman. Like every chief inspector other than Sir Mike Tomlinson, Ms Spielman comes to the post without extensive experience as an inspector, and she needs to rectify this. She has, on the other hand, wide knowledge of the practicalities of teaching from her work with ARK, and has overseen the reconstruction of examinations as Chair of Ofqual. To do the same for Ofsted, she needs to return the organisation to the simple principles set out by Sir Mike in his first meeting with HMI – “From now on, all judgements will be based on evidence, and the evidence must be sufficient to substantiate each judgement.”