Nicky Morgan has the best part of a year to find Sir Michael Wilshaw’s successor.  This gives her – and us –  plenty of time to consider what we want school inspection to do, as well as who should do it.  As with football management, most of us think we’d do a better job than the incumbent, but what should the job be?

The biggest question is whether Ofsted should be an instrument of policy, involved in what Sir David Bell called “the management of change”, or a means of evaluating how well the education system is working.  Ofsted is not subject to ministerial control, but its head is nominated by a minister. A pre-appointment hearing by the Select Committee does not include a right of veto. Gillian Shepherd told the second HMCI, Sir Chris Woodhead, that unless he got his inspection schedule together she would shut the whole thing down, and both knew that she could, and would, do it.

Sir David Bell’s tenure is widely agreed to be a turning point in every aspect of Ofsted’s work. The system of independent registered inspectors, with the statutory right to disagree with HMCI if their evidence did not support his judgement on a failing school, was replaced with one in which Ofsted took direct responsibility for the report, giving Sir David control over “what is done in my name.”

Trained inspectors could inspect anything in the field of education and children’s social services, whether they knew about it or not, and central management was strengthened by paying very high salaries to a small number of people, while recruiting new inspectors at roughly half the rate previously paid, and running down the salaries of existing HMI so that they were soon paid at the same level as senior teachers rather than heads.

Contractors were selected on their willingness to work to the new system,  the time allocated to school inspection was slashed, in some cases from over seventy inspector days to one or two,  and data, including fake equivalences and the questionable systems of “value added” developed by the Fischer Family Trust, given precedence over first hand evidence. The idea of HMI as education’s  first eleven was killed dead, and they were no longer allowed to talk to the press.

From the outset I saw this as a Cromwellian tyranny,  and hearing an inexperienced HMI tell a school management team that he didn’t have time to inspect teaching, but had to go on what they told him, convinced me that it was also inadequate.  He told us to ignore an unsatisfactory lesson as it was beside his main concerns. Pupils’ questionnaires, which showed up poor behaviour better than any other source, had been abolished, and he didn’t look at  the parents’ questionnaire until it was too late for him to investigate any concerns it raised.

Cameos of excellent teaching, which enabled others to learn from it, had been abolished, and schools frequently complained, with good reason, that reports had been written from paperwork before the inspectors arrived.  A worse combination of arrogance, incompetence and injustice would be hard to imagine.

I’ve argued over recent months that too much of this is still in place, and that some elements have got worse. For example, national survey reports of subjects have been quietly abandoned.  Cameos of the best practice have reappeared in HMCI’s reports, but not in school reports. Some judgements lack credibility – notably the way the head of Rose Hill School in Oxford was recently criticised for not knowing how to retain staff when twelve out of fifteen teachers had resigned immediately before she arrived – while the failure to detect Trojan Horse confirms the select committee’s view that the framework is inadequate to meet the increasing challenges posed by extremism.

However, there is no getting past the fact that we Conservatives set a precedent for these abuses when Sir Chris Woodhead was moved from the school curriculum authority to Ofsted. Previous HMI had had political allegiances – Eric Bolton had been a Labour councillor – but had become impartial on appointment.

Sir Chris made major statements on policy that attracted more attention than those of ministers and made him the focal point of educational debate. Senior inspectors kept the inspection regime on the rails, and Sir Mike Tomlinson made real improvements during his brief tenure as HMCI. However, the door to a political appointment had been opened, and Sir David Bell, a guest at Blair’s 1997 victory party, walked through it.

It is time to shut that door. This appointment is too important to be made by the usual processes of headhunting, cherry picking and personal contacts. Making a strong personal impression on a minister, as Lady Plowden did when sitting next to Edward Boyle at dinner, is not a basis for appointing someone to a position in which they have more practical and lasting influence on education than ministers do themselves.

Over the years, a handful of chief inspectors – Matthew Arnold, Sheila Smith and Sir Mike Tomlinson – have had the combination of knowledge, experience, tough-mindedness and wisdom to command respect across the full range of the educational and political spectrum. Nicky Morgan needs to use all of the resources and time available to her to find such a person, from whatever source –  someone who could do for education what the late Cardinal Basil Hume did for the Catholic church.

4 comments for: John Bald: Choosing a new head for Ofsted is not the only challenge

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