John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector who has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
Theresa May’s excision of Neo-Conservatives from the front bench on Wednesday and Thursday was followed by what I will call “Quiet Friday”. Nothing much happened, and the Prime Minister was off to Scotland to build bridges with Nicola Sturgeon. For education, this was good news. Justine Greening steps into a department with an experienced and hard-working team who have carried through significant changes in the school curriculum; (as late as Tuesday, Nick Gibb announced a £41m extension of mastery approaches in mathematics) – and who know the ground.
She was fortunate, also, that the controversy over Sir Michael Wilshaw’s replacement as HMCI, a position that has become almost as important as that of Secretary of State, had been handled by Nicky Morgan. The Select Committee was right to question her closely on all areas of the brief, but might have adopted Matthew Arnold’s inspection principle and put themselves in her place.
I know of no-one who has the depth of understanding of the full range of Ofsted’s work that the post appears to require, and Amanda Spielman is frank about what she does and doesn’t know. She has the intellectual capacity and managerial skills to do the job to a high standard, and it is in the national interest that she should succeed.
The Committee’s comments on Ofsted itself are absolutely correct, and Ms Spielman’s biggest task is to restore professional respect for the organisation. Its budget has been cut too hard to enable it to do its job properly, with its inadequacies most harshly shown by Trojan Horse and Haringey. It needs either to do less, and do it better, or to have its budget raised to a sensible level. Both Labour and ourselves have put inspection a long way behind management in educational priorities, and inspectors are not paid enough to attract the top talent. Above all, we need to rid ourselves of Labour’s idiotic notion that any inspector can inspect anything. Ofsted needs a serious and urgent injection of professional expertise.
But what can we expect from Ms Greening? We know that she attended a comprehensive school (Oakwood, Rotherham, followed by a sixth form college) that she has a strong interest in the education of girls, and that she has tried to help the most disadvantaged, but I can find no comments on British education that will give a hint as to policy. Conservative Home has been highlighting the contributions of Nick Timothy, sometime director of the New Schools Network and Theresa May’s Chief of Staff. I recommend this one as a guide to the new government’s principles.
Governing in the interests of ordinary, working people is not only the right thing to do, but essential to the future of Conservative government. My offer of help with educational problems is taken up by parents from all parts of society, and the difficulties faced, for example, by parents who are both working, in even finding time to bring a child for help are sometimes close to insuperable. Work five and a half days a week as a hairdresser and run a house, and you need a rest rather than more work in your time off. Bring up a teenager as a single parent, have to send him or her to the only school in town, which you know is third-rate, with a dressed-down, obfuscating headteacher, and the burden can be overwhelming. These parents and their children have no hope without good schools.
For Nick Timothy, my wife and myself, this meant a grammar school. Today, it may mean a Harris or Ark academy. The “secondary modern comprehensive” will not do, and we can expect much more from the new schools movement.