Recent skirmishes between the Department for Education and Ofsted have been overshadowed by more momentous events. Sadly, I don’t mean two Brits winning Wimbledon titles.
While the leadership of our political parties has generally been in meltdown, the battle of one secretary of state with a Commons education committee has been small beer in comparison. Nonetheless, the stand-off between the now-departed education secretary Nicky Morgan and the Commons select committee over the appointment Amanda Spielman as the next chief inspector has been a significant issue for schools and children’s services.
Normally the committee’s interrogation of a minister’s chosen candidate is a formality, a polite rubber-stamping to furnish a veneer of democratic practice.
But the select committee refused to endorse Spielman. Though she has executive experience both in academy chain Ark and as the chair of the exam regulator Ofqual, they reckoned she lacked not only passion but also understanding: of the “complex role”; of the need to build bridges with all the professions inspected; of Ofsted’s overriding responsibility for child protection; and of any sense of Ofsted’s future direction.
Morgan was combative in response, insisting that Spielman “will be a highly effective leader who will be unafraid to do the right thing and where necessary challenge schools, local authorities and government where education and social care services are not meeting the standards our children deserve”. Same old tired message, alas.
Morgan was reported as observing, somewhat bitterly, that Spielman would not be creating newspaper headlines: we know where she’s coming from. Both DfE and the secretary of state now see Sir Michael Wilshaw as “going native”, grinding personal axes, using his last months in post to lambast government for its failings.
The man who has frequently called for more mavericks in education is himself a maverick. Very much a one-man band, and likening himself (or at least the job of headship) to Clint Eastwood’s righteous but ruthless lone gunslinger, he’s constantly rattled cages. Yet one thing has always given his voice authority.
He’s been there, a head in tough schools, fighting tirelessly and unequivocally for the children in his care, driven by a powerful moral purpose. Even though he is excessively intolerant of human frailties and impatient with any suggestion that heads and schools can be simply ground down by constant pressure (including that from the organisation he leads), even his greatest critics concede that he knows what he’s talking about.
'Ofsted chief needs authenticity'
That’s the great necessity for leaders: to know the territory, to have walked in the shoes of those at the mercy of Ofsted’s judgement or whim. At root it is all about authenticity. Every teacher, from head to rookie, needs to know that the chief inspector understands what it's like to deal with the family that will not engage or the child who refuses to learn despite school’s best efforts. They chief inspector needs to understand about the hours teachers continue to put into preparation and marking in those mad last few weeks of term.
I don’t know Amanda Spielman. The jury may still be out as to whether she did a good job at Ofqual but she’s an able leader and administrator who won’t be bamboozled by bogus statistics or irrelevant facts. Yet she hasn’t led a school and has lived with neither those very particular and incessant pressures, nor with the sheer burden of command.
It’s hard to imagine many school leaders in the country feeling anything but sympathy for the select committee over its views with regard to Ms Spielman’s appointment. They know what we feel so deeply in schools: if the inspectorate is to make judgements that have such a powerful, crucial effect on livings and careers, as well as on the opportunities for children, its leader must have authenticity.
It’s clear that Nicky Morgan distrusted and disliked that kind of authenticity, fearing that the next HMCI might follow Wilshaw in his recent pattern of holding government to account, instead of extending its control.
I don’t know what the new education secretary will do now, but I hope they realise just how high the stakes are.
Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets as @bernardtrafford