In the Battle of Ofsted, ministers are in the crossfire

Neither the inspectorate nor the academy bosses are likely to back down in their stand-off over the new Ofsted framework. And now Downing Street is wading in

Ed Dorrell

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Pity, if you can bring yourself to, the big cheeses in the Department for Education: circumstances largely out of their control have left them in a very tricky position.

They are stuck between a rock and a hard place over the decision by three of Academy Land's biggest hitters to attack Ofsted over its new inspection framework.  

Sir Dan Moynihan and Martyn Oliver, CEOs of Harris and Outward Grange respectively, hit the headlines at the end of last week when they took Ofsted to task for downgrading schools that chose to give their students a three-year key stage 4 as preparation for GCSE, rather than the more traditional two.

Soon backed up by Dame Rachel de Souza, CEO of the Inspiration Trust, they argued that the inspectorate’s approach, driven by its boss, Amanda Spielman, to try to inspect curriculum rather than data, and to punish gaming and teaching to the test, had missed the mark and was unfairly damaging schools that had the most success with students from the poorest homes.

Ofsted, of course, rejects such accusations, and insists that it is as important for these pupils to have access to a broad and balanced curriculum as any of their wealthier peers.

Where does that leave the politicians of Westminster? In a very tight political spot, that’s where.

Battle lines drawn

Pretty much since 2010 and the Govian ascendancy, Ofsted and the organisations we now call multi-academy trusts have been two sides of the same coin: jointly ramming home the same messages about behaviour, academisation, a "rigorous" approach to pedagogy and knowledge-rich curricula.

The framework has now, however, driven a wedge between them. What should education secretary Gavin Williamson and ministers Lord Agnew and Nick Gibb do to bring about peace, or at the very least avoid being caught in the crossfire?

On the one hand, ministers will want to be seen to  support the message about expecting the highest standards for all children (remember Gove’s “soft bigotry of low expectations”) and in so doing back their inspectorate. But, on the other, Harris, OGAT and Inspiration are some of their most loyal and successful friends in the school sector, often singled out for ministerial praise. They are and have always been Gove’s outriders.

Lord Agnew, especially, is in a difficult position: until he was made a minister, he chaired Inspiration, the trust that he helped to establish, and almost certainly remains close to Dame Rachel.

And, to make matter worse, I understand that the newly emboldened Downing Street operation, revelling in its electoral mandate, has waded in – behind the scenes – very much on the side of the MATs.

This really does put DfE ministers in a difficult position. They are desperate that this scrap should go away (presumably with a little bit of give-and-take from both sides and a rejigging of the inspection handbook) but none of the central protagonists are the kind of people likely to give ground.

No surrender

I fully expect many in Ofsted will see this as a battle for the entire future of the framework, and that they should not to give an inch. 

However, Sir Dan, Oliver and Dame Rachel are equally unlikely to just surrender either. They wear their Ofsted reports like badges of honour and will not accept their schools being repeatedly downgraded.

And so, with no likelihood of compromise, you can expect this controversy to run and run.

Quite how the DfE’s ministerial team should respond is anyone’s guess, probably including theirs. I don’t envy their predicament.

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Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell is deputy editor and head of content at the TES, former features and comment editor and former news editor. 

Find me on Twitter @Ed_Dorrell

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