The DfE and Ofsted go to war

Once close allies, the inspectorate and Conservative ministers are now irreconcilable, writes TES's head of content

Ed Dorrell

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Gone are the days when politicians would stand at the dispatch box and sombrely declare war on other countries. Instead we have a strange ritual that starts with military advisers, non-combat specialists and drone assassinations, and ends with boots on the ground, 24-hour bombing campaigns and regime change.

As such, it falls to the battlefield correspondents to report that actual war has broken out.

And so, teachers of Britain, it falls to me to tell you that the skirmishes between the Department for Education and the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, have escalated into out-and-out warfare.

For a while now we’ve heard the drums of war in the distance, we’ve been aware of the growing tensions, we’ve suspected that the tank divisions have been on manoeuvres. But now I am sad to report, the hopes of a negotiated settlement are over.

There have been times in these past few days when it’s felt, over here in the TES newsroom, as if we’re in no-man's-land looking up into the sky as political hand grenades are lobbed between warring parties.

No-one has quite broken cover, but I’m told that the two sides are now irreconcilable.

In many ways the collapse in the relationship between Sir Michael (or SMW as he’s known by his people) and the Tory government is slightly extraordinary. After all, it wasn’t so long ago (2009) that Michael Gove told the Conservative party conference that the then head of Mossborne Community School in Hackney was “his hero”.

Indeed, less than a year after taking up residence in the big office in the newly renamed Department for Education, it was Gove who leant heavily on SMW to agree to replace Christine Gilbert as Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools.

And for years, the relationship seemed cosy. Close allies, Ofsted under SMW and the DfE under Gove marched to very much the same tune. The inspectorate ruled that schools were underperforming and the Department's agents forced their academisation.

But then came the election and something changed. It’s hard to know what exactly. It might have been the fact that SMW knew that his one term as HMCI was coming to a close and he wanted to make sure his legacy was secure.

Sometime around the publication of his last Annual Report, in which he revealed misgivings about the state of the teacher recruitment market and the damage it was doing to progress in schools, something snapped. Things have never been the same again.

Before that, he had already triggered some consternation in Whitehall when he told TES that he thought it was daft to force all children to do the Ebac.

And in the past couple of weeks things have moved to another level. The scrapping has become overt. SMW gave an extraordinary performance at the Education Select Committee, in which he pulled no punches. He rubbished the idea posited in the Sunday Times a week or two earlier by DFE sources that his successor might come from the USA. 

Certainly he's not impressed by what could be seen as a landgrab by the new national schools commissioner Sir David Carter (SDC), and there are those who want this newly beefed-up role as another, alternative, centre of gravity.

And then on Thursday came the extraordinary decision to publish an open letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, in which he warned of "serious weaknesses” at multi-academy trusts, where he claims many schools are "failing the poorest children". The Department's official response was terse, to say the least.

Add to this the fact that it's extremely unlikely that SMW is going to stop talking about the recruitment crisis, a crisis that ministers still refuse to acknowledge, and you can be certain that no-one can expect a ceasefire any time soon.

At least until the Department finds a more passive successor in the autumn. 

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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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