'I feel as if Amanda Spielman is actually being criticised for not being Sir Michael Wilshaw'

Many who might have been expected to condemn Amanda Spielman for her lack of hands-on school experience have in fact welcomed her appointment as Ofsted chief inspector. She doesn't deserve a public rejection, this leading headteacher argues

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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I’m guessing few teachers know anything about the Commons Education Select Committee. Even the most nerdily die-hard edublogger – you know who you are – might struggle to name two of its members.

Against a backdrop of convulsive political upheaval, perhaps the committee’s decision not to endorse the favoured candidate as chief inspector seems a piffling side-issue.

After the world-imploding aftershock of the Brexit vote, nothing seems surprising in politics any more. Since I began writing this article, fewer than 100 words ago, there will doubtless have been more sackings, resignations or blood-spattered political assassinations.

Such is the inward-looking, self-absorbed political world of Westminster.

Turning on passion

So in the select committee’s decision we see a group of people who don’t run anything criticise the person appointed to run something significant. Amanda Spielman doesn’t start her Ofsted job for almost six months, and yet has been berated for a lack of relevant leadership experience and a supposed absence of passion.

Since when was the ability to turn on passion in a committee hearing part of any job description for a post of national importance?

Watching the discussion and reading the transcript, I felt uncomfortably as if Ms Spielman was actually being criticised for not being Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Of course, Sir Michael’s boots were always going to be tricky to fill, and not necessarily because of the talent vacuum he would leave. Back in 2011, he had been much touted as the favoured candidate of education secretary Michael Gove (what, I wonder, became of him?).

Sir Michael carried the credibility and swaggering self-belief of so many headteachers. He has proved quick to criticise, slow to praise, and keen to comment.

I watched him in front of the select committee in September 2015. After some bruising Ofsted experiences, some of us had hoped that the deep-rooted inconsistencies we perceived in the inspection system might at last be forensically probed.

Instead, the committee behaved like small but ageing dachshunds having their tummies tickled by a benign owner. Truly, they appeared smitten by Sir Michael’s smouldering charisma.

Brazen self-importance

That’s why so many of us who might have been expected to condemn Amanda Spielman for lacking hands-on school credibility have in fact been cautiously welcoming her appointment.

I haven’t worked with her. But I do know of her formidable track record at ARK Schools. When I was locked in vicious battle with Ofqual over the 2012 English fiasco, I grudgingly admired the way that she and Glenys Stacey held firm against the fury of English teachers and school leaders. I saw the steely determination.

So hearing that Amanda Spielman was to be appointed chief inspector, I felt pleased that an organisation that feels so unwieldy, so brazen in its self-importance, so damaging to so many of our schools and staff could now benefit from a different style of leadership.

That doesn’t require a former headteacher. It needed someone to get a grip of Ofsted and steer it to become the organisation it always should have been – one that holds an objective, depoliticised mirror to our education system and, in the process, sees its mission as helping all its sprawling elements to improve.

Unseemly outburst

Amanda Spielman, I am convinced, is the person to do this. My unexpected approval came in part from meeting people who knew her. They talked of her grasp of detail, her determination to comment from an actual evidence base. They spoke of her ability to engage with the education community, her desire to learn the role before pronouncing on its intricacies.

So – stuff passion.

What we require is a cool, measured determination to restore the sense of mission and credibility of a beleaguered organization.

Members of the education select committee will no doubt see their comments as holding the secretary of state to account. But, for anyone who actually leads things, runs things, makes decisions and lives with the consequences, there’s something unseemly in the committee’s outburst.

The public nature of their criticism is unbecoming. Public life ought to be conducted in a spirit of decency, humanity, courtesy.

We deserve better than this pronouncement. Amanda Spielman most certainly does.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a 14-18 comprehensive school in Suffolk. He tweets as @realgeoffbarton

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