Largely because Conservative education secretary Kenneth Clarke distrusted his own civil servants, the 1992 Act was peculiar in creating a watchdog body that virtually bypassed its Government department. Its chief was to be accountable, not to ministers or officials, but through Parliament to the sovereign.
It was inevitable that such unique independence would cause friction, and it has. But it took the appointment of a power-seeking missile like Chris Woodhead to demonstrate more serious flaws in the system. Mr Woodhead interpreted his remit as a licence to deal directly with the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales, though who is answerable to whom is less clear. Far from accounting to Parliament, he has treated the education select committee with the same offensive contempt that has skewered colleagues and rivals.
Plain-speaking and standard-bearing may be more important than wounded feelings, but this direct line to the Prime Minister has also had the dangerous effect of politicising the job. With education so high on his agenda, and standards the touchstone, Tony Blair endorsed the Conservatives' choice in the job for political rather than educational reasons. And now Woodhead is quitting for the Daily Telegraph with the same order of priorities.
At least that should strengthen the case for amending the OFSTED legislation to make more sense of the working relationship with the education secretary, however unlikely it may be that any successor should possess the same destabilising mix of networking and media skills.
The rationale for detaching the office of the chief inspector from the department is not as strong as it was 18 years ago. New Labour ministers are critical of civil servants too, but the Education Department has been zipped up by a permanent secretary, Michael Bihard, who came from outside Whitehall and by the standards and effectiveness empire headed by Michael Barber, another outsider. Together with David Blunkett, they bear at least as much responsibility for the success of recent reforms as does Woodhead, whatever the Tory or tabloid perception. It may be difficult to untangle policy creation and implementation from inspection of the results, but it ought to be clear that OFSTED is only part of the solution (though a large chunk of the problem).
Meanwhile, can we dispose of a few myths about open inspection and independence, neither of which was invented by Woodhead? It was a report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate which led to James Callaghan's 1976 Great Debate on the state of the nation's schools. HMI reports on schools and local education authorities were first published in the 1980s when Sir Keith Joseph was education secretary, with the full support of his implacably independent chief inspector, Sheila Browne.
Local authority leaders tried, and failed, to get the local education authority reports suppressed. Eventually the Conservative government itself suppressed national reports on standards published by Miss Browne and her successor, Eric Bolton, which drew attention to the uneven quality of schooling around the country, because they also pointed to lack of funding as a cause for failure.
The main problem with HMI was that it was too small to inspect more than a fraction of schools in a year, because Miss Browne insisted that not enough potential recruits could meet her high standards. The uneven quality of OFSTED inspections confirm her point.
Ministers didn't like her plain-speaking either but she, like a long line of HMI stretching back to Matthew Arnold, always spoke powerfully for the education service, and she didn't rubbish it when she left. We have to move on, but it is worth reflecting on the past as well as the future role of inspection, before acting on the lessons of the Woodhead regime.
Patricia Rowan is a former editor of the Times Educational Supplement
Bichard on leadership,
School Management, page 28