A new year, a new chief inspector…a new take?

6th January 2017 at 00:00
In comparison with Sir Michael Wilshaw, Amanda Spielman has a cool head, but it can be difficult to resist the temptation of notoriety

Happy new Year, happy new term and happy new HMCI.

With funding, recruitment and inspection having been persistent problems for years, it’s good to be able to report encouraging news on one of these fronts to kick off 2017.

Unfortunately, it’s not funding, where the situation is going from dire to disastrous. Councils reeling from the cut to the £600 million Education Services Grant are seeking ways to replace the cash. Surrey County Council is proposing a levy on schools of about £60 per pupil to plug the gap.

And it’s not recruitment either, where the situation is as, well, crisisy as ever – whatever weaselly words and flaky figures ministers may put forward.

Surprisingly, the good news comes from Ofsted, where it seems that efforts to reform the inspectorate have borne fruit, resulting in the number of official complaints about school inspections plummeting over the past three years.

This is due to overhauling the inspection framework, introducing short inspections for “good” schools and, most importantly, squarely facing up to the biggest criticism levelled at it – the inconsistency of inspection. To fix this, Ofsted has purged 1,200 inspectors and brought the remaining outsourced inspectors in-house. In a large, unwieldy organisation, the magnitude of such an endeavour should not be underestimated.

Efforts to be more open and transparent are also starting to pay off – be they mythbusters to counter spurious claims of what Ofsted is supposedly looking for or national education director Sean Harford engaging with teachers on social media.

These achievements have occurred under the tenure of outgoing chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, whether his detractors like it or not. And it would be ludicrous to suggest that they happened without his input, as anyone who has ever run a large enterprise would appreciate.

Amanda Spielman has let it be known that she ‘will not be dull’ – but perhaps she should be

His successor, Amanda Spielman, must surely be pleased to inherit an inspectorate on that kind of trajectory. But there is still much work to be done. Even with the improvements, a third of complaints are fully or partially upheld and there is residual distrust, especially among those scarred by previous inspections. Schools need yet more openness and responsiveness from Ofsted.

Ms Spielman will, of course, bring her own approach. She has already been less aloof with the profession, attending grassroots events and actively listening. But this is a double-edged sword: when people are listened to, they often believe their demands have been heard and expect action. There’s no way she will be able to please everyone while fulfilling her duties.

The new HMCI may lack passion (according to the Commons Education Select Committee); she may not have her predecessor’s “smouldering charisma” (as headteacher Geoff Barton, one of Sir Michael’s most vociferous critics, described him). And unions will no doubt capitalise on the fact that she has not served as a headteacher.

But she is determined, has a cool head and, importantly, is someone fresh and different.

Whether she will be as robust in challenging government as her headline-loving predecessor remains to be seen. I understand, however, that she’s let it be known she “will not be dull”.

But perhaps that’s exactly what she should be. There’s no better way to signal change than being a total contrast to what went before. And after all, Ofsted is a regulator, and regulators are worthy but boring organisations.

Despite this – as many of her predecessors have found – notoriety holds a very real attraction. Will Ms Spielman be able to resist?

@AnnMroz

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