'It is hard to see that there can be any turning back'

4th May 2012 at 01:00
Ex-Ofsted chief speaks ahead of academisation probe

It is not the answer you would expect from someone who made their name leading local education authorities. But Christine Gilbert believes town halls should no longer be at the heart of school improvement and monitoring.

Nor, indeed, should local commissioners or any other kind of new "middle tier" idea currently being floated, the former Ofsted chief inspector argues. Ms Gilbert thinks the job should be left to schools themselves. "It would be the profession supporting the profession," she explains.

Her views are particularly pertinent because she has agreed to chair a major independent commission examining the implications of the "education revolution" sweeping England, as hundreds of schools switch to academy status.

The commission (see panel, left) does not formally launch until Tuesday, with a call for evidence, and has yet take a view. But Ms Gilbert was open about her own opinions as she gave her first interview since leaving Ofsted last summer.

She admits her spell at the inspectorate "wasn't the most enjoyable job that I had in my career", and says that at times it felt like she couldn't win.

"You are either interfering too much or not interfering enough," she remembers, a little ruefully. "When I first went there, I found it hard to understand why there had been so many chief inspectors before me and why people didn't generally go on for second terms. At the end of my five years, I understood."

But she is pleased she did the job and sees the reforms now being introduced by her successor, Sir Michael Wilshaw - further increasing the pressure on satisfactory schools - as a continuation of the work she started.

In the months since Ms Gilbert left Ofsted, the speed and scale of change in the schools system has been breathtaking, with even the ministers who set the reforms in motion struggling to keep up. It is now generally accepted that central government will find it very difficult to directly monitor the progress of thousands of academies from Whitehall.

Schools minister Nick Gibb has conceded that "there is an issue about oversight", Labour is considering the possibility of local school commissioners and Sir Michael Wilshaw has proposed that Ofsted sets up local bases to provide a more hands-on service to "help schools to improve".

Ms Gilbert disagrees. She has been travelling the country visiting schools in preparation for another new role adjudicating on schools' applications for roles in National College programmes. "What I am seeing out there at the moment is schools (that are) really upbeat and positive about the agenda for a self-improving system and for collaboration across schools," she enthuses. "It is the strongest I have ever known it. I think it would be a huge pity if that were lost with another bureaucratic system imposed on it."

As head of education in two London boroughs, first at Harrow Council and then Tower Hamlets (where she went on to lead the entire authority), Ms Gilbert personally excelled in that kind of bureaucracy, successfully supporting schools to improve their results. But she says that "very few local authorities would say any longer that they had an automatic right to deliver school improvement services". Moreover, she says, "lots" of the councils she knows aren't running the services anyway.

"They (local authorities) have a role, particularly in making sure that vulnerable children are well served," she concedes. "But I see the energy in the system coming from schools. I would really like to see the schools themselves in prime position, to be leading and driving this.

"You can do it with other private, public or voluntary sector partners. But I would like to see (groups of schools) given contracts to do that for four or five years. Notions of commissioners and other sorts of middle tier are not the right way for us to be going at the moment."

There would need to be a proper framework, she says, with contracts that could be terminated if schools were not meeting their performance indicators or contractual duties.

And it would cost money, but less than other "middle tier" options, Ms Gilbert argues. Schools would relish working together, taking "a moral and professional accountability" for pupils in other schools.

She admits her sample is "skewed" because she has been visiting "terrific" schools, but says that "these people have got a passion for their own schools, and they have got a passion for children in other schools, too".

"They have moved their view and it feels to me as though we have just passed the tipping point," Ms Gilbert says. "So to impose another system that doesn't use that energy and skill and capacity in the system seems to me completely wrong."

She smiles when she says how nice it has been to work with schools outside Ofsted. "The focus with inspection is inevitably on what's wrong, whereas what I am doing now is focusing on what is going right."

Some schools already have their support in place for this brave new world, because they belong to academy chains. Ms Gilbert says her initial view was that these chains, as well as their individual schools, should be inspected by Ofsted. But she now thinks "it is much better to go in and look at the school itself". The chains would be monitored through individual reports on their constituent academies, in which the inspectorate would comment on the support the chain provided.

She stresses that the commission's final report will not necessarily come to the same conclusions. But one point Ms Gilbert is adamant about is that it should not be sidetracked into looking at the case for and against academisation.

"It is pointless," she says. "It is happening and it is really hard to see that there can be any turning back."

Commission notes

Three experts will sit on the independent Academies Commission set up by the RSA and the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning.

Chair Christine Gilbert will be joined by Brett Wigdortz, chief executive of Teach First, and Professor Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education, University of London.

They will consider two main questions: "What are the implications of complete academisation for school improvement and pupil attainment?" and "How can improvement and attainment best be secured within an academised system?"

For further information, visit www.academiescommission.org.

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