Fifteen months after news of the vacancy first emerged, it looks as if the Government has at last found a new leader for Ofsted. Barring last- minute hitches, it now seems certain that Sir Michael Wilshaw will be announced in October as the next chief of her majesty's inspectorate of schools.
Ministers will be overjoyed to have secured such a strong candidate. The appointment may not completely escape controversy, but the feted head of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, is widely admired and has already been hailed a "hero" by education secretary Michael Gove.
The big question, though, is why has it has taken such a long time? It has been clear since at least June 2010 that Christine Gilbert, the last permanent HMCI, would leave this year. Indeed, Mr Gove's reported desire back then for Ms Gilbert, the wife of a former Labour minister, to go "sooner rather than later" might have led one to suspect that the education secretary had already lined up a replacement.
If he had, something went badly wrong. Since then the post has been advertised twice, deadlines have had to be extended and TES understands that the number of people approached about the job has reached double figures.
They include David Carter, executive principal of the Cabot Learning Federation of academies in Bristol, along with former Labour education adviser Sir Michael Barber and Dan Moynihan, chief executive of London's Harris Federation of academies.
Senior Department for Education officials asked one contender to reconsider the position several times after he decided against the role. But their powers of persuasion failed, forcing them to advertise all over again - a situation some might find a little odd in itself. That the job has been so hard to fill might be considered strange. This is, after all, the most high-profile and influential job in education behind the secretary of state. The holder will enjoy a salary of up to pound;180,000, a chance to lead the national debate on schools and direct the drive to raise standards, with an opportunity to become a serious political player thrown in.
Yet filling the post has been a struggle. One reason could be that a massively expanded Ofsted no longer only inspects schools, but also covers childcare, adult learning and children's social care. Of more concern is the fact that they would be heading a watchdog that has seen its budget shrink almost as fast as its duties have grown (see numbers, top right). And if there is little room for financial manoeuvre there will be even less when it comes to policy. The new, slimmer schools inspection framework will be virtually finalised by the time the new HMCI gets its feet under the table.
It has already been decided that "outstanding" schools will no longer face routine inspections, and even the one area for change in Ofsted so far suggested by Sir Michael Wilshaw - the high proportion of "outstanding" schools that do not have a top rating for teaching - is already in train. Ms Gilbert highlighted the problem in July, and this month Mr Gove said it would be looked at.
Then there is the high public profile. Chris Woodhead clearly relished using his time as chief inspector to take on the "education establishment". And David Bell's public criticism of ministers' pet projects did not stand in the way of the ambitious former head's rise to permanent secretary at the DfE.
But Ms Gilbert had a trickier time in the media spotlight. Her choice of husband meant she faced allegations of cronyism before she even started, and she also had to defend Ofsted during the Baby P scandal. Yet it seems that none of this need necessarily put a candidate off.
David Carter said he had ruled himself out because it was not the "right time" to leave his current job, rather than that he had anything against the Ofsted role. "It was a huge honour both for me and the Cabot Learning Federation to be considered for such a significant post, but my priority at the moment is the continued improvement of our academies," he told TES.
Sir Michael Wilshaw's own role as education director for the Ark chain of academies may invite some controversy about the influence of the hedge- fund supported charity. Baroness Sally Morgan, the new chair of Ofsted, was already an adviser to Ark's global board, a subsidiary of the academy chain, and was accused of a "conflict of interest" when it emerged that she would continue with the role.
But that will matter little to the Government if it gets its man. Last week there was speculation that Sir Michael was having second thoughts. Ministers will be hoping desperately that it is no more than a rumour.
pound;266m - Ofsted's 200405 budget
pound;198m - Ofsted's 201011 budget
pound;143m - Ofsted budget by 201415, representing a 46 per cent funding cut in just a decade.
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