What price independence?

16th February 1996 at 00:00
John Dunford fears that the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, has offered his opinions rather than facts.

The profile of Chris Woodhead (TES, February 9) was particularly interesting for its account of his views on the independence of his post. Many of his actions since becoming Her Majesty's Chief Inspector for Schools (HMCI) have caused people to question Chris Woodhead's independence from the Government, but his booklet, A Question of Standards: Finding the Balance, published by the right-wing think tank, Politeia, gave added weight to the view that he has misjudged the independence of his position.

There has never been a constitutional or legal basis for the independence of Her Majesty's Inspectorate. However, there has been a long tradition of professional independence which has effectively distanced HMI from the government of the day.

When the 1992 Education Act created the Office for Standards in Education and the HMCI office, it was said that OFSTED, as a non-ministerial department which was outside the Department of Education, would enhance inspectors' independence. It would also give greater freedom to the chief inspector than was available to his predecessor, the senior chief inspector who had to combine his role as head of HM Inspectorate with his membership of the senior management team of the department.

At the time, many were more concerned about the lack of accountability of the chief inspector than about his potential lack of independence. In fact, the chief inspector's independence is considerably constrained . He is on a renewable five-year contract and "may be removed from office by Her Majesty on the ground of incapacity or misconduct".

The Order in Council gives the Queen the power to appoint and dismiss, but, in practice, this means little, as she would have to act on the advice of the Secretary of State through the Prime Minister.

The Act also sets out many of the chief inspector's functions, including the duty to keep the Secretary of State informed about the quality, standards, efficiency and spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils in schools - the main thrusts of OFSTED inspections.

The chief inspector also has to advise the Education and Employment Secretary on such matters as she may request and inspect particular schools when asked to do so. The chief inspector has "such other functions, concerning schools and teacher training, as may be assigned by the Secretary of State", and, even more ominously for his independence "HMCI shall have regard to such aspects of government policy as the Secretary of State may direct". Even though the senior chief inspector led HMI from inside the department, he was never so formally constrained.

The independence of HMI, according to the Rayner Report in 1983, had no constitutional basis since the duty to inspect schools lay with the Secretary of State and was done on his or her behalf.

Moreover, the Permanent Secretary was responsible to Parliament for all department expenditure, including the cost of HMI. Rayner described the independence of HMI as threefold: first, the senior chief inspector's right of direct access to the Secretary of State; second, although the Secretary of State decided whether to publish HMI documents and reports, they were always published exactly as HMI had written them; and third, HMI managed its own programme of inspection.

This was professional, not constitutional independence. In his response to the Rayner Report the then Education Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, who was an avid reader of HMI reports, endorsed the independence of HMI. The TES quoted Rayner's comment that "the duty of the Inspectorate is to report what they see and not what others might wish them to see". The TES believed that Sir Keith's statement "should guarantee HMI's freedom to do that for at least another generation".

The professional independence of HMI originated from the way in which they were first appointed in 1839. The power of the Church in education matters and the absence of a proper Department of Education meant that the Government was unable to exercise close control over the inspectors, who used their independence expansively.

They recognised that educational progress depended on social conditions and their reports give a fascinating account of early Victorian England. The early inspectors were men of calibre, many of whom also pursued with distinction activities in poetry, theology, science and other fields of scholarship. If they felt that the restrictions placed on them were irksome, they could and did resign often taking senior posts in the Church.

This ability to stand apart from the government department gave many of them a wide view of their role. J P Norris, for example, wrote that the duties of an inspector were twofold, "the one, a duty which he owes to the central authority from which he holds his commission, the other, a duty which he holds to those among whom his work is carried on".

Much of this legacy survived for more than 150 years, but it was not a smooth process. During the Second World War, for example, the Inspectorate took on a massive administrative load and in 1943 the Norwood Committee regarded HMI as an educational advisory service, a view which was still widespread at the end of the 1960s. The independence of HMI was not being challenged; it was in danger of withering away.

From 1974, when Sheila Browne was appointed SCI, the work of the HMI had a much sharper edge. The quantity and quality of its publications increased rapidly and the inspectors' contribution to curriculum development achieved greater prominence.

Better Schools, a department paper published in 1985, emerged from a period when HMI and the department were moving forward together on the curriculum. Government pronouncements were underpinned by the solid professional evidence of HMI and there were few tensions. This situation remained until Kenneth Baker became Education Secretary in 1986 and wanted to introduce a statutory national curriculum which was more detailed than HMI thought desirable. By then, Eric Bolton had become SCI. The independence of HMI faced many challenges during his term of office.

The publication of HMI reports on schools from 1983 had raised the public profile of the Inspectorate and the annual HMI surveys of educational expenditure, which excited great interest in Parliament and the media, severely embarrassed the Government and some Conservative local education authorities.

These surveys were followed in 1989 by the SCI's annual report, which pulled few punches and caused a yearly political storm. However, a Government which had started the publication of HMI reports on schools and centralised decision-making on education more than any previous administration, could hardly complain when HMI reported unfavourably on the consequences of those centralised policies.

The Government had become increasingly interested in issues of quality and process, and these were the bread and butter of HMI's work. HMI was careful not to criticise Government policy directly, but commented on its effect and left the Government and the public to draw the conclusions.

This regularly displeased ministers and was sometimes unwelcome to opponents of Government policy who would like HMI's support, but HMI preserved its professional independence courageously throughout this time.

Eric Bolton's speeches often contained coded warnings to the Government about the way in which the national curriculum was being introduced, but his annual reports were written frankly, which led to the political right attacking him. It was not long before the public messages from HMI reports became so painful for the Government that the messenger was shot - Kenneth Clarke introduced the Act which decimated HMI and established Her Majesty's chief inspector and OFSTED.

The crucial feature of HMI reports and of the SCI's annual report was they were based on evidence. HMI reported as it found. The first chief inspector, Professor Sir Stewart Sutherland, continued this tradition.

Chris Woodhead's first two annual reports have contained many of the same messages about the proportion of poor lessons, low expectations and other matters, but there are crucial differences from Eric Bolton's reports.

First there is much less criticism of the level of resources. Second, there are frequent echoes of Chris Woodhead's known views on matters such as whole-class teaching. Third, there is not yet the widespread respect for the consistency of judgments made by OFSTED inspectors as existed when school inspections were carried out by HMI. These differences all contribute to the perception that the link between inspection evidence and the judgments in the Annual Report has become weaker. What has caused particular concern about Chris Woodhead's Politeia pamphlet is that it is based on opinion, not on evidence. It is simply one person's views on educational policies, yet it carries greater weight because it comes from the chief inspector. It is not written in a private capacity, indeed the introduction contains the words "As HMCI . . ."

This is not a review of the Politeia pamphlet, nor is it an article on recent educational policies. My only comment on its contents, therefore, is that they show a remarkable congruence with the views of that part of the Conservative party which has appeared to be driving education policy for the past few years.

If such a document were based on the evidence of inspection, I might disagree with it, but I would have to accept it as an important contribution to the debate on the direction of education. But the Politeia pamphlet, like the 1995 HMCI Annual Lecture, which The TES described as "an entirely fact-free zone", contains hardly a shred of evidence. My greatest fear is that this represents an abnegation of the independence of HMI for which Chris Woodhead's predecessors fought so hard.

John Dunford is president of the Secondary Heads Association and headteacher of Durham Johnston comprehensive school

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