Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That could be the motto of the current chief inspector of Ofsted. Damned if you take parents to task for failing in their duties, damned if you don’t. Damned if you attempt to reduce the influence of data in schools with a new focus on curriculum, damned if you don’t. Damned if you attempt to take on off-rolling, damned if you don’t.
It is the nature of the human condition in 2018 – and our addiction to social media – that all things must be binary. Either something is excellent or it is disastrous.
The peculiar nature of the role of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector seems to exacerbate this. It is both terribly exposed and terribly powerful.
Normally, it is suited to mavericks: to egos who relish Punch-and-Judy politics, who don’t mind being seen as outsiders, who are happy being portrayed as trigger-happy sheriffs. Both Sir Chris Woodhead in the 1990s and, more recently, Sir Michael Wilshaw, revelled in this posturing.
Into this bear pit in 2016 stepped Amanda Spielman – an administrator, a numbers person, a non-teacher. She was condemned before she even started as being both an insider most at home in Whitehall and an outsider because she’d never run a school.
Curing education's ills
Personally, I expected Spielman – who is genuinely fascinated by public sector regulation – to bore us into an early grave. How wrong I was.
Spielman has, in a largely diplomatic and non-binary way, set about attempting to cure a number of education’s ills. There have been some missteps along the way (the Bold Beginnings report springs to mind) and some overreach, too. It’s no secret that I worry Spielman’s exciting plans to place curriculum at the centre of inspection from 2019 are put at risk both by the rushed nature of the reforms and by too much faith being placed in capacity of the inspectorate to deliver them. Nonetheless, that an HMCI’s instinct is to take on league-table gaming in this way should be largely welcomed – as should her clear message that schools must not be held responsible every time people fail to live up to their parental responsibilities.
This week, we witnessed perhaps her most welcome such intervention: Spielman set her sights on the contagion of off-rolling. This is the phenomenon where schools – normally secondaries – “lose” tricky, disruptive or underperforming students in the run-up to inspections or public exams. Often, it involves (not very) elective home education.
For obvious reasons, data on off-rolling is hard to come by – what with the practice being both illicit and immoral. But while it has always happened in some form, most observers believe that it has become more common recently, perhaps driven by the extremes of accountability and academisation.
To be clear, off-rolling is a cancer that eats away at all that is good about comprehensive education, and undermines the moral authority of school leadership.
Spielman has inevitably been attacked by critics who suggest Ofsted is embarrassingly late to this party, and that the inspectorate is itself responsible for off-rolling because of its central role in the cliff-edge accountability system that drives the phenomenon.
Both critiques are at least partially correct. But that doesn’t mean Spielman’s decision to speak out about it – and to promise to act on it – shouldn’t be celebrated. Especially given the many vested interests in the sector who wish the chief inspector would behave like the risk-averse number-cruncher they thought they were getting.
So far Spielman has largely proved to be a refreshing breath of fresh air, but as with so much in modern public life, this is a tricky balancing act. Let’s hope her regime doesn’t fall foul of the hubris that befell too many of her predecessors.
Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets at @Ed_Dorrell