“Inadequate”? “Requires Improvement”? After what must have felt like an annus horribilis squeezed into two weeks, such judgements hang heavily over Sanctuary Buildings, the home of the Department for Education. So as the DfE licks its wounds, I ponder what Ofsted would make of its performance of late.
First up, leadership and management. In truth, the education secretary’s recent performance has hardly been an exemplar of strong leadership. Even the speeches to the union conferences, while brave, fell flat. The positioning at the time was of a strong leader who was not in the business of making U-turns. One can only imagine her advisers clutching themselves with glee at the prospect of comparisons with another Tory female leader: surely, the only things missing were the pussy-bow blouse and handbag?
But the comparisons never came. A few days later, Nicky Morgan was wheeled out to the BBC to make a humiliating climbdown on the government’s “firm” commitment to 100 per cent academisation. Not a natural TV performer, the education secretary looked pained throughout, no doubt bracing herself for the inevitable howls of delight from her detractors. And, oh, how they came.
The whole episode had more than a whiff of The Thick of It to it: a keen, eager-to-please secretary of state, with few ideas of her own to rub together, skips off to do the bidding of No 10, declaring with faux passion that this is the government’s position and we will not change our stance. But then comes the phone call: No 10 has changed its mind and, like a freshly whipped puppy, the education secretary slinks out to announce a “refinement” of policy, stressing the importance, and maturity, of “listening”. Judgement: 4
Turning to behaviour. Let’s start with the positives. Um. Well, a few multi-academy trust chief executives have slavishly followed the DfE script of this being a “listening government” and said how “positive” this news is. Elsewhere, some supporters have broken cover and declared that the government “bottled it”. And, of course, there were those who simply could not contain themselves, such was their wild-eyed joy at the news that the government was softening its position. Emboldened by a weakened “teacher”, the unions – “the low-level classroom disrupters” – incited their peers to new levels of poor behaviour. The ensuing clatter of foot-stamping and cheering confirmed a complete loss of power and an abject inability to control the classroom environment. Judgement: 4
Quality of teaching. The job is made even more challenging when teachers have a less-than-solid grasp of their own subject matter. At the DfE, there have been fundamental issues with literacy and numeracy. Schools minister Nick Gibb impressively got the answer to a grammatical question wrong when he himself had all but written the test, while his numerically challenged boss managed to confuse herself on the difference between percentage and percentage points. Once again, Ms Morgan’s numbers don’t quite add up. Judgement: 3
Finally, achievement. The leadership has made a lot of structural changes; most with a commitment to improving outcomes. Some academies have performed well while others continue to pull down the overall scores. Only time will tell, with this summer’s results giving a first indication of the impact of those more challenged organisations on the rest of the system. Judgement: 3
Overall, this report card makes for glum reading. But sadly, it is how many will view the current state of affairs. Given that Ofsted rarely gives the benefit of doubt when inspecting, one has to conclude that for this secretary of state, her ministers, advisers and officials, the final judgement is “Inadequate”. And as sure as night follows day, we all know what will happen next: new leadership.
The Secret CEO is the chief executive of a multi-academy trust somewhere in England