Ofsted’s Power Grab

Ofsted have just announced the creation of a new tier of regional directors – 8 of them across England. The job specification for the role says that “we are radically changing the way we work, so that inspection can be an even more powerful lever for improvement. At the heart of this transformation will be our new network of regional directors, leading our work on the ground and ensuring that schools, colleges and the other bodies we inspect improve.”

Looking at the job spec and at the way this initiative is being written up in the TES, it seems clear that this is a real power grab by Ofsted. It clearly is not just about carrying out inspections. Wilshaw has previously identified the yawning gap between Whitehall and many thousands of nominally independent schools. He now proposes that Ofsted should go a long way towards filling it. Make no mistake. This is a bid for system leadership. This new Ofsted will not just inspect, it will seek to be the leader of school improvement and the driver of change across whole regions. Look at the kind of language used:

Regional Directors will be “measured by their ability to drive improvement in those schools, colleges and other learning and skills providers which are less than good.”

RD’s will “generate and support initiatives to generate improvement in Education Learning and Skills provision”

RD’s will “monitor, challenge and support institutions between inspections.”

So Ofsted seeks to be judged not by whether or not it provides an accurate and unbiased picture of how effective the system is through inspection but by whether it has successfully driven improvement.

So, should we mind? Is it a bad thing that Ofsted is leaving the ivory tower of inspection and is trying to have a more direct impact on the ground?

I believe we should mind. Partly of course because Ofsted has always been and remains a deeply flawed and often politicised organisation. But more because this is another example of deeply muddled thinking about how the education service should be managed.

One simple example – imagine Ofsted has been challenging and supporting a school in special measures. Who will judge whether or not the support has been successful and has led to improvement …. Ofsted of course. An immediate and blatant conflict of interest.

There is an urgent need to understand and separate out the different aspects of education management. Basically:

 –          Schools should manage their own internal affairs, working together in federations, clusters or chains as they see fit.

–          Middle tier/ local commissioner/ local authority (whatever you want to call them but crucially representing the democratic will of local communities) should ensure there is adequate provision, monitors quality and intervenes where things are inadequate.

–          A national inspectorate should report on quality providing a consistent national perspective, clearly standing apart from any service delivery.

–          Schools should get support for improvement from other schools or from external providers – but support and monitoring/ inspection are kept separate.

–          DfE should set the overall policy framework, allocates resources across the country – but does not micro-manage local arrangements.

These five roles are different and need to be kept so. This new Ofsted initiative clearly muddies the waters but if we’re honest the whole system has been a muddle for a long time. Conflicts of interest have abounded.

The existing confusion provides the ideal opportunity for an activist Chief Inspector. A former headteacher who compares himself to Clint Eastwood is not the kind of person likely to be satisfied with observing and commenting on what others are doing. This power grab makes it all the more urgent that Labour’s consultation on the middle tier offers a coherent way forward since it is clear that Gove has no intention of even recognising the muddle that he has created.