In the Schools Week profile on Ofsted’s head honcho, Sir Michael Wilshaw apparently puts the teaching professions’ lack of confidence in Ofsted down to “his relentless drive for challenge”. He is reported as saying,
Me coming out and being quite critical sometimes of leaders not doing what they should be doing, giving my view about how schools should be run, immediately puts people’s backs up. … and what has become clear to me is, once one person says ‘Ofsted’s broke’ … other people jump on that bandwagon… I know we’ve got this reputation of being this tough organisation that costs people their sanity and their jobs, but our job is – through inspection – to say what needs to be said and improve standards.
This confuses me. I’m not sure if it’s possible he really believes this or whether it’s just part of the gunslinging mythos he’s constructed around himself. Although, I’ve never met the man, the fact that he’s appointed such a nuanced thinker as Sean Harford as National Director of Education speaks well of him. Despite his apparent ability to only ever open his mouth in public in order to change feet, he has at least had the wisdom to surround himself with people well capable of changing Ofsted for the better. For this he must be applauded, but seeing as the inspectorate was in such a woe-begotten shambles when he took over in 2012 it’s odd that he’s so defensive.
Maybe the defensiveness comes from a sense of uncertainty? Sir Michael strikes as something of a hedgehog. One of the most striking moments of his interview is his response to being ask who inspired him as a headteacher:
It sounds very arrogant to say I didn’t need much help, but I knew all the pitfalls. And I could replicate all the stuff that I had done in Newham in Hackney, with similar sorts of children.
Maybe turning round a school is insufficient preparation for turning around Ofsted?
But no one – or at least no one sensible – is upset about Sir Michael’s ‘drive for challenge’; teachers are, on the whole, heartily relieved by the structural changes in inspection and the herculean efforts to bring rogue inspectors into line. He genuinely seems to have grasped that accountability works best, that standards only improve, when we are not trying to please inspectors and do ‘what Ofsted want’. He may well put nose out of joint when he rails at headteachers on how they should be doing their jobs, but this is by no means why there is still so little confidence in the organisation he fronts.
The problem isn’t so much that nothing Ofsted do or say improves standards, it’s that improving standards isn’t really Ofsted’s job. The job of an inspectorate is to ensure that standards don’t slip. This is an important distinction, but a crucial one if Michael is to ever understand why teachers struggle so much with what Ofsted do. Few would seriously disagree that schools ought to be held to account for the way the spend public money in their efforts to educate young people. It’s absolutely right that there is an independent inspectorate – in some form or other – which has the teeth to prevent schools from committing the grossest errors and force them, where they are clearly failing to redirect their efforts. But why does Wilshaw think it’s his function to punish headteachers for not doing what he would do were he still running a school?
If it’s “clear” to Wilshaw that any criticism of Ofsted is merely populist troublemaking and naysaying then the party maybe over. If Ofsted is to be truly fit for purpose it too must be held to account. Where there is no mechanism for holding an individual or organisation to account they tend to focus on ‘looking good’ rather than ‘being good’. Sadly the only real mechanism we have for pointing out our dissatisfactions with Ofsted is public opinion. Fortunately, public opinion – mainly as expressed through social media – has had a marked and positive effect on Ofsted in recent years, but if Sr Michael has now made up his mind that any future criticism is just bandwagon jumping then both he and we are doomed.