Public spectre

Public spectre

What does the head of Ofsted do?

Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, will stand down in December. John Stillwell/PA Archive

Ministers are thought to be looking to the US, Canada and northern Europe in their search for the next chief inspector of schools. With the current head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, due to step down in December at the end of his term, secretary of state Nicky Morgan is reportedly keen to find someone with a track record of pushing through education reform against resistance from unions.

The idea that a new head of Ofsted brought in from a totally different cultural context will somehow be able to wave a magic wand over English education is not only both misguided and myopic, but shows a fundamental ignorance of what Ofsted was set up to do.

Being the head of Ofsted has never been an easy role. The chief inspector must both protect the agency’s robust independence and negotiate the tricky path of government policy. This has led to considerable tension within the job ever since Ofsted was established in 1992.

Deciding on a new chief inspector would be a little more straightforward if the government could decide what Ofsted is actually for. Set up as one of the quangos that formed part of John Major’s Citizen Charter, it was designed to arm parents with more accessible information on schools in order for them to choose where to send their children.

Its central tenet is to “inspect without fear or favour”, a mantra that has been used over the years to stress its separation from government and lack of political or pedagogical partiality when it comes to teaching methods or approach.

Since 1992, government pressure has seen it vacillate between being a regulatory body, school improvement agency and more recently, as the implementer of counter-terrorism policy. It has a vast remit, tasked with regulating all services that care for children and young people, such as children’s centres and childminding, along with education and skills providers for learners of all ages.

Pulled in many directions

During Wilshaw’s tenure at the head of Ofsted he has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. He began the role in January 2012, appointed with optimistic zeal by then secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, and fêted as a personification of outstanding educational leadership. Wilshaw had been praised for his ability to create an outstanding school in an area of high deprivation – the Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney.

He began by introducing a far more “rigorous” inspection framework, combining this with a re-modelling of the inspection workforce to include more headteacher as inspectors. This was a move aimed to counter accusations that many inspectors were out of touch as they had been out of school for a number of years.

At first, he appeared to align with much government policy and became accused of being “far too” cosy with government agenda. But a series of very public spats between Wilshaw and Gove proved him to be far more obdurate and less pliable than the media originally portrayed him to be.

These arguments, which reached a crescendo with a vitriolic attack on Ofsted by a right-wing thinktank, were largely the result of Wilshaw’s growing discontent with the very limited accountability of free schools and academies – the government’s flagship education reform to give more autonomy to schools. This was a discontent that proved to be well-founded following the report into the Trojan Horse Affair over extremist influence in Birmingham schools, which detailed just how dire and fragmented educational accountability in England has become.

Bellwether of educational change

The role of chief inspector is as powerful as the agency it represents, functioning as “the voice” of the organisation, speaking to both teaching profession and public. Some of Wilshaw’s predecessors embraced the public aspect of the role more than others – none more so than the late Chris Woodhead. He positioned the role at the epicentre of all educational debate, creating a larger-than-life media persona characterised by a pugilistic style of rhetoric, while pursuing “educational excellence” with quasi-religious zeal.

Others, such as Sir David Bell, carried out their work in a far less overt manner. But in spite of their very different styles, all had one thing in common: they were familiar with the culture and contexts of education in England and all came from the UK.

Ofsted was not set up to push through education reforms against resistance from unions, nor was it established to push any particular party political agenda. It was set up to provide information to parents in an increasingly marketised environment.

The chief inspector is there to ensure that this is done in an impartial and unbiased way. Carrying out this work, particularly in the fragmented and opaque system of educational accountability that exists in England today, demands the type of cultural and nuanced understanding of the English system that individuals outside of the UK are unlikely to possess.