Priorities for the new HMCI

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:

As the new HMCI settles into her Ofsted role, Suzanne O’Connell considers the legacy of the role of chief inspector and what the first indications suggest about Amanda Spielman’s leadership and education priorities

During the last five years Sir Michael Wilshaw as HMCI has not endeared himself to many headteachers. He has been perhaps the most visible and vocal leader of the inspection service. On occasions his comments have irritated even the most compliant of heads. However, he has also managed to find sympathisers during his tenure and seemed to increasingly challenge ministers and the government towards the end of his reign.

But whoever takes on the title must know that it is unlikely to win them popularity. Established in 1992, Ofsted inspection has become the beacon and burden of school improvement and its chief has rarely been fondly remembered.

Professor Stewart Sutherland was the first to have the honour but it was Chris Woodhead who will be remembered most for his early contributions to the HMCI role.

Woodhead was not afraid to challenge the educational establishment and was often seen as being unnecessarily critical of schools and their leaders. One of his most controversial statements was that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers in England who should be removed. This was just for starters.

Woodhead not only attacked the teaching profession, he held a strong view about the methods commonly used. He was a back to basics proponent and offered a “no excuses” approach to schools in the most challenging catchments.

When he left in 2000, Ofsted was not only a formidable force, it was seen by many as the opposition. However, it was recognised that not all schools needed the exhausting four-yearly inspection cycle that was in place at that time. Proportionate inspection was introduced and inspections became shorter and swifter. There followed a period of less controversial HMCIs with David Bell succeeded by Christine Gilbert and in 2009 a new framework placed greater emphasis on what was happening in the classroom.

The Wilshaw years

The appointment of Sir Michael Wilshaw in January 2012 brought a flurry of anxiety with the removal of the “satisfactory” rating (to be replaced by “requires improvement”). Once more there was an HMCI who challenged at every step with accusations of mediocrity and no compromise to what he expected to see in schools.

Sir Michael was keen to remould the inspection service into a leaner and cleaner model that was less smeared with allegations of cronyism and incompetence.

He might have seen himself as a champion of education and an outspoken speaker of the obvious, but there are many who consider his contributions to be both arrogant and, ironically, lacking in evidence base. His reign has not been without its difficulties and many will feel that his handling of the Birmingham schools left a lot to be desired.

However, towards the end of his reign, Sir Michael seemed more willing to take on the government and was particularly outspoken about the recruitment crisis facing schools.

Whatever your views on Sir Michael, he was always able to argue from the platform of being a practitioner himself. He may not have endeared himself to the teaching profession but he did at least command the respect of having first-hand experience of the classroom. This cannot be said for his successor.

Introducing Amanda Spielman

The choice of Amanda Spielman, at first glance, would seem to be quite a contrast. She was previously chair of Ofqual, a post she took up in 2011, and she is closely linked to the Ark chain of schools as part of the founding management team. It must have hurt when the Education Select Committee described her as lacking in passion but their disapproval proved to have little effect and she was appointed as HMCI.

The first indications are that she is much less likely to lead with her own views of education. During an interview with The Guardian, she said: “My job isn’t to have views. My job is to make sure we do the right thing and make the very best of our responsibilities … there’s stuff where I may have personal views, but I have to be quite careful not to spray out views on everything.”

However, in spite of these claims, she does have an emerging list of priorities to follow. For example, she will perhaps want confirmation that those schools currently experiencing a moratorium on inspections do deserve the privilege. If a school hasn’t been inspected since 2011 can we still feel confident that they will have maintained the standard?

Behaviour might also be an area that she wants to focus on and the radicalisation of young people she describes as “one of the most challenging areas of our work”.

Ms Spielman has been expected to take a more executive-style role, ensuring the smooth running of the inspection service and tightening up on its effectiveness. However, there are indications that she may not stay out of the limelight quite as much as some had anticipated. She has remarked that she wants to see Ofsted “as a force for improvement” and not just as a quality-assurance vessel.

She has taken up the reins at a difficult time. In her inaugural speech she recognised the “national preoccupation with Brexit” and the possible implications it will have in detracting from education.

Assessment is still an issue and there are more changes on the horizon with the fair funding implementation and new grammar school proposals. Her concern surrounding grammar schools seems to be limited to their influence as a “distraction” and a “complication” rather than any expressed opinion about their value.

Ms Spielman is unlikely to bring a new view to testing UK style and appears to be sympathetic to the current regime. In an article published in the TES she states that English children are tested no more than their counterparts around the world. As previous chair of Ofqual we might not be too surprised at these comments.

However, she does acknowledge that there has been a significant amount of change for schools and that this is something that inspectors do need to be aware of.

Ms Spielman may acknowledge this flood of change but it is unlikely to stop her from bringing in some of her own. Following a period of relative stability for the Ofsted framework we can anticipate a review in the coming year and the feeling is that it will target struggling schools even more.

Sir Michael frequently referred back to his own teaching and leadership experience and used this to justify his views. Ms Spielman cannot. Of course, this does not prevent her from finding justification in practices during her own school days or involvement with Ark.

Observations, evaluations and data analysis are now part of schools’ day-to-day systems and many would say for the better. Schools have spent a huge amount of money and time in their attempt to prepare and manage inspections and we could argue that this has deflected at times from other areas where spending was needed.

The inspection process itself has both created and destroyed. It has been the making of careers for some school leaders and has trashed those of others. With the growing number of external pressures for schools and their leaders, an exhausted workforce would benefit from an HMCI with at least a little sympathy for those she is holding accountable. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • Brexit may shift political focus from education, says new Ofsted chief, The Guardian, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2m1uf9o
  • It is a myth that pupils are overtested, says new Ofsted chief inspector, TES, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2leaTP7


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