Ofsted: Still the DfE’s rottweiler?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

The next Ofsted chief looks set to be someone with no teaching experience. Dr Bernard Trafford warns of the dangers of this decision

So Amanda Spielman is set to follow Sir Michael Wilshaw as the chief inspector of schools. The move is unlikely to be welcomed in some educational circles because Ms Spielman – the current chair of Ofqual – has not previously worked as a teacher. She began her career in corporate finance.

What should schools and school leaders make of her? I’ve heard her in person on occasions, dealing adroitly and honestly with criticisms fired at her by conference delegates about the shortcomings of the exam system. She impressed with her willingness to listen and take views on board.

But what else has she done in education? She spent a decade developing the powerful and successful academy trust, Ark. But that’s all really.

Before all that she was a million miles (and, arguably, zillions of pounds) from education, working as a specialist in high finance. I guess, then, that she can do the sums and won’t be frightened of a big organisation. She must have a grasp of how large outfits run, of the achievement and maintenance of quality, and of value for money. So far, so good.

Ms Spielman’s tenure as Ofqual chair has ended controversially. Schools’ associations, particularly in the independent sector, have been critical of the watchdog’s failure to insist on and maintain reliably high standards of marking: the recent decision to make it harder to demand re-marks has been widely condemned as masking rather than tackling the problem, sweeping it under a spectacularly large carpet.

It’s not so much her Ofqual experience that will fill many schools and their leaders with dismay, though, as a concern about the authenticity of the leadership she can offer to Ofsted.

I frequently caricature Ofsted as government’s rottweiler. The accountability system becomes more aggressive and onerous year-on-year (the process has been going on for more than two decades). Ofsted is its enforcer. You won’t find any school or college in the land treating inspectors’ arrival with equanimity. However high-achieving or well-prepared they are, they will be deeply nervous. The stakes are too high, and for too long Ofsted has been too unreliable for anyone to feel comfortable.

In recent years, with the inspectorate’s intensified focus on governing bodies, even those noble volunteer guardians of schools now suffer anxieties similar to those of the professional staff.

Ever since the late Chris Woodhead was appointed as Ofsted’s first boss, there has been a concern about lack of humanity and understanding in its operation. Following his retirement, all his successors have been former school leaders, so could claim some empathy with the pressures of running a school, let alone the added burden of dealing with the inspection process. Indeed, even when Sir Michael was at his most critical of heads, his most vociferous critics had to admit that he’d been there, had walked the walk in tough schools.

Ms Spielman has no actual school experience. Ministers and policy-makers will probably see this as an advantage, fearing no contagion, no danger of her going native, and expecting her to bring objectivity, directness and powerful analytical skills to the job.

But, schools and their leaders will ask, where is her authenticity? Can she hope to understand what they deal with every day? Without that appreciation, it is hard to see how she can claim credibility or build trust. Yet the trust of the profession is just what Ofsted needs if it is to form any kind of partnership with schools in the on-going quest for school improvement.

If Ms Spielman fails to build that trust, Ofsted will remain the government’s rottweiler: and she will become merely its latest dog-handler.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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