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Dr Matt O'Leary: "There have been times when the teaching profession and its unions have accused Ofsted of being little more than a political puppet"

An inspector calls

Dr Matt O'Leary asks, does it really matter if the next head of Ofsted is American?

Posted by Stephanie Broad | February 20, 2016 | People, policy, politics

Outgoing Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw is a formidable character, who has caused controversy amongst politicians and practitioners alike during his term in office. In a much-publicised spat between himself and the then education secretary Michael Gove in 2014, the chief inspector was said to be ‘spitting blood’ over what he perceived as unjustified criticism of Ofsted from Gove’s Department for Education and closely aligned right-wing think tanks Civitas and Policy Exchange.

Now, two years later, the government has decided to call time on Sir Michael’s tenure and recent press reports suggest they are looking to the US for his replacement. But what does this tell us about the relationship between the Department for Education and Ofsted in England? And does it really matter where the next chief inspector comes from?

The ideological similarities between US charter schools and academies and free schools in the UK mean that it is not surprising that some of the names touted to date are those with close affiliations to the US movement

Ofsted is a non-ministerial government department that is technically meant to be independent, working with not for the government. Yet since its creation, the reality is that the boundaries between the extent of its independence from and collaboration with government have often remained blurred, unsurprisingly leading to ongoing tension and conflict between the two.

There have been times when the teaching profession and its unions have accused Ofsted of being little more than a political puppet. Yet equally, there have been frequent clashes between the inspectorate and the government over education policy and their interpretation of each other’s remits. And it is the latter that has been at the heart of recent developments. 

Only six months ago, in a statement to mark the first 100 days of the Conservative government, David Cameron announced that he wanted every school in the country to become an academy and that it would be a priority of this parliament to make it happen. However, inspection outcomes have seen some academies previously rated as ‘outstanding’ having slipped to ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. Such judgements have exacerbated existing tensions between Whitehall and the inspectorate.

It is anticipated that Sir Michael’s successor is likely to be someone who shares the principles underpinning the government’s academisation and free schools programme. The ideological similarities between US charter schools and academies and free schools in the UK mean that it is not surprising that some of the names touted to date are those with close affiliations to the US movement.

Whether Sir Michael’s successor comes from the US or closer to home is not what should concern us most in this debate. Naturally, whoever succeeds him should have a detailed understanding of the cultural, educational, economic, political and social makeup of England and the challenges it currently faces. What should concern us most, however, is that the Department for Education continues to have the power to impose its political agenda on what is meant to be an independent inspectorate of the Crown and to appoint/remove its leader whenever it wishes.

The end of Sir Michael’s tenure raises important questions about reform. Is it time to reform the relationship between the state and Ofsted? Should there be a clear separation of power between the two in the same way that there is between the state and the judiciary? And whilst we’re at it, is it also time to rethink the inspectorate’s role and who chooses its chief inspector?

Dr Matt O’Leary is Reader in Education at Birmingham City University

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