The quaintly named headhunters Saxton Bampfylde rang me recently about the HMCI future vacancy. I am not applying. I am quietly optimistic that a very strong field of applicants will.
Media rumours have suggested that the Secretary of State is seeking to bring in an uncompromising American leader to ‘sort the unions’. That has little credence to my way of thinking. Yet there must be some attraction to hiring someone with an international perspective who doesn’t come with a particular history, either to live up to or to put behind them.
The term of office is five years from January 2017. The job details state that HMCI will have a key role in reducing the burden of inspection and reshaping it in response to a more autonomous school system.
And the skilled interview panel certainly knows its onions: Sara Nathan, Public Appointments Assessor; Chris Wormald, DfE Permanent Secretary; David Hoare, Chair of Ofsted; and Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall.
Were I to join that panel, what might nudge me towards a particular candidate in terms of their vision for the future of the schools’ inspectorate in England? What might their Plan A and (always vital at interview) Plan B look like, mindful of a much reduced budget?
Plan A: a rejuvenated Ofsted
- Ofsted should say promptly to the majority of the school system: on a three-yearly basis we shall have a look at your data dashboard and other relevant local contextual details, and not disturb you if all is well. Let the nation’s schools breathe a little. If the patient looks poorly, we shall inspect for a day, with a bespoke HMI team.
With all schools, what we would be interested in is your sharing with the inspectorate excellent examples of peer to peer review, within school clusters and academy families. If you stand alone, we’d like to know how you keep yourselves wisely and skilfully under review.
- Ofsted should champion ‘excellence’, and leave behind any use of the relative term ‘outstanding’. The working assumption for the nation is at least ‘all schools good schools’. Let not the public purse waste more money on judging whether schools are grade 1 or grade 2. Let The Good Schools Guide or The Woodhead Gazette or The Whitby Echo pronounce locally on excellence of provision, rooted in pupils’ and parents’ honest and open views.
- Across the country there remains an unacceptable number of secondary schools, often renamed and rebadged, which have poorly served generations of disadvantaged families. A highly experienced and practised improvement team of HMI – working powerfully with headteachers, academy groups, revamped governing bodies, and the eight Regional Schools Commissioners – can and must squeeze the last residues of failure out of the school system.
- Ofsted can continue to produce high quality thematic reports on aspects of teaching and learning, curriculum and leadership. The Chief Inspector’s Annual Report, regularly a strong and accessible report on the nation’s schools, should analyse how well the self-improving system is doing.
- The complex business of inspecting safeguarding in schools is too important to be left to Ofsted. In common with finance, it needs to become an annual audit, led by local authorities with their democratic responsibility for all children, whether in LA schools or academies. Directors of Education remain legal ambassadors for every child in their county, borough or city.
Plan B: a new Schools Inspectorate
The Ofsted brand is today strong and trusted by the public. While teachers generally think Ofsted’s business is schools, its reach is considerably more extensive: childcare of all kinds, adoption agencies, children’s homes, secure training centres, children and family court advisory services, and so on.
Politicians, civil servants and the teaching profession tirelessly debate the future of Ofsted in relation to schools. It is for the profession to demonstrate that it can be self-improving in a sustained way over the coming period. Leaders have had three decades of good practice at self-evaluation. Excellence must now be the common denominator, eminently achievable by most if not all schools given the wealth of our democracy and its sustained investment in the school system.
Nearly 25 years on from its birth in 1992, will England’s schools only be content when there is no Ofsted? Most juries would probably find in favour of revision rather than abolition. History is on the side of the inspectorate – the watchdogs and the missionaries – prevailing in some guise or another. Thus, as schools shape and deliver the self-improving system, perhaps the time is ripe for the establishing of a new, independent Schools Inspectorate which operates across all schools in the land – state and independent – and to be separate from Ofsted’s other important business.
The new HMCI appointment process has begun. Interviews are scheduled for April, with the nominated candidate(s) meeting the Secretary of State and the Education Select Committee through the summer term.
To all candidates, I wish bonne chance, courage, and good health. To the interview panel, I wish studied inspiration.
Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust, and formerly one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools. He was appointed CBE for services to education in the 2016 New Year Honours.
He is co-author with Rebecca Clark of ‘Self-Improving Schools: The Journey to Excellence’ published March 2016 by John Catt.