A response to the Education Select Committee: Why Amanda Spielman should run Ofsted
So. The Education Select Committee has rejected Amanda Spielman as the next Chief Inspector. Andrew Old has already summarised why he feels Amanda would have been a terrific appointment here and I agree with him entirely. The purpose of this post is to reflect on quite serious flaws in the Select Committee’s reasoning.
In the document detailing their decision, they claim that they sought to “test Ms Spielman’s professional competence and personal independence” and were “left with significant concerns about her suitability for the post of HMCI.”
These are their particular gripes:
Ms Spielman did not demonstrate the passion for the role that we would have hoped for. We were concerned that, when asked why she wanted the job, she did not refer to the Chief Inspector’s role in raising standards and improving the lives of children and young people. We consider these to be the fundamental purposes of the job but in the session Ms Spielman offered little evidence that she saw them as her primary motivations.
Passion. I hate the word. It is wheeled out to conceal a multitude of inadequacies. As long as you’ve got passion, who cares a fig whether you’re competent. As if running Ofsted is all about the feels. If we were to ban people in education in education from endlessly boasting about their passion and how much they think of the children then we might actually get some clear-eyed solutions about what is best instead of what feels good.
Amanda puts it like this:
My style is different from Michael Wilshaw’s. He has made the role a more personal platform than any other HMCI I know of, apart from Chris Woodhead; and focuses more on criticism than on distilling insights. But Ofsted is only effective in raising standards if its feedback is acted on. So as I said, I see benefits in aiming for public commentary that is uncompromising yet discriminating, as blanket criticism can make people defensive and so be counter-productive. I want to intervene to prompt action, rather than to comment on every issue in education or children’s services.
Bravo to that! It seems passion is easily confused with waving your arms about and bellowing at the media.
While Ms Spielman, through her work at ARK and Ofqual, has gained experience of secondary education, she did not convince us that she had a clear understanding of the other aspects of this complex role, such as:
- early years;
- primary education;
- children’s services;
- child protection;
- looked-after children;
- special educational needs;
- further education; and
- the educational support role for which local authorities are inspected.
We did not leave the session feeling that she was prepared for the vast scope and complexity of this important role.
This is just fatuous. No one is an expert in all these areas. No one. A problem with ex-heads is that because they might have had some dealings in these areas they may believe they have “a clear understanding” of the complexities involved. The small island of their knowledges lies amidst a vast ocean of ignorance. An advantage of someone who has not worked extensively in schools is that they know they don’t know enough. They are correspondingly more likely to listen, learn and think.
Amanda refutes the accusation thus:
…I was very clear that I understood the breadth and scope of the role. I have already spent time familiarising myself with Ofsted’s complex work and developing approach in children’s services, and working out how to make sure that side of the organisation is secured for the future.
Ms Spielman did not appear to recognise the importance of building bridges with the professions inspected by Ofsted. In contrast to her predecessor, Ms Spielman would join Ofsted without any direct experience of teaching or children’s social care. She told us that she did not see this as a problem. Whilst we accept that frontline experience is not necessarily a requirement for the role, it is vital that the Chief Inspector can carry the confidence of all those working in education, children’s services and skills.
The sad irony here is that Amanda would have been – will be, gods willing – vastly superior to Wilshaw in this respect. SMW made no effort at all to build bridges with teachers or school leaders, endlessly berating the profession for not behaving as he wished. I’ve spoken to quite a few heads and ex-heads about their potential concerns about Amanda’s lack of teaching experiences (John Tomsett, Geoff Barton, Vic Goddard, Paul Banks, Liam Collins, Stuart Lock, Lynne Moore, Oliver Cavaglioli to name a few) and none were worried. All felt – to differing degrees – that Spielman would be a good appointment. Of course, there’s been some fuss from teaching unions, but then, isn’t there always?
Amanda herself says:
Many senior people in education (in FE as well as schools) have said to me and in public over the last few weeks, that they welcome my nomination precisely because they see me as someone with the clarity of understanding, the willingness to act and the persistence and the integrity to tackle the difficulties that Ofsted faces and will always face. It is my work at Ofqual and before that at Ark that has earned me that respect and the credibility for this role, even though I have not been a head.
There seems a very clear consensus from people working in education that Spielman is a good choice. Odd that this appears to have been ignored by the Committee.
Ofsted plays a critical role in providing assurance that children’s services are operating effectively. We would have expected Ms Spielman to acknowledge that Ofsted should be held to account when it fails to spot systemic failure. We were therefore deeply troubled by Ms Spielman’s statement that “you cannot say that the buck stops with Ofsted” on child protection. Whilst we agree that those delivering children’s services should be held responsible when they fail, the very purpose of inspecting children’s social care is to prevent children being placed at risk through service failure.
I’m not even sure what this means. Obviously Ofsted should be held to account if (rather than when) “it fails to spot systemic failure”. Of course it should. But how is this at odds with Spielman saying that the buck shouldn’t stop with Ofsted? It’s equally obvious that the buck shouldn’t stop with Ofsted. So obvious in fact that the Select Committee actually agree! On this point at least, it seems Spielman and the committee members were talking past each other. This is clarified in Spielman’s letter responding to the Committee’s decision:
There have been some terrible failings in children’s services in recent years, and as I said to the committee, I am very conscious that for many vulnerable children Ofsted is the only protection they have against unsatisfactory care. I could not take this more seriously.
It seems abundantly clear from this that the concerns are unwarranted.
Finally, we were concerned by the answer Ms Spielman gave when we asked about her vision for Ofsted. She told us that the “mission that appears on the Ofsted letterhead— ’raising standards, improving lives’—seems to me as valid as ever”. We did not leave the session with a clear sense of how Ms Spielman would go beyond Ofsted’s mission statement to translate it into practice or of the direction she saw Ofsted taking under her leadership.
The Select Committee are concerned that Spielman sees ‘raising standards, improving lives’ as Ofsted’s mission. Erm…? And then to say they left without a clear sense of how she would translate this into practice is laughable. Maybe they shouldn’t have left. Maybe they should have stayed a bit longer to find this stuff out. I know for a fact that Amanda has a very clear vision for Ofsted and has thought deeply and the directions it should take. Maybe if they’d asked her about these things they wouldn’t have left feeling so confused.
Spielman’s letter clarifies this:
As I said, I do believe that the vision is fundamentally right at present–“raising standards, improving lives” really does sum it up. Improving the lives of children and young people must be at the heart of what Ofsted aims to do. In my view the inspection frameworks are now generally in good shape, after much adjustment in recent years. I did not want to give Ofsted staff reason to think the organisation would be turned upside down: stability and continuity are important, especially after so much change. Much has been done to build system trust and respect, which is encouraging, but much more needs to be done.
What a shame that an honest statement that wholesale change is not currently needed after the huge reforms already pushed through under Wilshaw’s leadership should be viewed as lack of vision.
To the Committee’s credit, they’re right to point out the “lack of expertise on children’s services amongst Ofsted’s senior management”. Clearly this needs to be rectified. I also agree with their conclusion that Ofsted’s remit is too wide and that it would be desirable to have a separate inspectorate for social care.
You can read Spielman’s excellent response to the Select Committee’s rejection on pages 12-14 of the report.
If you’d like to join me in expressing support for Amanda Spielman’s appointments as Chief Inspector why not copy and paste this directly to Nicky Morgan: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Secretary of State
I fully support Amanda Spielman as the next Chief Inspector. She is a strong and talented leader who, through her leadership at Ark and Ofqual, has shown her commitment to driving improvement for children. I believe Amanda will provide the clear leadership needed for the next phase of reform across the whole of Ofsted’s remit. I am confident that Amanda is suited to the role.
UPDATE: All this has a happy ending. Nicky Morgan decided to over rule the Select Committee’s decision and confirm the appointment of Amanda Spielman as the next head of Ofsted. Here is her letter to the Chair of the Select Committee, Neil Carmichael.