Overstating the importance of the inspectorate is difficult. Even though the current chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is forever telling school leaders to be mavericks and take their own path, most heads diligently, even slavishly, follow Ofsted pronouncements.
Meanwhile, nervous parents frantically download Ofsted reports seeking comfort that the schools nearby are at least labelled “good”, ideally “outstanding”. I’ve scoffed in recent months as friends scrabbled for the cash to secure houses in reach of outstanding schools. “It could lose the rating next year,” I point out. The fact is, Ofsted is still where parents look for guidance.
So is Spielman fit to head such an important organisation? The obvious criticism is that she has never been a teacher. Union leaders leapt on this fact, with the NUT claiming her selection was a “sad indictment” of the way teachers were viewed.
But Ofsted no longer only inspects schools. Its remit expanded in 2006 to include childminders, children’s social services, FE colleges, nursery nurses, young offender institutions and immigration removal centres. Do we hear whines that Spielman never ran a children’s home? Or that she doesn’t understand life on remand?
Schools are where Ofsted began and school leaders feel their grades intensely, so the kneejerk reaction is understandable. But it’s not as though having classroom experience has guaranteed empathy. Since his appointment in 2012, Wilshaw has been a one-man walking litany of unfeeling comments, despite his 30-plus years in the classroom. In fact, it might be those years that provoked it.
Soundbites from his early days in the role have become legendary – teachers who leave at 3pm should be paid less, leaders know they’re doing something right if their staff are all unhappy, and so on. Even last year, he made the toe‑curling claim that being a headteacher is “easier now” than in his time. (Being able to fire teachers apparently makes up for increased pressure and squeezed budgets.)
After years of hearing about Wilshaw’s personal tribulations as a school leader, and his belief that if only teachers were exactly like him (employing his grab-’em-by-the-balls approach to management) everything would be OK, I’m amazed more in the profession aren’t overjoyed at Spielman’s lack of classroom experience. At least we’ll be spared the “in my day” speeches.
What Wilshaw has done well, and should be congratulated for, is standing up to government when he disagreed with ministers. Most recently, he took a stand against poor academy chains, saying weak performers were no better than the worst local authorities – a damaging blow to the government’s all‑academy plan.
Spielman is from an academies background. She spent the past decade as an adviser at Ark, the successful academy trust with more than 25 schools. But any fears that this means she’ll be soft on academies would be unfounded. Ark has publicly stated its preference for a more hands-on Ofsted inspection of academy chains – its leaders often seeming annoyed when others fail to meet Ark’s high standards. Spielman’s appointment is likely to see the pressure turned up on academy chains, not down.
Ofsted ‘should not become the plaything of government’
Her laser-like focus on data should also be a good thing for Ofsted. She is unusual in having studied maths as part of her degree (most chief inspectors studied English or history) and she isn’t afraid to use it. Ark uses data incisively to target areas of need – as has the exams regulator, Ofqual, which Spielman has chaired for the past five years.
Wilshaw has made a lot of noise in recent months over certain groups and areas that he rightly identifies as problematic: white working-class boys, northern schools, children educated in illegal schools. But Ofsted has been myopic about others who also have poor outcomes. Children with special needs were entirely missed in one annual report. White pupils were mentioned four times in the most recent report; pupils with English as an additional language, who in some parts of the country have GCSE pass rates 14 percentage points lower than their peers, were ignored. All underperforming groups need flagging, and many people wonder why Ofsted under Wilshaw seems to have overlooked vital areas.
In the end, if you oppose the very idea of school inspections – and lots of people do – then there wasn’t going to be a person in the land likely to win you over to its merits. For the rest of us, who think it a necessary evil, Spielman’s status as a non-teacher shouldn’t be cause for concern.
• This article was amended on 21 June 2016. An earlier version said Spielman would meet MPs this week to discuss her appointment as chief inspector; the meeting will take place next Wednesday.