As you will have seen on PSI on Monday, The Sunday Times reported that HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw was to be “displeased, shocked, angry and outraged” by what he claimed were attempts from the Department for Education to brief against Ofsted.
We expressed how the row between Wilshaw and the DfE came as a surprise because Education Secretary Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw were seen to be close allies. Gove once described the inspector as his “hero” following his work as head teacher of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney. Gove has moved to deny that his aides have briefed against the Ofsted, insisting anybody engaging in such activity would be “instantly dismissed”.
However, Wilshaw has stood by his comments, while further credibility fuels this supposed feud if you recall that earlier this month Policy Exchange announced a call for evidence to review whether Ofsted’s inspection regime was still “fit for purpose” – a think tank that Michael Gove helped found and once chaired no less.
David Green, Chief Executive of Civitas, the other centre-right think tank involved in the spat, said that “the idea that Michael Gove is in any way directing our criticism of Ofsted is well wide of the mark.” The Westminster bubble has instinctively suggested the instigator of this covert war against Ofsted is Gove’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings, described by The Guardian as akin to a character out of the Thick of It because of the controversy that followed him while working in the DfE before he left last October to set up a free school.
While press outlets have focused on the narrative of this spat, PSI would like to consider why it arose in the first instance…
Firstly it goes without saying that as the inspectorate of schools Ofsted is the key to determining the performance of academy and free schools, therefore it’s influence in defining the success of the project will be unparalleled. Therefore, the Government may be using the respective think tanks to influence the means by which schools are inspected, given that The Sunday Times suggested that DfE officials described the body as being “stuck in 1960s progressivism methods”.
The findings of the respective think tank reports could in theory inform the Conservative manifesto and, should the party win the next General Election, they would have a mandate to reform the Ofsted inspection regime.
However, the upper circles of Gove’s team may have bitten off more than they can chew in this next major educational reform. In response to this move, Sir Michael’s comments may have been intentionally hyperbolic to draw attention to the row and place pressure on the respective think tanks to reach a moderate conclusion about his inspectorate’s methods. In which case, I suspect he has succeeded.
Although, were we to go for a The Thick of It plot line to this affair, perhaps that Cummings was a Machiavellian lone wolf seeking using his former links to the think tanks to propel the gears in motion for a reform to the inspectorate that would favour the methods of his free school… although this may be a little far fetched.