The new HMCI

By John Freeman

| 11 February 2012

Sir Michael Wilshaw has made his first major speech since taking up post as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. Perhaps predictably, he used the occasion to talk tough, to change the terms of the debate, and to set out major changes. Why predictably? There are two reasons; first, when a head teacher he secured major improvements in a very short time, and he did not do that by acting slowly; and second, the Secretary of State has made it very clear that the government is committed to massive change to the education system before the next general election, and I'm sure that he and the new HMCI have agreed that change needs to happen rapidly.  

So what did he say, and equally interestingly, what did he not say?  The most interesting omission was any mention of the word ‘academy' (except when he said where he had been a head, at Mossbourne Academy). This means that becoming an academy is in no sense a ‘get out of jail free card'. The same disciplines will apply to all state-funded schools, whether they are ‘maintained' by local authorities or funded by grant through the Department for Education. Becoming an academy is not an easy option, and in many ways it is more difficult, operating without a local authority safety net.  

The evidence of autonomy We can't look at the recent history of academies to see whether governance is a critical feature in school success, as the early academies were based on failing schools, and there were too many changes in their operation to be able to dissect out the effects of governance (For example, new buildings, new staff and changed admissions arrangements all have an effect that is not related to governance). And the more recent convertor academies are just too new to form a proper evidence base. But there is some very clear evidence for the impact of increased autonomy in governance, and it does not make comfortable reading for the Secretary of State. Further education colleges were incorporated in 1992, and became entirely autonomous, with only the inspection regime, the performance management regime, and the funding arrangements providing any external influence on behaviour. So we have 20 years of experience, and the messages are not at all comforting to continued assertions that autonomy will, of itself, drive up standards. In 2011, after nearly 20 years of autonomy, only 70% of the 376 colleges had been judged as ‘good' or ‘outstanding' at their last inspection. And in the 20 years leading up to this, around 80 colleges have closed completely though merger, with most mergers forced through financial or other educational failure. So, at best, autonomy is not a straightforward recipe for success, and at worst autonomy can be argued to have had little impact on college success. So Sir Michael Wilshaw is right not to focus upon governance - though one of his proposals - for repeated ‘requires improvement' judgements - does link into the Department's ideological approach that autonomy will secure the improvements that are needed.  

Where we do need to improve Much of what the new HMCI said falls into the category of ‘motherhood and apple pie', or alternatively the blindingly obvious. Too many children leave primary school with an insecure grip on literacy and numeracy. And too few young people leave secondary school with the benchmark achievements in English and mathematics. Most tellingly, far fewer children and young people in poverty achieved the benchmarks. Sir Michael did not say this, but even fewer children in council care achieve to their benchmarks. It is quite clear that we should do better. Sir Michael has said that he does not intend to change the new inspection framework, with its focus on achievement, teaching, behaviour and safety, and leadership. But he has identified two specific areas for attention. The first is the abolition of ‘satisfactory' and the second is the redefinition of ‘outstanding'. These two changes give a clear message that no school, wherever on the spectrum, will be free from sharp external scrutiny and pressure to improve. That is a welcome message, and ties in with the Prime Minister's statements in December that ‘coasting' schools will have nowhere to hide, whether they serve an area of deprivation or a leafy suburb.  

‘Satisfactory' is not satisfactory The redefinition of ‘satisfactory' to ‘requires improvement' is no more than an explicit recognition of where we have been for some time. The word ‘satisfactory' is not, to use the over-used phrase, fit for purpose. I know I wasn't original, but in 2001 I was using the phrase ‘Good enough is not good enough for our children.' And I continue to believe this. And the notion of more rapid re-inspection of schools that ‘require improvement' seems sensible. But putting a school in special measures after two ‘requiring improvement' judgements after only 18 months, with all that implies, including the distracting discussions about becoming an academy, does not seem sensible. Rather, I would much prefer it if Ofsted identified not just what was going wrong in a school, and reporting on it, but also on what should be done to improve matters. The simple fact is that working in a school that serves a deprived area is just more difficult than one that serves an affluent area. That is not making excuses, but is a reflection of reality. It is also the case that funding levels between schools are very varied, and even when deprivation is taken into account there are huge variations in funding. It is much more difficult to do a really good job if you are working on substantially less funding than a school across the borough border serving an equivalent population. My final comment on ‘satisfactory' relates to staff. As I've said before, taking action against a teacher because they are only performing at a ‘satisfactory' level will lead to major awards by the employment tribunal.  

Outstanding' Again I agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw on ‘outstanding'. It really is difficult to see how a school that delivers standards of teaching that is not of the highest level can be seen as outstanding. Even if achievement and behaviour are already outstanding, improved teaching will result in further improvements. Personally, I'd add the need for outstanding leadership as well. The problem though, is coming to a clear view through the inspection process.  

Inspection is not objective This is the critical point. Inspection is not an objective process, and it does not measure as accurately and precisely as a thermometer. It is based on observations that are interpreted by the inspector, and there is plenty of anecdotal and objective evidence about the fallibility of the inspection process itself.  And in any case schools and teachers change from day to day. No-one is fully consistent, and performing for an inspector is not easy, even for an experienced teacher, especially when your job is on the line.  

No-notice inspections On a final issue, I absolutely agree with the new HMCI, and that is ‘no notice' inspections. There is a caveat to this support, though, and that is that inspectors must no longer expect to see such a highly prepared and artificial performance for the inspection. Some schools, dare I say even some schools judged as outstanding, put such efforts into the inspection process that they present a substantially unrealistic and unsustainable picture for the few days of the inspection.   


● Sir Michael Wilshaw is right to focus on improving schools that are only ‘satisfactory' but inspections should take more account of resourcing levels and local circumstances, and should focus on the action required to improve as much on judgments of what is wrong.

● He is right to say that schools with only ‘good teaching should not be judged as ‘outstanding' overall, though I would argue that outstanding leadership should also be a requirement.  

● He is right not to focus on governance.  

● Above all, he needs to recognise that inspection is a subjective process that itself affects the school, and to build in checks and balances so that schools on a genuine improvement journey are enabled to continue. I cannot support an automatic judgement of ‘special measures' after two ‘requiring improvement' judgements unless there is clear evidence of continued failure to improve.

The problem, of course, is that while the new HMCI has the best of intentions (I don't doubt that), the law of unintended consequences will have its usual awful way with hurried changes of policy. What will be the impact on serving head teachers who are downgraded? On the morale of the profession? On head teacher recruitment? On the way the public sees the education system? on the recruitment of volunteer governors?

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