Is having a go at northern schools part of Michael Wilshaw’s job description?

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw yesterday criticised schools in the north west – but was he within his remit to do so?


I obsess about a few things. Clean and dry kitchen worktops, how to perfectly poach an egg (I’m a cling-film strategy guy and don’t mind split infinitives) and, more recently, brilliant job descriptions.

In the past week I’ve had to write five very different job descriptions for a team who, despite their different knowledge, skills and clear areas of responsibility, need to become a wolf pack if we’re going to get the job done. Get the set up wrong and we’re a hopeless herd of cats.

Perhaps the hardest part of this is clearly and frankly setting out the powers residing in each role and then looking across the team to see where there might be gaps or overlap.

In reality things aren’t that simple but we give ourselves a fighting chance if we at least get the basics right from the start. A does X, Y and Z. E does 1, 2 and 3.

While writing the descriptions this morning I look up and see this – ‘Underperforming schools ‘putting northern powerhouse plans at risk’ from Ofsted Chief Wilshaw. Let’s put aside the unhelpful tone, hyperbole and dodgy stats – I’m sure others will do a better job of taking this apart – and simply ask the question. Is making statements like this Wilshaw’s job?

Here’s what Ofsted are supposed to do (according to their own objectives

– inspecting maintained schools and academies

–  inspecting childcare, adoption and fostering agencies and initial teacher training

– publishing reports of our findings so they can be used to improve the overall quality of education and training

– regulating a range of early years and children’s social care services

– reporting to policymakers on the effectiveness of these services

When you read this list there is a case for saying his criticism of Liverpool and Manchester schools are within bounds. Could he be ‘reporting to policy makers?’ With other speeches I’ve seen Wilshaw make, I’d be inclined to agree. ‘State of the nation’ style presentations from the findings of his inspectors are, I think, on the right side of the line.

But I’d like to make the case that this time it’s different and yesterday he was on the wrong side.

My argument rests on the belief that his speech about Liverpool and Manchester (made in London, no less) was inherently political.

The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is a political project, embroiled in the politics between local authorities and central government (and, soon, an elected Mayor). Wilshaw deliberately hitched his wagon to it.

His ‘call’ was to leaders of local government who have neither the levers nor the money to change many of the schools in question. That was a deliberate policy decision by the way. Made first by the Coalition, and now the Conservatives. (Whether you agree with it or not). Wilshaw knew that the local authorities would respond in a political capacity and blame central government.

His speech was also pitched in the media just as a politician would – pre-briefed and making a case, or least indicating that he wants to see, a change in policy. This, in my view and according to Ofsted’s published powers, is not his job.

This case speaks to a bigger problem of roles being undefined in education. Just look at the Regional Schools Commissioners, and our lack of knowledge about what they do. And it speaks to my earlier point about clarity in your job description. It applies to our whole team at every level in the system – we must be clear about what each person’s role is and is not. If Ofsted inspectors are becoming politicians, RSCs are becoming inspectors, MATs are becoming local authorities and local authorities becoming who knows what, were’ left in a situation where head teachers have no choice but to saddle up and try to manage the feline herd. Which is a shame, as they have a lot more useful things they could be getting on with.



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