21 Jan 2020
The Wars of the Reformers are in full swing, and Jonathan Simons had a front-row seat as the monarchy pushed back against unruly barons this week
I’m reading a child’s Shakespeare series to my daughter at the moment. We’ve just got onto Richard III, where the protagonist explains that, when fighting has stopped and one side is victorious, the danger is that the winning side splinters and falls in on itself. Such as, you know, locking people up in the Tower.
I was reminded of this when I went to watch Amanda Spielman launch the Ofsted Annual Report this week.
Obviously the metaphor doesn’t entirely hold. For one thing, HMCI has excellent posture and no hunch. Also, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t throw people in the Tower of London. That’s more Wilshaw’s style.
Nevertheless, the one who was previously Queen of all she surveyed has received a bit of heat recently. Firstly, there was the ‘stuck schools’ report. It triggered comments from Sir David Carter, who noted archly that he was delighted to see the inspectorate finally come round to an idea of a more nuanced improvement culture. He didn’t say who first came up with it, that isn’t important, but Sir David was cautious about Ofsted doing such work. It probably needs someone else to do it. Maybe a handful of regional commissioners, headed up by a national figure? Dunno. Needs some work, but the concept is definitely there.
If that was an amuse bouche in the Wars of the Reformers, the main course came last week as Martyn Oliver, the King on the North, Sir Dan Moynihan, Knight of South London, and Dame Rachel de Souza from the Duchy of Norfolk fell into battle. The first salvo was a pointed interview in which two of the barons opined that the new Ofsted framework wasn’t, all things considered, a terribly good thing for their schools. Specifically – and the link to government priorities is subtle here, so you may need to read it twice to catch the nuance – it was bad for poor children, and those in the North.
The danger is that the winning side splinters and falls in on itself
Cue much jostling in the castles of the Kingdom. Mary Bousted, playing the role of the vanquished Lancastrians in this play, bemoaned sadly that t’was ever thus. She’d always been a fan of the work of Outwood and Harris. [Script writers, please fact-check]. Anyway, on this one, they were right.
With neither the Tower of London nor any of the London palaces available, the stage for Ofsted’s response was set in the lecture theatre of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
In truth, HMCI’s soliloquy was very strong, showing none of the tension she has presumably been feeling the past week or two. She even made a gag about feeling safe from being given her P45, as was the plan had Labour won the war election.
And then, amid the rattling of statistics about how well or not various institutions have done this year, she paused.
“We must guard against restricting education excessively”, she said. “Exam results are important but have to reflect real achievement. We should not incentivise apparent success without substance”.
Again, you may need to read that twice to spot the subtext.
HMCI continued, talking about real but totally random instances of schools Ofsted has seen who are not doing this well. Such as schools requiring all their native speakers to take ESOL qualifications. Which, as intrepid knight-errant Warwick Mansell pointed out, was something Harris Orpington had been pulled up for. Just fancy that!
The extended stiletto-ing of the rogue reformers complete, the speech moved on to castigating other parts of the education system, including illegal schools, FE colleges who churn out young people full of useless qualifications, businesses who misuse the levy, lack of support for children with SEND, and politicians who did not stand up for the Birmingham schools being picketed for their LGBT teaching.
Rosie Bennett from the Times – who had managed to coax a reluctant Sir Dan and Martyn Oliver to share their frustrations in the first place – asked a question. Doesn’t it seem odd, she asked, for disadvantaged pupils to be taught less of the curriculum than their advantaged peers. Isn’t that gaming?
Sean Harford, the Duke of Buckingham of Amanda’s court, paused before answering. “Not… necessarily”, he said.
All peace and harmony here, then.
Simons is Schools Week’s occasional parliamentary sketch writer. He was reviewing the launch of Ofsted’s annual report 2018/19 on Tuesday.