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School of hard knocks

Is Ofsted's survival under threat?

The dust is slowly settling after reports from the Department of Education and Ofsted this week identified significant failings in a number of Birmingham’s schools. The degree to which these schools ‘failed to promote British values’ and whether doing so breached regulatory requirements is still not entirely clear. But the media frenzy and reactions to it have highlighted a number of important points about the Education Secretary’s flagship Academies Programme and the organisations involved.

First, the episode has exposed the fact that when Michael Gove said academies should be freed from central control he really meant ‘unless they do something that I don’t like’. Since the reports were published Mr Gove has promised that all schools (including academies) should henceforth “promote British values”. And he has indicated to the schools placed in special measures that he is minded to terminate their funding agreements and find new academy chains to manage them – even though he may face a legal battle to do so. With the role of local authorities in education much diminished, the reality of current accountability arrangements is that the Secretary of State will come under pressure to intervene in other specific cases in future. This means that Mr Gove will have to work out which freedoms he is really happy for academies to enjoy, and whether he is happy to be asked to respond on cases involving thousands of individual schools hundreds of miles from Westminster. Second, the events show that arrangements for identifying and addressing failure are far from perfect – and the responsibility for spotting it has become unduly opaque. Mr Gove and Ofsted have committed to no notice inspections, which they argue will lead to the speedy identification of failure. But the hurried nature of this announcement, and its controversial circumstances, raise questions over whether the plans have been carefully considered. Moreover, this action does not solve the wider questions of how academy chains are held to account and encouraged to improve. There is an urgent need to clarify responsibilities and accountability mechanisms for all involved. Third, we have learned that it is hard to be a popular regulator. During our research on the abolition of the Audit Commission, a number of people we spoke to highlighted Ofsted as an inspectorate that had become an essential guardian of standards in school and was seen as a vital piece of government machinery. Now, however, many of the warning signs which have preceded the demise of arm’s-length bodies in the past are now apparent. First, there is scope creep. Ofsted has already taken on considerable new responsibilities during this parliament, including the inspection of children’s services departments in local authorities. Now, Mr Gove is intimating that he will ask Ofsted to ensure British values are being promoted – potentially moving it away from its current role where it simply highlights performance issues. The second warning sign is its perceived politicisation. By this, I make no judgement on Ofsted’s impartiality but instead note that its independence is being questioned. The current system of accountability means that Ofsted must now has to speak truth unto the Department for Education and not just to schools and local authorities. The DfE has more political clout and a slicker communications operation with which to present its versions of the truth and challenge Ofsted’s views when it doesn’t like them. Both signals should prompt serious thought. Ofsted’s existence is not quite under threat yet but a step back to reflect on its role is needed to ensure that the organisation does not eventually fall victim to a costly and time-consuming abolition or restructuring process in the future. There is a year to go until the General Election in 2015 – and plenty of scope for more high profile difficulties in schools before then. The Government – and the Opposition – would do well to think seriously about how to ensure that the accountability system for our schools is resilient to inevitable crises.
Public figures
Michael Gove
Institute for Government

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