Howdy partner, welcome to Ofsted

John Davies

“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, that Ofsted might have a new Chief Inspector from across the pond”.

It’s safe to say that Swift/Knowles/Aguilera/Carey won’t be singing that at next year’s Super Bowl, and that the news of an American potentially leading Her Majesty’s Inspectorate probably hasn’t knocked Donald Trump off Fox News bulletins. But rumours have been doing the rounds that Sir Michael Wilshaw could be leaving his post in December, to be replaced by an as yet unnamed educationalist from among our North American cousins.

The last great wave of Americans coming to Britain led to accusations that they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. I pray that none of these slanders will be thrown at Sir Michael’s replacement, but if the rumours are true, I suggest we have a look at what lessons from American education reform might be encouraging the Department for Education (DfE) to look to the US to appoint Ofsted’s new Chief Inspector.

uncle sam

These posters have been sighted on Wall Street and in Times Square*

The names supposedly in the hat are mostly drawn from the charter schools movement in the US: schools free from local oversight and union regulation, established in inner city areas with the aim of giving poorer children access to higher education. Sounding familiar, y’all?

There’s a great film, although not without its critics, on charter schools: Waiting for Superman. The film paints a picture of a system held back by unions, unable to fire under-performing teachers, and constrained by a lack of ambition for the poorest children in society. It ends by claiming ‘we know what works’, and says schools need more classroom time, world class standards, high expectations and real accountability. So you don’t need to be a genius to work out why the current DfE might find the prospect of a charter school supremo leading Ofsted appealing.

Others have made the same point, but to me this all feels sooooo 2003. Let me explain.

During New Labour’s public service reform period, the problems in English schools were perceived to be pretty similar to those in the US. Inner city schools with a culture free of discipline and rigour were deemed to be failing their pupils. Getting someone in from a successful charter school chain might have made a lot of sense back then. But is that actually what we’re dealing with now?

Most of the stories that crop up in my twitter feed (among the ‘Messi scores incredible training ground goal’ and ‘Andrew Neil slaps down Labour MP’ vines) aren’t about inner city schools’ failing kids on sink estates, but about depressed coastal towns and working class boys, or relatively affluent English counties with supposedly poor schools.

If I was to go all free market liberal or laissez-faire on you, I would suggest that the market is responding to this new landscape, as high-performing academy chains such as Ark have set up schools in places like Portsmouth and Hastings, moving on from their focus on London.

Both the sector and commentariat, then, seem to have shifted their gazes from the inner city. And, as we all know, London schools are now deemed to be among the best in the country at closing the gap. Which all makes it a bit odd that the supposed list of candidates to head up Ofsted are mostly people known for turning around schools dealing with urban deprivation.

My question is: if most of the English success stories in recent times have been in the big cities, and so most of the people heralded as leading those policies also come from schools in urban areas (including Sir Michael Wilshaw himself), who can Ofsted employ who has first-hand experience and meaningful engagement with the supposed new problem spots? (This isn’t rhetorical, I actually don’t know, and would be keen to hear your thoughts).

While some of the reactions to the prospect of an American coming to lead Ofsted have felt a bit, dare I say, little Englander-ish, I do think that someone in touch with the challenges of today, rather than those of ten or twenty years ago, might be better placed to take us all forward.

 

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