As you know, we held a pre-appointment today with Amanda Spielman, your preferred candidate to succeed Sir Michael Wilshaw as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI). We asked Ms Spielman a number of questions to cover the wide-ranging role of HMCI.
Notwithstanding her broad experience and the contribution she has made to the field of education, we do not consider that Ms Spielman exhibited sufficient understanding of the scope and complexity of the role. She did not demonstrate sufficient vision or show the leadership abilities we feel will be needed. We were concerned by the lack of passion she demonstrated for the job and the important contribution it makes to the lives of children.
We will hold a further private meeting on the morning of 5 July. We would welcome your reconsideration of the nomination before that meeting, and note that there are six months still to go before the end of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s term of office.
I am sending a copy of this letter to Amanda Spielman.
Your committee clerk kindly sent me a copy of the letter you wrote to the Secretary of State on Wednesday, and I felt I should write to you myself about what you said.
As I said to the committee, I came into education fifteen years ago when I realised it was, quite simply, the most important thing in the world. My MA opened my eyes to how much better education in this country could be, and I decided to throw myself into making this happen.
I spent my first six years at Ark Schools working flat out to make top quality schools for the most disadvantaged children. Many of these were existing schools, often dismal and sometimes truly awful: yet everywhere we had to fight to win over hostile heads, staff governing bodies, local authorities and unions, who often could not acknowledge that there was so much more that could be done. It was my passion that pushed me to continue in the face of tough opposition. I spent many hours in many places being told that Ark’s motives were venal, our expertise far inferior to those already in charge, and our expectations of achievement hopelessly unrealistic; yet we kept going, year after year, and our work there is transforming many lives already.
That experience of seeing so much poor education strengthened my commitment, and eventually pushed me to take the Ofqual role, even though many people warned me that it would be a thankless task. I saw clearly that the exam system had evolved in ways that were making it hard for schools to keep sight of education itself: for too many children, education after 14 was about jumping through hoops and collecting points, rather than about learning.
Many of the decisions that are now bringing about exam improvements were entirely Ofqual’s, not from ministers. One example was removing controlled assessment: many teachers were nervous about this, but virtually all now welcome the change and the extra time it will give them to teach, which will in turn raise standards. The crucial test we now apply at Ofqual is: will whatever is being considered make for better education on the ground? And as our decisions have consequences for the whole education system, we are always working with system improvement in mind, not just our own processes.
And in my five years at Ofqual, I can say that we have never ducked a difficult decision (and there have been a few); nor ignored a matter of public concern; nor fudged our advice to ministers, even when we have known that what we had to say would not be welcome. I also stood firm under system pressure to water down standards, as when we came under extreme pressure to overrule exam board grades in GCSE English in 2012.
I have also always pushed my team to remember that it is outcomes for children that matter at the end of the day: process is the way in which the right outcomes are achieved, not the end in itself. As a leader it is my job always to keep the ends in view. In this way I have made sure that the most intractable problems get addressed.
Many senior people in education (in FE as well as schools) have said to me and in public over the last few weeks, that they welcome my nomination precisely because they see me as someone with the clarity of understanding, the willingness to act and the persistence and the integrity to tackle the difficulties that Ofsted faces and will always face. It is my work at Ofqual and before that at Ark that has earned me that respect and the credibility for this role, even though I have not been a head. And this is not exceptional: like many inspectorates, CQC and the Prisons Inspectorate are also led by people who did not themselves run hospitals or prisons: leaders must make sure that the right expertise sits in the right places, not necessarily have all of it themselves.
My style is different from Michael Wilshaw’s. He has made the role a more personal platform than any other HMCI I know of, apart from Chris Woodhead; and focuses more on criticism than on distilling insights. But Ofsted is only effective in raising standards if its feedback is acted on. So as I said, I see benefits in aiming for public commentary that is uncompromising yet discriminating, as blanket criticism can make people defensive and so be counter-productive. I want to intervene to prompt action, rather than to comment on every issue in education or children’s services.
And I was very clear that I understood the breadth and scope of the role. I have already spent time familiarising myself with Ofsted’s complex work and developing approach in children’s services, and working out how to make sure that side of the organisation is secured for the future. There have been some terrible failings in children’s services in recent years, and as I said to the committee, I am very conscious that for many vulnerable children Ofsted is the only protection they have against unsatisfactory care. I could not take this more seriously.
Finally, you question my vision for Ofsted. As I said, I do believe that the vision is fundamentally right at present–“raising standards, improving lives” really does sum it up. Improving the lives of children and young people must be at the heart of what Ofsted aims to do. In my view the inspection frameworks are now generally in good shape, after much adjustment in recent years. I did not want to give Ofsted staff reason to think the organisation would be turned upside down: stability and continuity are important, especially after so much change. Much has been done to build system trust and respect, which is encouraging, but much more needs to be done.
So it is how Ofsted develops its model in a more complex world that I see as the big challenge for the next HMCI. I explained to you much of what I think that means in practice: defining the roles of Ofsted and the Regional Schools Commissioners, and making that model works for teachers, parents, and children; developing a more sophisticated approach to MATs; making sure that expert human judgements about quality of provision, leadership, safety and behaviour carry enough weight in a data-intensive world; looking at the effects of the Outstanding judgement; and building stronger feedback loops that make sure that Ofsted truly understands its effects on the systems it inspects, and reacts when necessary. If I didn’t mention improving the reliability of inspection judgements, I should have done. All of this needs the strategic skills and internal leadership that I can bring, not just a strong external voice.
And this adds up to evolution, not revolution, building on recent good work. At the end of the day this is what will make Ofsted effective in making a real and substantial contribution to improving standards for children: helping to ensure that the tremendous efforts that are already made by almost everyone working in education and children’s services translate into the best possible outcomes for our children and young people.
This is a long letter, but I hope it fully explains why I am both able and motivated to make the very best of this very important role, working for the benefit of every child in this country.
Thank you for your letter of 29 June. I was surprised and disappointed to read of the Committee’s concerns about Amanda Spielman, my preferred candidate to succeed Sir Michael Wilshaw as Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills (HMCI).
I have considered the points in your letter carefully, and reviewed the transcript of the hearing on 29 June. Whilst I am grateful for the consideration the Committee has put into the matter and take your views very seriously, I remain wholeheartedly in support of Amanda as the best person for this crucial role. I would be grateful if you would consider looking again at the evidence, including the letter you received from Amanda over the weekend.
Amanda has a real and heart-felt passion for education and the critical importance of this for children’s chances in life. Fifteen years ago she changed career and dedicated her professional life to education: as Amanda told the Committee at the hearing, she had a ‘lightbulb’ moment when she realised that education was ‘the most important thing’ she could imagine being part of, that education gave her purpose. As the Committee has recognised, she has followed that through with significant contributions to the field of education–contributions that have substantially improved outcomes for children across the country.
Amanda is calm, measured, analytical and evidence-based. She is not a ‘super head’ but she is a highly effective leader who will be unafraid to do the right thing and, where necessary, will challenge schools, local authorities and government equally on education and social care standards when the evidence compels her. She is the kind of Chief Inspector I believe we need–Amanda’s understanding of the role, her vision, leadership abilities and commitment to raising standards have been tested at each stage of the very rigorous public appointments process overseen by Cabinet Office and the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. A senior independently-chaired panel assessed Amanda as eminently appointable.
Having considered all the evidence from the recruitment process, I chose Amanda because it is clear to me that the education and social care systems–and the children and young people they provide for–will benefit hugely from her evidence-based approach, her system-level thinking, and her clear commitment to raising standards. I believe that her emphasis on evidence, objectivity and openness, together with her experience of strategic leadership, will make Ofsted an even stronger and more effective organisation.
I am grateful that the Committee is meeting again on 5 July to discuss this important matter further. I would ask them to take these points into account and reconsider their assessment of Amanda. I await the Committee’s report following the meeting.
06 July 2016