The chief inspector of schools has issued a stark warning against any attempt to undermine the independence of the school watchdog Ofsted as he prepares to hand over to his successor at the end of this year.
In an interview with the Guardian, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who will have been in charge of the school inspectorate for five years, expressed concern about the future of the organisation, warning that it should not become a “plaything” of government.
Wilshaw, who has had a combative relationship with ministers – and the profession – throughout his term in office, said he was aware of questions being raised about the future of Ofsted, with suggestions that regional schools commissioners could do the job and routine inspections were no longer needed because “data tells you all you need to know”.
Wilshaw insisted, however, that Ofsted was vital to efforts to raise standards in schools and called on his successor to continue to “tell truth to power”, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
“Governments would always like chief inspectors to say things are going a lot better – that academies and free schools are doing well,” said Wilshaw. “But it’s the job of chief inspectors to sometimes say uncomfortable things to government. I’ve found that the most difficult thing about my job. It obviously irritates ministers who fund us.”
Wilshaw’s comments came before the Department for Education announced on Friday that Amanda Spielman, the chair of exams regulator Ofqual and a founder of the Ark chain of schools, would take over as chief inspector next year, subject to approval by the Privy Council.
In his time Wilshaw has become a prominent media figure, publicly taking the government to task on contentious issues such as underperforming multi-academy trusts, and ministers will be hoping the new chief inspector is less fond of the limelight.
Asked about his successor, Sir Michael said: “I wanted to raise Ofsted’s game. Who knows what the next chief inspector will want to do. Unless it’s someone who can challenge the system to do better, and take on the forces of the establishment who don’t want change, they are not doing their job properly.
“The thing about Ofsted that gives us such credibility and authority is the independence that we have. I’ve fought from time to time to maintain our independence – that’s really, really important.”
And he stressed the role Ofsted had played in raising school achievement. “People who criticise us can’t remember the dire state that schools were in in the 70s and 80s. There’s a long way to go, but without Ofsted being there, I’ve no doubt standards will fall and we would go backwards, not forwards.”
Wilshaw, who is approaching his 70th birthday, said whoever takes over would need to be “as tough as old boots to ensure we fight the good fight for that independence”. And he said dealing with the threat of radicalisation should be the “absolute priority” for the new chief inspector.
In the final months of his tenure, Wilshaw will issue a report that is likely to be highly critical of local authorities, some of whom he will accuse of failing to carry out their responsibilities to safeguard children.
Speaking on Thursday following a visit to Birmingham, which was the focus of the Trojan Horse investigation over allegations of an Islamist plot to dominate schools in the city, Wilshaw said: “The whole Trojan Horse thing has not gone away. It may have gone underground, but we should not think the problem has been resolved.”
Though he was satisfied children were safer in schools today as a result of Ofsted’s vigilance over the enforcement of the Prevent agenda and the teaching of British values, Wilshaw remained deeply concerned about the growing problem of illegal schools.
He said a taskforce of inspectors working with local authorities had identified almost 150 illegal schools where children were being taught in “filthy, unhygienic” conditions by unqualified and unvetted teachers.
“Parents are using the home tuition rules to opt out of the system and then are working with other parents to set up these illegal schools.” Other parents, he said, had been persuaded by religious leaders to take their children out of mainstream school.
“If you want to radicalise children, you are not going to go into a mainstream school where there are all the checks. You will go to these illegal schools.” Wilshaw confirmed, however, that half of the schools identified by inspectors are not religious.
He continued: “It’s a growing problem. Whoever replaces me has got to see this as an absolute priority and make sure that local authorities who are responsible for safeguarding take their responsibilities seriously.
“Some local authorities are not doing that. It’s partly a lack of political will to do it, partly it’s incompetence, partly it’s resources. If I was staying at Ofsted I would make this an absolute priority.
“I would ramp up our inspections of local authorities and seek the resources from the Department for Education to do that.”
Wilshaw said Ofsted’s critics should recognise the central role played by the inspectorate in the fight against radicalisation. “Anyone who wants to undermine Ofsted – and you hear those voices from time to time, how it should be got rid of or its importance reduced – but without Ofsted going in schools and checking on British values, without Ofsted going to local authorities and ensuring they are taking their responsibilities seriously, we would be in a much worse position.”
Wilshaw, who was previously a highly successful head teacher in inner London secondary schools, was appointed to the role of chief inspector in 2012 by the then education secretary Michael Gove, who according to Wilshaw will be seen as one of the great secretaries of state for education.
“I would not have done this job if I did not have a great deal of admiration for Michael Gove. I still have a good relationship with him.”
Despite tensions between government and Ofsted, the two men shared a commitment to raising educational standards and increasing opportunities for the least privileged in society. Wilshaw has since been highly critical of the current education secretary Nicky Morgan’s approval of plans to build a new “satellite” grammar school in Kent.
“It would be a regressive step to go back to selection,” he said. “If we are serious about social mobility ... we’ve got to make our comprehensive system work. That means making sure we’ve the best leaders in the comprehensive system.”
He believes there’s been too much focus on school structures – (“inevitably we will move to a fully academised system,” he says) – at the expense of developing head teachers and school leaders, and it’s an area he’d like to work on once he leaves Ofsted.
“It’s been exciting, difficult, challenging and tough,” he said of the last almost five years, choosing his words carefully. The lowest point was a highly public row in 2014 over alleged briefings against Ofsted. “It was a difficult thing to endure,” said Wilshaw, who underwent major heart surgery in 2015.
Asked about his legacy, and what he is most proud of achieving in his time at Ofsted, Wilshaw said the scrapping of the “satisfactory” judgment in school inspections and changing it to “requires improvement” had improved the system enormously.
And regrets? “I’ve very few regrets,” he said. “Perhaps not challenging more …?” And he laughs.
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