That Gove/Wilshaw Spat

February 13, 2014

Yesterday, Michael Wilshaw was quizzed by the House of Commons Education Committee. You can find the full footage here.

One of the issues which came up was the report in the Sunday Times, from a couple of weeks ago, based around an interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw where he had apparently complained of attacks by those with some connection to Michael Gove. This split lead to a lot of confusion among those who were unaware of the issues around OFSTED. Wilshaw’s explanation, was reported by the BBC as follows:

Sir Michael told the committee he had been furious when, in a response in the Sunday Times, he had blamed Mr Gove’s aides for briefing on it.

Asked by Education Select Committee chairman Graham Stuart if he had made a mistake in not checking whether the allegations in the Times were true, Sir Michael said: “In retrospect I probably did, but nonetheless, it was a spontaneous act of fury.”

Sir Michael added: “The Secretary of State saw me and said that no briefing had taken place, there was no dirty tricks campaign, or anything like that and that he would take action with anyone who was involved in that.

“He is an honourable man and I accepted his word.”

The two think tanks have both since confirmed they were working on reports on Ofsted, but denied that their work was being done with encouragement from the Department for Education.

Sir Michael told MPs he had been “absolutely outraged” at the suggestion that Ofsted was “mired” in 1960s ideology, adding he was old enough to remember teaching in those days and how low expectations of pupils had been.

“I was very angry that the authority of Ofsted had been damaged and undermined.”

He said many children taught in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, before the introduction of Ofsted inspections, had been failed.

Firstly, the details of the main complaint seems strange. From the original report:

In an exclusive interview, Sir Michael Wilshaw told The Sunday Times he was “displeased, shocked, angry and outraged” at attacks by rightwingers on the integrity of the inspectorate, whose job is to rate the quality of schools.

“I am spitting blood over this and I want it to stop,” he said. Asked whether he wanted Gove to call off the attack dogs, he replied: “Absolutely”, adding “it does nothing for his drive or our drive to raise standards in schools. I was never intimidated as a headteacher and I do not intend to be intimidated as a chief inspector.”

The row signals a growing rift between the Tories and Wilshaw, who heads the inspectorate Ofsted, which has slated several of the party’s flagship free schools and academies. Think tanks close to Gove are said to be demanding Ofsted be scrapped, claiming it is trapped by its adherence to progressive theories from the 1960s.

Wilshaw seemed to have fully accepted the narrative (mentioned here) that think tanks who criticise OFSTED are right-wingers acting on Gove’s behalf. While it may be significant that think tanks seen as being on the right are criticising OFSTED, to interpret it as a right/left issue, or as being about personalities is to miss completely what is actually going on. Think tanks are, on the whole, not keen to be labelled as right or left-wing, and are not exclusively committed to a simple ideological stance. Although they are keen to forge links with politicians and they aren’t keen to get involved with pointless arguments (like this one) over where they should be placed on the political spectrum, they tend to do more than follow the bidding of politicians. Both think tanks include people who specialise in education policy, including people who follow me on Twitter. Why shouldn’t they be raising questions about OFSTED?

The political agenda narrative is particularly easy to cast doubt on when looking at Civitas. They have had strong links with Tristram Hunt prior to him becoming Labour’s shadow education secretary and a long history of looking at OFSTED. Their Deputy Director  who had written extensively about OFSTED in the past, was identified as a member of the Labour Party in an apology in the Guardian after they implied she advised Gove.

Of course, if the think tanks are a red herring here, it is possible that Gove (or his advisors) are known by Wilshaw to have issues with OFSTED. However, the opinion, attributed to Wilshaw, that this is over the inspection of free schools or academies is a convenient one for putting the blame completely on Gove. For those with more familiarity with the OFSTED issue and Gove’s attitude to it, there’s another explanation. Back in September, Gove had vouched for Wilshaw’s ability to change OFSTED, telling an audience at a Policy Exchange event the following:

…there have been occasions – in the past – when inspection has not achieved what it should.

Too few inspectors had recent – or current – experience of teaching.

The framework, prior to 2010, required schools to be judged against more than 27 different criteria – putting ‘quality of teaching’ on a par with ‘whether pupils adopted healthy lifestyles’ and ‘the extent to which pupils contribute to the school and wider community’.

And Ofsted’s guidance provided too little clarity about what constituted good teaching; or allowed inspectors’ personal prejudices and preferences to be interpreted as ‘the Ofsted way’.

As a result, and as teacher bloggers like Andrew Old have chronicled, time and again too much emphasis was given to particular practices like group work and discovery learning; while Ofsted inspectors marked teachers down for such heinous crimes as ‘talking too much’, ‘telling pupils things’ or ‘dominating the discussion’.

The good news is that Ofsted – under its inspirational new leadership – is moving to address all these weaknesses and give us a system of inspection of which we can be proud.

For OFSTED to still be writing much the same things (as shown here), almost 5 months after Gove vouched for them, seems to give those in the DfE every right to be critical of OFSTED. They must be aware, that if Gove’s opposite number hadn’t turned out to be even more in the thrall of OFSTED than the government had been, then Wilshaw’s failure to deliver what Gove promised, could have been used to make political capital against the government. We can ask if Wilshaw’s efforts to reform OFSTED are a heroic failure by the best person for the job, or a sign that he was never up to it, but it is hard to miss that so far he has failed in his efforts to reform OFSTED and, as the minister responsible for this, Gove has failed too. In that light, then it is hard to avoid seeing Wilshaw’s comments as the defensive reaction of somebody who, having failed to deliver what they promised, wishes to blame those who were foolish enough to think he would deliver.

There has been plenty more debate OFSTED since, and all sorts of political narratives to explain it, but the core of this issue is the way in which OFSTED is both harmful to education and, so far, extremely resistant to reform. Where the blame for this lies is hard to tell because it is a bureaucracy, but the starting point of the discussion has to be the failures of OFSTED and those who have sought to reform it.

I will be taking part in a live chat on OFSTED on the Guardian website this evening here.

Update 14/2/2014: A Radio 4 programme about OFSTED, in which I feature, can be found here.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Be careful what you wish for ;-)

  3. The crux of the issue would appear to be accountability; how to make schools accountable for the outcomes of their pupils, how to make schools accountable for the improvement of progress. Once upon a time, the orthodoxy was that it is the school management, and management systems that had the biggest impact on the outcomes with respect to learning. However, recently this seems to have morphed into putting pressure on teachers, with the implication that outcomes depend mostly on the teachers. This has manifested itself in the Ofsted Observation of teaching, which has really put pressure on teachers, reduced diversity of approach and made SLT lose their powers of reason.
    It is now clear how ludicrous the situation has become – but, more importantly, the effects on teachers and schools has been tragic. It is time to change, to limit the negative impact Ofsted can have whilst the government works out how to reform the accountability conundrum. Abolishing Ofsted graded observation of teachers is needed now.
    I favour moving the emphasis of accountability and inspection back onto the SLT, because, in my opinion, this is where it belongs. It is the SLT who empower or shackle the teachers. Poor teachers aren’t the problem.

  4. Wilshaw and Gove..drama queens. Wilshaw thinks he’s some kind of hard-man–”I was never intimidated…”–and Gove relishes the publicity in his drive to be next tory leader. none of this is helping our country’s youth. they’re both more concerned with their own image.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: