Dame Kathy August: An open letter to the new HMCI

Dame Kathy August pens an open letter to incoming HMCI Amanda Spielman, reassuring her that a lack of headship experience will be no barrier to success. 

Dear Amanda,

Congratulations on your appointment. I am sure there are hundreds of people already giving you advice and warnings about what to do and what not to do when you take up the post in January 2017. This letter does not presume to do this. Rather it is some reflections from 40 years at the ‘sharp end’ of public education.

You are taking on this post at a time when Ofsted as an organisation needs some hard thinking about its role, purpose and future. Contained within these are issues of relationships, image, culture and the sheer scale of it.

I am delighted that we will have a woman as HMCI and am sure that your experience and approach are what is needed to establish Ofsted as a regulator of repute. One which operates as an advocate of the public realm, with complete transparency and objectivity, free of ego and partisanship pursuing the single goal of improvement in conjunction and not opposition to the profession.

I write this letter as someone whose first headship coincided with the establishment of Ofsted and have led schools inspected by it in a number of inspection framework iterations. I have seen the organisation grow like topsy from being a school only regulator to one that inspects teacher training, social services, care homes further and higher education.

From the few conversations I have had with you in the past, I know that the lack of headship experience will not be the disadvantage that some might believe. The wider experience you have will more than compensate.

Firstly, I hope that, as HMCI, you will define a new narrative around the nature of inspection as a regulatory activity and help to instil a spirit of hope which will re invigorate public education. In a profession which is focused on future generations and surrounded by the energy and optimism of youth, there is a worrying lack of confidence and too great a feeling of insecurity in the teaching profession. The recruitment crisis is one result of this malaise.

The strap line of ‘improvement through inspection’ is not as convincing as it once was and there are still examples of casualties of poorly conducted inspections or inconsistent judgements. There are examples of some academies with a below floor standard three year trend being judged Good while some schools with the opposite trend but the same FSM and average point score are being judged as requiring improvement. When these are questioned the justification is never very convincing.

Secondly, the scope of Ofsted seems to have an elasticity which other regulators do not. For example when speaking as HMCI is it sensible for the outgoing HMCI making pronouncements about good leadership to call for Headteachers to be “bruisers and battle axes”? This sounds more in keeping with the 1950’s St Trinians’ film and its Headmistress, played by the wonderful character actor Alistair Sims, than any reality in the 21st century. Is it the role of a regulator to make such pronouncements?

There is also the query about the benefits of serving head teachers conducting school Inspections. Is this really a good idea when some will be CEOs of their own multi academy trusts and which might have an interest in a school inspected being judged less than Good?

If Ofsted were to operate as other regulatory bodies do, reducing and refocusing its role and associated activities, would it be possible to increase the numbers of full time and better trained HMIs and avoid the need for part time, freelance Ofsted additional inspectors? This would   increase the consistency of judgements. As a Headteacher of schools being inspected, the quality of the process was always superior when conducted by HMI as opposed to Additional Inspectors. They were more confident to follow the spirit of inspection Handbook and had a huge wealth of inspection history which commanded professional regard.

Thirdly, there is the issue of relationships. Ofsted has many but the relationship with the DfE appears as fractious. Clarity about scope of roles is needed and how the two should fit together. For example ,what IS the relationship between Regional Directors and Regional Commissioners? How SHOULD it work? It’s difficult to understand when looking from the field.

There is also the more obvious and basic question of do schools really need two powerful national agencies with tanks on the lawn?

Finally and perhaps the thorniest legacy left by Sir Michael Wilshaw for you to deal with, was his persistence that multi academy trusts should be subject to inspection. I and many others in education share his view. All other publicly funded services are subject to inspection and multi academy trusts are funded by the public purse. The argument for their inspection is compelling, the argument against appears protectionist.

There have been a number of examples of multi academy trusts behaving inexcusably badly, ignoring both the word and spirit of the EFA rules and having amnesia about the standards set for those in public life , the ” Nolan principles” named after Lord Nolan, the first Chairman of the committee established to create them .The most recent of these scandals is that of the Perry Beeches Trust and its CEO ,also with the surname Nolan. The EFA investigation findings showed that money was claimed wrongly and spent wrongly to the tune of over a million pounds. This together with other similar examples have come to the attention of the EFA as a result of a Whistle blower. The likelihood that there will be other similar examples of poor, possibly fraudulent, practice will only increase as all schools become academies unless financial accountability is stepped up.

Whilst it is good that complaints are taken seriously and investigated surely the test of how robust regulation is should be when whistle blowing is obviated? If Ofsted is the regulator should there not be a closer link between provision and resource, between Ofsted and the EFA?

A national publicly funded system needs more than whistle blowers to protect it’s fiduciary health. It needs regulation which focuses on the essential core of the service which is itself tied to how resources are used.

I hope you enjoy the job and that your undoubted abilities improve Ofsted’s standing with the profession. The more disparate the education system becomes the more it needs effective regulation.

When you are HMCI you will have many who will criticise but you can be sure you have many admirers and friends.

Best wishes and good luck

Kathy

Kathy August began teaching in an inner city Manchester Girls comprehensive in 1975, taking her first Headship in 1988. Between then and 2003 when she became Principal of Manchester Academy in Moss Side, described as the most difficult City Academies in the country, she had a second Headship, was Director of Education in two LEAs, and worked as a Senior Adviser in the DFE. In 2014 she became a DBE.

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