Ofsted head: ‘The last thing a chief inspector should be is a crusader’. Oh really?

The Guardian reports that no chief inspector of schools got off to a stickier start than Amanda Spielman. The education select committee unsuccessfully opposed her appointment in 2016 because, it thought, she lacked not just teaching experience but “passion”.

“It is not a job where you simply throw opinions around,” she told the MPs. When one committee member said the chief inspector should be “a crusader for high aspirations and standards”, she replied that “when you start crusading you can often lose track of … objectivity, honesty and integrity”. She does not regret that comment. “The last thing a chief inspector should be is a crusader,” she tells me when we meet at Ofsted’s headquarters in London. “I think the sector is pretty exhausted by an awful lot of crusader language.”

Yet crusading is precisely what critics now accuse her of. When Neena Lall, head of St Stephen’s, an east London primary school, banned girls under eight from wearing a hijab, Spielman leapt to her defence despite parents and community leaders forcing the ban’s reversal. Even more remarkably, she sent inspectors to the school to show solidarity. “School leaders,” she said subsequently, “must have the right to set school uniform policies … to promote cohesion … Ofsted will always back heads who take tough decisions in their pupils’ interests.”

Why this fuss over a piece of cloth? “It’s not about the garment per se,” she says. “But the hijab is associated with modesty and usually worn at puberty. Do we want five- and six-year-olds worrying about whether they’re being modest? Some schools are in areas where there are community tensions so inspectors have to consider whether those tensions are being brought into schools in a way that affects children’s welfare and happiness. We can give heads the confidence and strength to act.”

She is particularly exercised about some private faith schools, Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim, that teach a narrow curriculum. Many are unregistered and therefore illegal and, to enter them, inspectors sometimes take the police. But even in registered private schools, Ofsted has the power only to inspect. It would be up to the Department for Education to close them. “We would like it to take swifter and stronger action,” she says. “It makes me uncomfortable when a school has been inspected pretty much every year and, though it may have once scraped compliance, it is found consistently inadequate.”

Spielman has also spoken frequently about schools that, to boost their league table positions, “game the system” by, for example, teaching to the test or taking less academic children out of exams. Is she blaming schools, or the government? “Ofsted and league tables were created 25 years ago to complement each other. Somewhere along the line, that got lost. The inspectorate has slid into intensifying performance measures rather than complementing them.

“We’re developing a new inspection framework to get back to complementarity. Are high grades achieved through teaching, as it should be, or through intensively training pupils to answer specific types of exam questions? Inspectors should be asking that. We should be able to differentiate between the exam crammers and the true educators.”

Read more of the interview with Ofsted’s chief inspector and her views on school inspections Ofsted head: ‘The last thing a chief inspector should be is a crusader’. Oh really?

What do you think about Amanda Spielman? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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