Long Live the Queen: why Spielman is the best choice for the next HMCI

Amanda Spielman, yesterday

An advisory vote was taken recently where an expected outcome was surprisingly rejected. Not Brexit, but the Education Select Committee’s recent decision not to approve Amanda Spielman’s appointment as HMCI. I think that’s unfortunate, mainly because I think Spielman is exactly what the education sector needs right now.

Ofsted’s role with schools isn’t to tell teachers how to teach. That misapprehension has rightly been binned in the last 5 or 6 years. Indeed, one of the principal achievements of Wilshaw’s reign on the Iron Throne was to dislocate the infamous ‘preferred teaching style’ of Ofsted that was never formally enshrined but still existed in the gaps between statutes (which is why it took so long to identify and eradicate; it needed a campaign of whistle-blowing through the similarly informal forum of social media to expose it. No mechanism existed within its own structure to collate these concerns, much less address them.) There’s precedent for an HMCI not having taught in schools- Stewart Sutherland was a lecturer for example- but that misses the point.

Spielman is one of the most qualified people I know to run a hydra like Ofsted. I’d probably agree that the inspectorate covers too broad a remit, and should be split in some way, but the suggestion that Spielman is less capable than previous incumbents is unsustainable. Her CV reads like Genghis Khan’s to-do list: start-up impossibly successful academy chain transforming the lives of thousands of children? Check. Chair Ofqual through some of its most challenging times? Check. What am I missing here? Where in her resume does it say anything other than ‘runs enormous educational organisations like an army of ninjas’?

Could you just reach into your ribcage and tear out your heart please?

The strangest charge against her is ‘lacks passion.’ For a start, passion is demonstrated by action, not wept in a monologue across an interview bench. It bleeds out of everything she’s done. I’m forever telling my sixth formers to can that weasel word from their personal statements to UCAS, because it’s an empty claim to make. Poor old Emily Davison; how on earth will we ever know she was passionate about women’s suffrage? I mean, she threw herself in front of King George V’s horse, but she never mentioned she felt ‘passionately’ about it so we’ll never know, I guess. Maybe candidates should thump the tables a little more, or roar at Head Teachers’ conferences in Brighton College.

I’ve met Spielman on many occasions; she’s spoken at several researchED conferences. She knows an extraordinary amount about the realities of schools, the gauntlet of disadvantage and opportunity that they represent, and possesses one of the five best minds in UK education. And I believe she understands exactly what kind of inspectorate my profession now needs. Not one that will attempt to be the arbiter of what good teaching is- that should be a conversation the teaching profession drives for itself, in partnership with other communities like ITT, research, and professional bodies. Ofsted can get the Hell out of that frankly. The biggest problem we had with Ofsted was that it crashed into the profession’s own sense of agency and self-analysis. Never mind what we thought, you better second-guess what the inspector wants otherwise *draws finger across throat*.

Spielman has already drawn attention to the perverse disruption of the observer effect. (‘In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.’) She’s also spoken about the possibly of jettisoning the Outstanding judgement, on the grounds that Ofsted’s role might not be to define excellence (which perversely might have the effect of codifying, mortifying and therefore ossifying its generation). This is an HMCI-in-waiting who really appears to understand that the next phase in its development is a gear shift away from being a GREAT BIG SCARY BEAR towards something more supportive.

And as for the claim that she may struggle building bridges with the sector, well, irony was just found at the bottom of Loch Lomond, with iron bars in its pockets. I’m watching my social media streams right now and can barely see anything other than support for Spielman, and wonder that her capacities could possibly be overlooked. I’ve never met a more popular choice. Anyone who claims that ‘the profession doesn’t trust her’ hasn’t been talking to the fairly large part of the profession I engage with. Perhaps some of the disapproval has come about because she’s perceived as being on the ‘wrong team’ in education, someone who won’t rock the boat. Well, anyone who thinks Spielman is some kind of Secretary of State poodle, doesn’t know her very well at all. She’s fiercely independent. And remember that Wilshaw was brought in as a Goveian ubermensch, but as the years passed he stirred on the slab and reminded everyone that while the HMCI role may appear to be a grace-and-favour appointment, it can be more akin to animating Frankenstein’s monster.

Oh God not the buck

Cersei Lannister, Queen of Kings Landing
Finally, there was concern that she claimed the buck didn’t stop with Ofsted. Of course it doesn’t. Anyone who thinks that responsibility for any event can be easily reduced to something so simple as a single ‘buck’ shouldn’t criticise anyone clever enough to understand that responsibility is diffuse. Schools, for example, need to take personal ownership over some of their actions too. If you want Ofsted to continue to be the universal arbiter of all standards, fine: believe in mono bucks and get Wilshaw’s big brother. If you want partnerships and autonomy, then defy that.

In case I’m not being clear enough, I think Spielman would be a terrific HMCI; I think she’s exactly the right shape for the role as it stands now; the time for Pale Riders is passed. I hope the Select Committee, wise as it is, reconsiders its support. These are turbulent times; we need stability, professional administration of governance, and someone who will navigate calmly and sensibly through emergent challenges such as the roles of MATs and RSCs. And we need it yesterday.


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