New Ofsted chief: ‘I want everyone to see us as a force for improvement’

In her first interview as chief inspector of England’s schools, Amanda Spielman says she will start by examining the very purpose of Ofsted

When Amanda Spielman’s appointment as chief Ofsted inspector in England was announced, there was a general shaking of heads: unlike her predecessors, she hadn’t spent a minute as a teacher.

However, unlike the half dozen previous holders of the title, Spielman can argue that her experience as a founder of the successful Ark academy chain better fits what she calls “the increasing sophistication of the education landscape”.

In her first interview since taking over as chief inspector from Sir Michael Wilshaw, Spielman says her experience in building Ark and her later role as chair of Ofqual, the exams regulator, has given her insights into the pressures schools and teachers are under. “Going through the buildup of Ark from scratch, I have been on the receiving end of a lot of Ofsted inspections,” she says, grimacing at the memory. “I’ve been closely involved in the tribulations and concerns of a lot of schools, getting from a horrible place to somewhere good and sometimes really, really good.

“I’ve seen at very close quarters how the pressures of accountability influence what schools do, and how they lead to trade-offs with what people do.”

Spielman points out that the complexity of Ofsted, responsible for overseeing everything from council children’s services and safeguarding to prison education, means no one person could be steeped in them all. “At the top it is impossible, especially when you have multiple remits, to find somebody who has done everything. So there will always be some level of compromise,” she says.

The Commons education committee criticised her nomination, saying she lacked leadership skills, but those who have worked closely with Spielman say she is steely in her hunt for improvement, backing up her arguments with evidence and a prodigious appetite for work.

That appetite came in handy in the early days of Ark Schools in the mid-2000s, where she left a career in consultancy and finance to join Lucy Heller to help found an innovative multi-academy trust (Mat). “When I started there it was essentially the two of us and the trustees. It was just two projects that might or might not happen. So it really was from the ground up. It went from an idea on paper through to 35 schools in the time I was there.”

As a result, Spielman says that “notwithstanding running a school, I actually have had first-hand experience of all things that could go wrong.”

As part of that she recalls her first experience of being on the receiving end of an Ofsted inspection. “I remember considerable nervousness, considerable anxiety. I’ve always noticed, from when I first started, how extraordinarily strong that Ofsted pressure felt to schools,” Spielman says. “More than the centre of the Mat, more than parents, Ofsted felt as if it was the most pressing thing, the most powerful force on what a school did.”

But she is sympathetic about other pressures on schools, with Ofsted overseeing a sector still in the middle of a long revolution over funding, structure and testing. “I see a phenomenal amount of change in every quarter, which has still got a lot of working its way through the system to do. I see pressures of budgets tightening, and school anxiety about that.

“The next few years are not going to be easy. Brexit is obviously a huge – distraction is the wrong word – national preoccupation. In terms of government thinking and government action, it’s something that’s going to be absorbing so much time and attention that it may be harder to get the focus sometimes that we need.”

The likely rebirth of grammar schools is another distraction, says Spielman. “For me it’s a distraction from our work. I don’t see it as something that has much to do with making the most of every school, of Ofsted making the most of its work and contributing to system improvement,” she says.

Spielman’s own education included a convent primary school in Scotland followed by boarding school in Dorset, a law degree from Cambridge University and, later, a postgraduate degree from the Institute of Education in London.

Thanks in part to the high public profile of previous Ofsted chiefs such as Wilshaw and Chris Woodhead, she inherits an organisation that receives close attention from the media and politicians. But Ofsted’s relationship with parents, some of whom consult its reports on the more than 20,000 state schools in England, is less clear, says Spielman.

“I find that very hard to gauge. People say its incredibly important to parents, but I don’t think I’ve yet seen the evidence,” she says. “I’m very interested in doing some more work on who really uses what we put out and for what, to make sure all the evidence we collect hits the spot and adds the most value to the system.”

Spielman is cautious when appraising condition of England’s state schools. With more than 80% rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding, isn’t the sector in relatively good shape? “It’s a statistic I want to have a harder look at,” she replies. She notes that laws allowing “inspection holidays” for schools rated outstanding mean hundreds have not been inspected since 2011.

Two controversial areas of Ofsted’s school judgments involve teaching and behaviour. In recent years it has stopped inspectors rating individual lessons. But concerns about teaching knowledge rather than skills – a debate that rages within the sector – may have passed by an older generation of Ofsted inspectors.

“It’s tough at the moment,” Spielman concedes. “That’s one of the conversations we will be having: how do we make sure we get to the heart of the quality of education in the right way, and in a way that is constructive and adds up to a force for improvement in schools?”

Accurately judging a school’s behaviour policies is also “really hard”, she says. “You’re getting a snapshot in which you know behaviour on the day you are inspecting isn’t necessarily going to be representative of a typical day for all sorts of reasons.”

But behaviour, an area that concerns both parents and teachers, can’t be ignored even if it remains elusive to inspectors during their brief visits. “I don’t have a definite answer on that, but I want us to be looking at it and saying, how precise can we be?” Spielman says, patiently explaining her thinking without giving too much away.

“It’s part of making sure that inspection can be used for the things it can do, and do well, and doesn’t get used for the things it can’t do.”

Ofsted has endured some high-profile failures involving child protection, most notably in Rotherham, where abuse of more than 1,400 children went undetected for 16 years.

For some critics, Ofsted’s inspection of children’s services and social care have been a poor relation within the organisation, marginalised by the higher profile of schools.

But Spielman is determined not to allow “the political stuff, the media narrative” to pull her towards schools alone. “In getting to understand all the remits, I’ve been thinking about the kinds of risks they pose, how much of my attention I need to be giving, and something I’ve been making very clear is that I’m going to spread my time across all of them.”

She says she wants an Ofsted that manages risk intelligently and puts its resources in the right place. “I want to get to a point where people just can’t imagine not seeing Ofsted as a force for improvement in any of its remits. That, for me, would be a big success after five years.”


Richard Adams and Sally Weale

The GuardianTramp

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