02 Feb 2014
February 2, 2014

Michael Gove and the cheeky inspector


OfstedScotsman Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education for England and, you know, a politician, is being ‘accused’ by the Liberal Democrats of being ‘political’ in the way he does his job. Politicians close to politician David Laws, Gove’s Lib Dem departmental no.2, have been saying stuff. Laws “is furious” about this whole business of politicians going about being political, says Malcolm Bruce MP, another Scots politician. Gove went to private school, says Bruce, and it’s clear that this is leading him to warp the state school inspection system.

You what, mate? There’s a distinct lack of state school education in Laws’ CV too, so where does that leave him?

OK, so today’s guff from several Sunday papers simply running largely uncritical copy of the Lib Dems’ effort to start distancing themselves from the Tories is pretty incoherent at best. But what of the more interesting removal of (privately educated?*) Sally Morgan as Chair of OFSTED and the position of the Chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw?

Sally Morgan has pointed out that her removal is political, and that’s not fair because it should be a case of ‘best person for the job’ and so on. She’s also said there a lots of other quangocrats being culled on account of their political views, and the papers have all reported this but not mentioned a single example. But her appointment was obviously political in the first place, wasn’t it? I mean, she was very briefly a junior teacher hundreds of years ago, but that hardly qualified her to chair OFSTED.

No, she  was appointed chair of OFSTED by the Tories in 2011 because she’d been a senior staffer in Blair’s Downing Street set-up and therefore became an important symbol of Tory intent to take Tony Blair’s popular Academy Schools initiative forward. That’s what Blair always said the Tories would do and it’s also what’s been roundly rejected by the post-Blair Labour Party. So, a clear political appointment, then. And now we’re in the run-up to another election Gove, a politician, is about to make another political appointment. The job of OFSTED chair is politicised; way it is. You don’t like it? Then don’t take the job. Actually, Sally Morgan is a good-calibre individual and also a Labour politician (albeit unelected) and she must understand all of that so her comments are, ironically, all politics too.

And what of Michael Wilshaw? He’s the civil servant being paid a fortune who thinks it’s cool to attack his democratically-elected secretary of state for considering making changes to his office and remit. Wilshaw says he’s “spitting blood”  – well then he should get right to a doctor. He reminds me of Princess Diana in her ‘I’m a very self-reliant, capable, determined sort of person’ phase. There’s too much protesting going on, I think. He was never cowed as a head teacher, and he won’t be cowed by this pip-squeak, sort of thing. Hmmmm.

The fact is Wilshaw’s a hugely well-paid civil servant (on top of his full head-teacher’s pension, by the way) because he carries out an important remit laid down by his secretary of state. Although originally hired by Gove in part for his Tory-friendly leanings, he’s now out of kilter with the government’s key policy objectives. He’s unable to control his own inspectors because he’s too removed from them. And he’s allowing his sense of self-importance to get in the way of the job and he’s doing the Lib Dems’ (and Sally Morgans’) job for them. Here’s a thought for the future. Rather than appoint a retired headmaster approaching 70 to this senior executive appointment, why not pay inspectors a bit more and create a serious career-path option for current, successful heads still in the profession? They might just get on with the job of being an expert instead of constantly reminding everyone how important they are.

The present inspection system at OFSTED was initiated in 2005, replacing its predecessor for political reasons (it’s worth understanding the important role of Michael Barber , with whom Sally Morgan once worked, in the history of all of this, too). It was supposed to be a bit less intrusive with good schools. So, for example, if the secretary of state doesn’t want inspectors to be laying down exact classroom pedagogy and grading schools on the basis of whether they follow such instructions or not, then inspectors shouldn’t be doing that. Any inspection methodology is underpinned by a philosophy. And where does the philosophy come from? It comes from the democratically-elected government. That’s the whole point of elections. Wilshaw (whose inspectors were downgrading schools for not teaching as they said to teach) either doesn’t understand this or he does and think it should be him and not the secretary of state who decides the philosophy in any case – that’s undemocratic and he’s wrong.

For what it’s worth, I think Gove wants a chair of OFSTED who’s committed to academies, and he needs an inspector who accepts a regime which doesn’t undermine the academies project. Morgan is committed to a Labour win next year, and Labour will essentially kill the academies – so by extension she isn’t committed to them enough. Wilshaw is viewed by a lot of head teachers as not especially well-qualified to tell them how to run their schools – and that’s not his job anyway. He’s also out of sympathy with the government’s aims. So he should obviously go, too.

Here’s a final thought. Tony Blair’s most enduring election-winning theme remains ‘education, education, education’. Over the next year, Michael Gove will lay down a compelling, and essentially Blairite, story about education which may carry him to the very top of politics and, more importantly, will help decide the outcome of the 2015 election. The big political question which extends from all of this isn’t whether it’s time to find a new chair or director of OFSTED, it’s this: What’s Labour’s story?


Her school was fee-paying but the state funded places via both Direct Grant and the Assisted Places Scheme, so it’s your call. Thanks to The Indy’s John Rentoul and Sam Freedman (Michael Gove’s former SpAd) for pointing this out. The old direct-grant grammar type of school, much like the Scottish academies of old, operated right in today’s Free School zone, although the involvement of fees in the latter would be a step further than anyone’s dared suggest so far!