Does the recent decision of Damian Hinds, the education secretary, to remove an overlap between the roles of Ofsted and the government’s Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) signal a final end to years of behind-the-scenes skirmishes between English schools’ two most influential bodies?
Or should we be less concerned about that, and more worried that the DfE/Ofsted relationship might be becoming too cosy on the ground?
These questions arise after a speech Hinds made at the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers, which raised an issue which had been bubbling away in the background – with big implications for some school leaders - since the advent of RSCs in 2014.
These new commissioners, senior civil posts set up across eight provinces of England, had been tasked with moving from Whitehall to the regions the supervision of thousands of academies: the quasi-independent schools, funded by central government, whose numbers had mushroomed since 2010.
Soon after the RSC posts were created, a potential overlap with Ofsted was apparent. Headteachers in the academy sector started complaining of being subjected to “shadow inspections”.
These would see Regional Schools Commissioners sending advisers on visits to academies, usually where the RSC had concerns that standards were not high enough, and then producing a report.
This could then lead to action by the RSC: I am looking at a letter from 2015 in which one RSC wrote to the head of an academy warning him – following a visit by an adviser - that the school risked finding itself downgraded on its next inspection from Ofsted, and suggesting it join a multi-academy trust.
Understandably, headteachers’ unions were concerned about the stress their members potentially faced in having, in effect, two inspection regimes to go through.
So Hinds’s statement to the NAHT, in speech in which he said he acknowledged the burdens of the government’s accountability regime, will have come as welcome news.
Hinds said: “Ofsted inspectors should be the only people who should be inspecting schools…which means no more RSC-initiated visits that can feel like inspections with those extra demands for data, adding to bureaucracy.”
Famously at odds
Superficially, this might appear to push towards a conclusion a battle for supremacy which has been going on between Ofsted and the Department for Education and its RSCs for at least four years.
Sir Michael Wilshaw and the DfE were famously at odds towards the end of the former’s tenure as chief inspector – he left in December 2016 – with Wilshaw speaking out repeatedly to criticise the flagship government policies of academies, and then grammar schools.
The interesting question, now, is whether Hinds’ announcement – seemingly a victory for Ofsted – marks a troubling period ahead for the entire Regional Schools Commissioner structure. The latter is on the front line of controversies where schools are converted, sometimes to community protests, to academy status.
Sir David Carter is standing down as National Schools Commissioner – he leads the eight RSCs – but his successor, Dominic Herrington, has been appointed only on an interim basis.
Interestingly, the TES reported this with the observation that: “Mr Herrington was appointed on an interim basis because ministers are still deciding exactly what role the national schools commissioner should have” in the wake of the changes on school accountability announced in Hinds’ NAHT speech.
So the whole commissioner structure seems to be up in the air.
Inspecting head offices
However, there is one aspect of the DfE-Ofsted tension which has not been resolved in the latter’s favour. Since the days of Wilshaw, Ofsted has been seeking powers to inspect academy chains’ head offices.
That call has continued under his generally less confrontational successor, Amanda Spielman. The idea seems to have moral force.
However, the DfE has consistently blocked the idea, leaving Ofsted only to pronounce on MAT quality indirectly based on inspections of the individual academies they run, rather than looking directly at the quality of the chain’s management.
The occasional ground-level rumour suggests the DfE/RSCs may not always be clashing with Ofsted, though.
A source close to the academies sector recently told me that, as a chair of governors, he was aware of a “degree of co-operation between RSC, DfE and Her Majesty’s Inspectors”. He had been told by a senior Ofsted inspector that if the school did not move to another academy trust – seemingly as wanted by the DfE - “the school would be put in special measures”.
The source added: “I have also heard of a recent case where an inspection was cancelled on the day of the inspection because the school had come to a ‘re-brokering’ agreement [where it transfers to another academy trust] with the inspector.
“So the RSC rings Ofsted’s regional director to cancel the inspection. Surely the two processes should proceed independently for them to retain objectivity.”
Perhaps RSC-Ofsted battles are the least of our worries.
By education journalist Warwick Mansell