Amanda Spielman, appointed Chief Inspector-Designate

28 Aug

I           Changing of the Guard at Ofsted: Sir Michael Wilshaw to retire

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) of Schools, appointed almost five years ago by Michael Gove (remember how he described Sir Michael as “My hero”?), former Education Secretary and Lord Chancellor, is due to retire on 31 December 2016. While it is tempting to disparage Sir Michael, because he is not the easiest of people with whom to share a pint in a pub, he has done much to improve the quality of education in England.

Sir Michael came with an impressive pedigree.  The son of a postman, he became Headteacher of St Bonaventure’s (Boys’) Catholic School at the age of 39.  He was knighted, while Headteacher of that school, in 2000.   In 2003, he was appointed Executive Principal of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney – which was in a very socially deprived area. Students severely underachieved. During his tenure, he raised standards.  Many youngsters did very well, moving on to prestigious universities, including Oxbridge, to pursue their studies.

When Christine Gilbert’s tenure ended in December 2011, Sir Michael was appointed Ofsted’s supremo, a position he took up in January 2012.  During his time as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), he got rid of 40% of school inspectors, ended outsourcing inspection to contractors – bringing the arrangements in-house by recruiting a whole cadre of headteachers and other school leaders – and replaced the “Satisfactory” grade for schools with “Requires Improvement”.

He kept his focus on the central purpose of his work – i.e. the pupils.  “As important as the reorganisation of Ofsted was,” he said, “being Chief Inspector was not and has never been a purely bureaucratic position. We are charged with holding schools to account and improving the lives of our youngest citizens, especially the poorest.  And to get things done, it is sometimes necessary to challenge, to take risks”  In other words, he was making the point that to cook a tasty omelette, he had to crack a number of eggs and some eggheads.

In the process of establishing his fierce independence, he alienated ministers and civil servants, especially when he made the point that he was not answerable to them but to Parliament.   Not so long ago, he fell ill and had to have a heart operation from which he has recovered.   He deserves a healthy, happy and long retirement when he hands over the reins of office on 31 December 2016.

II          Nicky Morgan appoints Amanda Spielman

One of the last acts of former Education Secretary of State, Ms Nicky Morgan, was (on 7 July 2016) to appoint Amanda Spielman, to follow Sir Michael.   This was despite the House of Commons Education Select Committee overwhelmingly rejecting her (Mrs Spielman) as it was left “unconvinced” by her suitability. The members of the Committee questioned whether she was the right person for the top Ofsted job.

Fifty-five-year-old Mrs Spielman is currently chair of the exams regulator, Ofqual.   She saw off a strong field of candidates including the chief executive of the Ormiston Academies Trust, Toby Salt, and the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, Russell Hobby. 

Mrs Spielman worked as education adviser for the ARK Academies and was a founding board member of the sponsor.  However, she has never been a teacher.  Her main experience has been in corporate finance.

A source close to Nicky Morgan told The Times Educational Supplement (TES): “Amanda Spielman is exceptionally well-qualified and has a wide range of leadership experience in the sector from working with the exam regulator and managing, founding and supporting the growth of one of our most successful school chains.  Amanda is uniquely qualified to take Ofsted through to the next stage of development as we aim to increase its consistency and focus its energies on areas where it can really make a difference, while reducing the burden on schools.”

In confirming Amanda Spielman’s appointment, Nicky Morgan remarked: “From helping to set up one of the country’s top academy chains, to acting as a council member for the Institute of Education, to overseeing our ambitious qualification reform programme, Amanda has extensive experience at the frontline of the education system, making her uniquely qualified to take up this important role. I know that she is the right person to deliver the education White Paper’s commitment to continue to improve the quality and consistency of Ofsted’s inspections, ensuring that it plays a central role in realising our vision of educational excellence everywhere.”

Ofsted chair David Hoare added: “Amanda has shown a real passion for education at the academy chain ARK, has experience as a regulator as chair of Ofqual, and with her wider corporate background will bring a new perspective to Ofsted’s work. I look forward to welcoming Amanda at the start of next year and working closely with her in the future.”

Jonathan Simons, from the Policy Exchange think tank and the former head of education at the 10 Downing Street Strategy Unit, said: “This is a brilliant appointment and a real breath of fresh air. There are challenges to be faced at Ofsted – but they’ve picked the best person to be the next HMCI.”

III        Education Selection Committee’s views cross with government’s

The cross-party panel of MPs, who formally invited Ms Spielman to meet them, did not agree.  They could not support the move because of their “significant concerns” about Mrs Spielman’s suitability for the post.  The Conservative Chair of the Committee, Neil Carmichael, admitted that it was “unusual” for a government appointee to be opposed, but said that it was the job of the committee to hold the government to account.

“The government’s preferred candidate, Amanda Spielman, has a broad range of experience but failed to demonstrate to us the vision and passion we would expect from a prospective HMCI,” he said in a statement.

“The new HMCI will face the task of leading Ofsted to raise standards and improve the lives of children and young people, and we were unconvinced that Mrs Spielman would do this effectively,” he added.

One of the causes for the Committee’s thinking differently was because, though she had experience in secondary education, Mrs Spielman lacked understanding of other sectors including early years, primary, further education and children’s services.

Following her appearance in front of the Committee, Carmichael said: “Mrs Spielman’s responses on child protection were particularly troubling and did not inspire confidence that she grasped the importance of Ofsted’s inspections in preventing children being held at risk through service failure. As a committee, we did not leave the session with the view that Amanda Spielman was prepared for the vast scope and complexity of this important role.”

In a statement responding to the committee’s concerns, Nicky Morgan said she was “surprised and disappointed”.

“Mrs Spielman has a proven track record as a leader and huge experience in the education sector having helped found ARK, one of the most successful academy chains in the country and worked as the chair of Ofqual,” she said.

“I chose Mrs Spielman as my preferred candidate because I believe she will be a highly effective leader who will be unafraid to do the right thing and challenge schools, local authorities and government where education and social care services are not meeting the standards our children deserve.

IV        Reflections on the appointment

Ofsted’s chiefs have consistently stated that their role is to operate independent of the government of the day and report on the state of education as it is.   They have added that they are answerable not to Ministers but to Parliament.   In recent times, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the current chief, has regularly clashed with ministers who have begun to tire of his asserting this independence and criticisms of them.

This has been one of the reasons why the Department for Education has taken pains to cultivate Sir David Carter, the National (and Chief) Schools Commissioner – as a pillar of the establishment set up to counter the resistance of Sir Michael Wilshaw.   But it is difficult for Ministers and Civil Servants to fault Sir Michael because in his time he was both, a very successful teacher and headteacher.   Mrs Amanda Spielman, unfortunately, has had experience of neither.

V         Amanda Spielman’s personal history

Mrs Spielman is a woman in a hurry.  Knitting, apparently, which is her favour pastime, slows her down.  “I knit for pleasure,” she said. “It doesn’t require you to wrestle with abstract concepts, and because I’m a fidgety person, I find it very settling. In another universe, I would knit in a lot of meetings as I find it easier to pay attention to what people are saying.”  She was born in a hurry, entering this planet before her mother made it out of her front door on St Mark’s Road, a seedier part of North Kensington a little over half-a-century ago.

When she was five, her family moved to Glasgow to enable her mother to work as a lecturer.   She attended a state convent primary school, Notre Dame.  She recalls that it was a happy school.  “I have nothing but good memories of my primary school.”    When she was 10, she transferred to a small boarding school in Dorset, which was her mother’s old school. In Mrs Spielman’s year, there were 12 girls and 100 girls on roll altogether.  Only two other girls in her year group went on to university. Mrs Spielman found the work easy and was given a bespoke timetable to challenge her.   She moved to a London day school to continue with A Levels.  Her favourite subject was mathematics.

She went on to study mathematics at Clare College, Cambridge, but was not enamoured of her lecturers who were indifferent to their students.  In her second year, she switched to studying law. She also became involved in student politics standing successfully as an executive member on the students’ union.  She represented the Liberal Democrats.

Following graduation, she became first, a merchant banker and later, moving into mergers and acquisitions and then into strategy.  She met her future husband at work, moved to America with him and has two children – both girls – of 14 and 16.

When she returned to the UK, she was disenchanted with the disappearance of the collegiate atmosphere that pervaded her work situation previously.   She decided, accordingly, to study (at the age of 39) for an MA in comparative education at the Institute of Education University of London (now called University College London Institute of Education).  Following this stint, she threw herself into education – serving on committees and supporting voluntary organisations.   She was then drawn into to the ARK academy chain (which has 31 academies) by Lucy Heller, her friend and now chief executive of ARK.   She acted as an adviser to ARK, considered one of the most effective school organisations in the country.

In 2011, she applied and secured the position of chair of Ofqual, a new organisation with the remit of regulating qualifications in England and Wales.  She was mired in the GCSE fiasco of 2012, when the results in English GCSE plummeted following the decision of Ofqual to stem the increase in the number of top grades.

Despite the criticisms, she has relished the work she has done with ARK and Ofqual.   John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens to you when you are planning other things.” It appears to be no different with Amanda Spielman.  Speaking to Laura McInerney of Schools Week on 23 December 2014, she said: “If you asked me when I was 25 if I would end up as a regulator, I would have looked in disbelief and said: ‘Not on your life!’ I wouldn’t have been able to imagine how interesting and satisfying I would find it.”

I wonder what she is likely to say on 31 December 2017 a year into her tenure as Ofsted’s supremo about the work that she would have done by then for the education watchdog.

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