Is Ofsted ‘independent’?

Education journalist Warwick Mansell questions Ofsted's claim of impartiality regarding recruitment to its controversial "curriculum unit"


Is Ofsted really an ‘independent’ inspectorate?

Did Ofsted break its own appointment procedures in recruiting teachers whose views on education can seem close to those of Conservative ministers to join its super-controversial “curriculum unit”? 

It seems reasonable to ask, after the inspectorate was strangely unwilling to answer directly some straight questions. 

Ofsted’s “curriculum unit,” set up as chief inspector Amanda Spielman has emphasised the content of teaching in inspections, has been a magnet for controversy, including via a series of much-criticised “research reviews” as discussed in my last blog here

Having grown interested, therefore, in what to many critics speaks to an increasingly conservative education agenda at the inspectorate, I became aware of claims that members of the unit might have been appointed more for their ideological stances than for their experience.

So has this been the case? On deciding to investigate, I noted that all members of the curriculum unit are appointed as His Majesty’s Inspectors: Ofsted’s in-house inspection staff. 

Ofsted’s HMI job specification states that the appointed person must have: “A minimum of five years’ successful leadership experience in education provision, at middle or senior levels, with responsibility for people and resource management.” 

It had been put to me that not all within the unit met this. So I asked Ofsted: was this qualification satisfied, in all cases? 

Remarkably, the inspectorate could not respond simply “yes”. Instead, it said only: “All HMI are recruited to the same standards and criteria. Those joining the curriculum unit must also be able to provide strong evidence of expertise in their curriculum subject.”

In at least one case, it seems to me, from information available, it is hard to see how Ofsted’s experience criterion was satisfied. 

Hannah Stoten is part of the unit, as Ofsted’s national subject lead for early mathematics. She is thought to have had influence over Ofsted’s maths “research review”. 

Ms Stoten’s LinkedIn profile states that she trained as a teacher during 2013-14. From September 2014 to August 2017, she was then a primary class teacher, with the profile stating that this included time as a “subject lead for science and music”. From August 2017 to August 2019, Ms Stoten was then an assistant principal, and then a vice-principal, within the Inspiration Trust, the traditionalist-leaning academy chain founded by the Conservative former minister, Lord Agnew. Ms Stoten then joined Ofsted, in her current position, in February 2020.

This adds up, then, to exactly five years in teaching, before joining Ofsted as an HMI. It is hard to see, then, how this satisfies Ofsted’s criterion of: “A minimum of five years’ successful leadership experience in education provision...”

For that to be the case, Ms Stoten needed to have taken on such leadership responsibility instantly on becoming a teacher. 

I put this specifically to Ofsted, but it did not come back.

Ms Stoten’s ideological leanings seem strikingly conservative. Before joining Ofsted, she blogged as “Quirky Teacher”. These blogs have since been deleted, but a selection from 2017 are still discoverable online. One was headlined: “Progressive ideology – bad for everyone’s mental health?” In others, Ms Stoten supports silent classrooms – a development which has drawn criticism recently from NEU members at another Conservative minister’s academy chain – and testing. She self-describes herself as a “trad” and takes aim at the “insidious effects of child-centred education”. 

In a March 2017 blog, Ms Stoten describes how she has been “going on a reading journey via [traditionalist academic] Hirsch and then to the Far East for some research and information about maths teaching” and had been “getting into the whole Confucian vibe of late”. But Far Eastern classrooms, against the Confucian background of “structure and order”, seemed to contrast with the context facing English classrooms, she suggested, where the effects of parents “parking” toddlers on iPads were creating a looming “shitstorm” of children with poor communication skills, heading schools’ way. 

Some may agree with the above. But my point is that concerns that individuals can be appointed for their ideological beliefs seem to gain added force when it is not obvious that recruitment rules have been followed. 

The head of the curriculum unit is Heather Fearn. I have reported how she recently delivered “political impartiality training” to inspectors, despite herself having written conservative blogs before joining the inspectorate, one under the headline: “Why I’m a Conservative Teacher.”

Ms Fearn taught at the private Cranleigh School in Surrey from 2010, where she spent time as head of history and politics. From January 2017 to January 2018, she served as an executive vice-principal at the aforementioned Inspiration Trust. She then joined Ofsted in January 2018, first as an “inspector curriculum and development lead”, and then as “senior HMI: curriculum.” 

It may well be that that CV satisfied Ofsted’s experience criterion. But sceptics wonder, nevertheless, about, seemingly, a single year in state education leadership as sufficient grounds to be leading on work which has been at the centre of what Ofsted does. 

Experienced Ofsted-watchers have put it to me that the proportion of people within the curriculum unit who don’t meet the inspectorate’s HMI experience criterion is high. I cannot substantiate this: Ofsted will not give figures.

But there is a big point, here. Ofsted is supposed to be independent of government. Its current ideological leanings – often seemingly indistinguishable from ideologically-orientated Conservative ministers – suggest, however, to many close observers, a degrading of that independence. 

Democracies need independently-minded institutions. Otherwise they start sliding towards authoritarianism. In her recent book Twilight of Democracy, the journalist Anne Applebaum wrote that, in one-party states of the past, “places in universities, civil service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable, they went to the most loyal… the one-party state allows for upward mobility: true believers can advance.”

Ms Stoten and Ms Fearn may well be industrious and capable. But we should all be concerned if individual ideological positions have encouraged Ofsted to bend its own appointment rules. The inspectorate, under fire as it always is from teachers, needs to look at its own politicisation if it is not to further lose credibility with large sections of the profession.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and founder of the education news website Education Uncovered.

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