Welcome change of tone from Ofsted boss at Festival of Education

Janet Downs's picture

Former Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw was famous for comparing himself to the Clint Eastwood character, Pale Rider.  He notoriously said:

‘…If anyone says to you that staff morale is low, you are doing something right.’

Heads, Sir Michael said, were ‘mavericks’ who used ‘I’ and not ‘We’.

But the present Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman is having none of this.  In her speech to the Festival of Education today she makes it clear she’s changing the emphasis from ‘hero head’ to heads who lead ‘well-functioning teams’.

Spielman attacks window dressing: ‘gushing profile pieces’ of ‘visionary’ heads; training pupils to jump ‘accountability hoops’; and paying lip service to British values by placing ‘the Union Jack in the corridor’ alongside ‘pictures of the Queen’.

British values – I would call them universal values – of ‘liberalism, tolerance and fairness’ are best promoted by ‘giving young people a real civic education’, Spielman says.  How best to do this will form part of Ofsted’s curriculum survey – a project started by Spielman to discover the ‘curriculum meat’ which she says is too easily lost during inspection when it is just one area under the heading ‘leadership and management’. 

Spielman wants Ofsted to become ‘a force for improvement in education’.   Inspection was about more than publishing a report.  Spielman believes Ofsted can add ‘real value’ by combining inspectors’ judgements with current research to produce ‘robust analysis of what is working well’.  This will prevent education policy being ‘based on personal prejudices or hobby horses’, she says. (Schools ministers please note).

All children should study a broad and rich curriculum’, says Spielman. Preparation for GCSEs, although important, should not narrow what pupils study.  She is unhappy about shortening key stage 3 in order to increase key stage 4.  And she’s scathing about schools where 90% of pupils take the European Computer Driving Licence which can be achieved in just two days; schools which deny pupils who speak English as an Additional Language the chance to learn another language because the EBacc requirement can be fulfilled by letting them take a GCSE in their home language; and primary schools that scrap most of the Year 6 curriculum to focus on English and maths.

If you are doing any of these things then you are probably doing most of your students a disservice,’ Spielman says.  Such schools are putting their own interests before those of their pupils.

ADDENDUM 15.55.  Spielman made it clear to Schools Week editor Laura McInerney that she doesn't want to 'get into the space' of defining the curriculum.   According to Schools Week, Spielman was 'stressing that inspectors would look more closely at whether they [schools] were properly thinking about their curriculum, planning it well, and delivering it effectively'.



Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 23/06/2017 - 16:37

I agree that this is encouraging, but at the same time OfSted is still giving 'outstanding ' status to schools that have 'zero tolerance', extreme behaviourist, punishment/reward approaches on the assumption that 'telling' is teaching and 'listening' is learning.


This is all part of the neo-liberal marketisation paragdigm of learning that I characterise as 'Educational Lysenkoism'.

Vygotsky asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. Piaget shares this view but expresses it differently. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in an individual learner needs to be a social process. The participants can then assist each other in grappling with the cognitive conflict. There is then a shared participation in recognising the resulting cognitive dissonance, which the students are encouraged to welcome rather than fear.

This approach requires a certain quality in the social relationships in the classroom. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a school where such quality relationships existed, and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in my headship school. Students have to trust each other and not fear the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings and the sources of their cognitive dissonance. Peer relationships have to be good enough for all group members to be comfortable with revealing their lack of understanding to each other as well as both collectively and individually to the teacher. This is a big ask, not to be underestimated.

A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite.

In an examination system itself corrupted by marketisation these extreme behaviourist approaches may well work for the status of the school, but as the new Chief Inspector points out, this will not benefit the deep learning of students or prepare them for the opportunities and demands of democracy that Jeremy Corbyn has so successfully ignited, let alone for higher education.


Matthew Bennett's picture
Fri, 23/06/2017 - 21:34

It’s true that Spielman was never a ‘superhead’ in the Wilshaw-Moynihan-de Souza mould.  In fact, she has never taught; her background is in corporate finance and management consultancy.  This means that she has a broader perspective than Wilshaw – who, in the end, was just another product of the league table-Ofsted system.  There is one similarity between them:  both have been closely involved with ARK Schools.  But she was much more of a key player than he ever was, moving in the same world as men like Paul Marshall, Stanley Fink and Ron Beller, if at a slightly lower level.

      Teachers all over the country are familiar with the Wilshaw type:  the thuggish pseudo-managers who lack any professional standards or principles, as well as any notion of why they do what they do, or where it is all headed.  Spielman is different.  She really has a vision of the future of state-funded education in England.  It’s a future in which key features of the post-1988 regime – national league tables based on national standardised tests and exams, tied to a national curriculum – have been phased out.  Why?  Because, as the English schools system has broken up into chains run by private companies, its standardised, uniform, ‘national’ features have become more and more of a barrier to commercial enterprise.

      What Spielman and her friends at ARK are working towards is a more complete realisation of Milton Friedman’s dream of businesses ‘selling schools like groceries’.  These edu-businesses will operate – or buy in – their own proprietary curricula, with their own proprietary testing systems.  The curricula will be digital, delivered by computer.  So will the tests.  Computer-based, online instruction, or ‘personalized learning’, is already a reality in the USA, where it is rapidly being adopted by charter school chains.  From a commercial point of view, computer-based instruction has huge advantages:  it allows drastic reductions in staffing costs and plant costs, while opening new markets in educational software and hardware.  Since ‘personalized learning’ is based on the real-time tracking of students’ performance, and is essentially a system of continuous testing, it produces vast amounts of data.  This data is essential for marketing purposes, but is open to commercial exploitation in other ways too.

      This is the model that ARK is seeking to import into England.  And this is the reason why Spielman doesn’t want to ‘get into the space’ of defining the curriculum.  Proprietary curricula have always been a key part of the education business, since the days of the Edison Schools (the only difference is that now these ‘canned curricula’ are digital and online).  Spielman’s job is to open up new markets – for educational products and services, for ‘social impact’ investment – not shut them down.

      Both she and Daisy Christodoulou – a smaller cog in ARK’s PR machine – have started decrying the corrupting effects of teaching to the test.  This may seem rather surprising, given the behaviourist ‘culture of training’ – as Roger puts it – that prevails in ARK academies.  But the point is not to have less testing – far from it.  Computer-based ‘personalized learning’ involves continuous testing.  No, the point is that the students of the near-future will take the company’s tests – on-screen and online, all day every day – not the government’s.

     Spielman will continue to flip the old Ofsted script.  There will be calls for ‘smarter’ accountability, with daring criticism of the notion that all children should sit the same national tests at the same point in their school careers.  There will be much talk about ‘innovative assessment systems’ – a phrase that Christodoulou lifted from Obama’s Action Plan on Testing and the ESSA legislation, and has made the focus of her latest book (everything ARK does is made in the USA).  There will be a lot about the outdated ‘factory model’ of mass education, from which computers will finally allow us to break free.  The ‘optics’ change, but the aim remains the same:  to push on from ‘marketization’ to full-scale privatization, with information technology as the key to a viable business model.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 24/06/2017 - 08:29

Matthew - I agree that commercialisation of education is a very real threat (something I intend to write about shortly).  I also agree that so-called 'personalised learning' backed up with continuous testing  potentially reduces mass education to a functional process easily delivered via computers and requiring little human interaction.  But I'm encouraged by Spielman's desire for all pupils to received a broad, rich education.

Matthew Bennett's picture
Sat, 24/06/2017 - 09:14

Janet - you've done more than anyone to alert people to the push towards full-scale privatisation of schools since 2010.  I'd like to think that 'a broad and rich curriculum' means what it seems to mean, and is not just marketing copy.  But I think we have to judge Spielman's words by ARK Schools' practice.  She was 'a founding member of the leadership team', and so played a key role in importing the 'no excuses', 'data-driven' model from US charter school chains like KIPP and Uncommon Schools.  This brutal culture of exam training was always justified in terms of what one American blogger calls the 'social justice marketing narrative'.  I'm afraid that the 'broad and rich curriculum' is just more of the same.  A leopard doesn't change its spots.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 24/06/2017 - 10:46

Matthew Bennett is right as he explained in detail here.


He writes:

"Like most aspects of ARK’s ‘school improvement model’, blended learning comes from the USA. It was developed and tested in charter schools – the publicly funded but privately controlled schools which were the model for academies. Charter schools – specifically, the KIPP chain and its imitators – were also the source of so-called ‘no excuses’ schooling, which involves strict control of students’ behaviour, and a relentless focus on improving test and exam results."

This is the problem. As the 2015 OECD PISA results show these innovative market oriented approaches to education don't work. When proper independent PISA testing for deep understanding (rather than the market corrupted SATs and GCSEs) take place and the raw scores are corrected for student cohort cognitive abililty the effectiveness of maths teaching in the US comes in at 53rd and the UK at 49th (out of the 70 countries taking part.


The poor performance of the UK is a result of the creeping negative influence of US GERM - based approaches through the Academisation and Free School movement as Matthew points out.

What the author is describing is a monstrously unethical experiment on millions of children with no basis in either educational theory or evidence. If it was a new clinical procedure in a hospital system it would not be allowed without extensive statistically valid clinical trials. Actually that is wrong. There is a theoretical basis for the approach. It is a combination of the 'common sense', bucket theory of learning and the long discredited theories of behaviourism. They certainly do have an impact, but in terms of education it is entirely negative.

As the author points out these false models of learning are increasingly being combined with the 'magical' power of the digital and IT revolution. While the latter may be useful in 'training' it does not work for deep learning and understanding. The illusion of success in England arises from the corruption of the privatised GCSE examination system by the skills/training paradigm.

There are many weaknesses in the approach, most of which are a consequence of its complete ignorance and avoidance of the vital role of 'social plane learning' (Vygotsky) and the development of cognition (Piaget). The following key paragraph from Vygotsky sums this up.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

The key missing elements are metacognition (students interrogating their own cognitive processes), peer to peer learning (in which structured group explorations of cognitive schemas take place) in response to the deliberate feeding in of cognitive dissonance by the teacher. All of these have been researched, found to be effective by the DfE funded Education Endowment Foundation, and ignored by the government and OfSTED (its regulatory poodle).

Another major weakness of the model that the author is attempting to sell would be recognised by all science teachers. There is no 'hands on' physical engagement with the real world. There are no hypotheses being tested by experiment. It is an entirely synthetic, virtual experience, the success of which is also an illusion, which will be tragically revealed when the 'successful', GCSE-endowed 'products' fail, or more likely do not take up, cognitively demanding A Level Studies (always assuming these do not suffer the same degradation as the GCSE).

The explanation of this fundamental weakness can be found here.


and in more general terms in the work of Matthew Syed here


agov's picture
Sat, 24/06/2017 - 11:28

Ofsted Attacks Schools that Surrendered to Previous Ofsted Requirements. Rejoice.

agov's picture
Sat, 24/06/2017 - 11:28

Ofsted Attacks Schools that Surrendered to Previous Ofsted Requirements. Rejoice.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 24/06/2017 - 15:33

Highly recommended US blogger Nancy Bailey comments on this same issue here


She is apparently not alone in the US with such concerns. In the whole of 2016, my website had 8,120 views of which 651 were from the US.


So far this year my website has had 1, 150 US views, which projects to about a fourfold annual increase. US educationalists were very disappointed with Obama's failure to challenge the marketisation of education that Trump is intending to expand. The most visted articles on my website by US readers are those most directly relevant to the issues raised on this thread.

Matthew Bennett's picture
Sun, 25/06/2017 - 13:52

Last month, the Massachusetts Teachers Association committed itself to fighting the roll-out of computer-based, online instruction in New England.  This seems to be the first time a union group has taken a stand against 'blended learning' / 'personalized learning'.  Diane Ravitch, a leading campaigner against corporate education reform in the USA, describes the resolutions passed by the MTA as 'a landmark in teachers' efforts to block privatization, data mining, and the replacement of teachers by machines'.



Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 25/06/2017 - 14:04

Thank you Matthew. There is some really strong and helpful stuff on Diane Ravitch's website. Given the parallel concerns on both sides of the Atlantic it is a pity that there is not more cordinated cooperation.

Any ideas?

Matthew Bennett's picture
Sun, 25/06/2017 - 19:58

There is a lot to be learned from American campaigners.  The work of bloggers like Alison McDowell ('Wrench in the Gears'), Audrey Watters and Emily Talmage is extremely helpful in understanding the role of 'ed tech' in the privatisation project.  Over here, the only person doing equivalent work is the journalist Tamasin Cave.  The NUT (or NEU) should really be talking to her, if they aren't already.  They should also be talking to the Massachusetts Teachers Association!  Unfortunately the national leadership of the National Education Association, of which MTA is a division, seem to have fallen for the 'personalized learning' scam -- see the comments which follow this piece in NEA Today.



Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.