Tristram Hunt’s Call for a Politically Independent Ofsted

Tristram Hunt has written an article about Ofsted in the Guardian.

Tristram Hunt [1]

Read it and wonder. Or weep. Or both.

He rightly says that Ofsted needs to be “free of political meddling”.

Nobody is going to disagree with that. Ofsted was set up as an independent “quality control”. Yet, it can never be truly independent of politics if its remit is to inspect on the practice and the criteria imposed by whichever party happens to be in power. Education policy and practice is currently driven and controlled centrally by the Secretary of State. Therefore the inspectors are inspecting on the basis of his or her policies. How can it be anything other than political?

Tristram Hunt starts his piece with a quote from Matthew Arnold – an Inspector of Schools in Hunt’s favourite period of history: Victorian times.

Matthew Arnold

“Political considerations are in my opinion too much suffered to influence the whole working of the system of public education.”

An interesting quote, it is actually referring to the French education system in 1868 from a book called “Schools and Universities on the Continent”. However, the subsequent sentence in Arnold’s book is equally alarming.

“In Prussia the minister is armed with powers, and issues instructions showing how he interprets those powers, which in England would excite very great jealousy.”

Prophetic indeed.

Whilst Arnold thought an education minister was needed, he also offered his own concerns by saying that “in the employment of such an agency there are inconveniences.” He said that a single person in charge of policy had its problems, and referred to the Prussian minister of the time who was “a strong Tory and a strong Evangelical”.

Sounds familiar?

The point of mentioning this is that as far back as 1868 there was concern about the powers of an education secretary of state and we are, nearly 150 years later, reaping the full extent of Arnold’s concerns about placing too much power with politicians rather than educationalists. As a Victorian scholar Mr Hunt would do well to consider precisely why Arnold was so concerned and what he might do to redress the current imbalance of the decision-making powers of the Secretary of State for Education should he hold that position.

Tristram Hunt would also do very well to read the comments that are below the line on Comments is Free in the Guardian. There’s real passion for education and an immense amounts of frustration that the leaders of “One Nation Labour” aren’t listening to their constituents and potential voters. We need real change in education and not a rehash of failed policies from both New Labour and the Conservative/LibDem coalition.

Here are some extracts from Mr Hunt’s article together with our comments. We welcome readers views on these.


“Sir Michael Wilshaw – who is being subjected to a relentless political assault by Michael Gove and his unmarked irregulars at the Department for Education . . .”


Here’s a thought, Tristram. If you want to get teachers and educators to listen to you and empathise with your views, maybe you could consider the “relentless political assault” on the thousands of teachers first and foremost  – by “Michael Gove, his unmarked irregulars”  . . .  and Sir Michael Wilshaw and his team, and by politicians from all parties.

The role of Chief Inspector of Schools is political. Ofsted inspects an education system that has been imposed by politicians. Its criteria for inspection are set by politicians.  Sir Michael Wilshaw must have known the political nature of the job before he took the position.

More on Wilshaw……..

“I welcome the strong, independent leadership of Wilshaw. I welcome much of the new inspection criteria, his focus on the quality of early years’ provision, his willingness to have difficult conversations about attainment for disadvantaged white boys, and his determination to get Ofsted more engaged in dealing with underperformance.”

Any Chief Inspector should be concerned about Early Years’ provision. Sir Michael Wilshaw has shown on more than one occasion that he has no experience of this phase of education and has often reiterated some of the bizarre and dangerous suggestions from the likes of Liz Truss. Disadvantaged white boys have been largely ignored by politicians for years. Of course a Chief Inspector would be worried about this group of ignored youngsters. However, a Chief Inspector of Schools should also be concerned about the underlying reasons for underperformance of this and other groups. The inequalities they experience begin before they enter into school and can’t be seen as separate to their progress with learning.

The current inspection regime is all about “standards” – along with a begrudging reference to the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of the child. SMSC, personal development, opportunities to develop key competences and intelligences, are all integral and vital to “performance”. What does a “strong, independent” leader such as Wilshaw have to say about this?

“This intimidation [political interference from government] necessitates a renewed commitment to affirming the importance of an independent schools inspectorate system, which operates without fear or favour and is protected from ministerial whims.”


No Tristram, this is only part of the problem. What we want is an entire school system which operates “without fear or favour and is protected from ministerial whims”. Ofsted will be truly independent ONLY WHEN the whole school system is free from ministerial whims.

“Michael Gove’s free school policy was a pile ’em high approach, implemented at breakneck speed for ideological, rather than educational, reasons. Quality was sacrificed for urgency with the introduction of a chaotic system of market provision”

So surely the Labour Party must redress the balance and stop this slide to a divisive system of different schools and governance, which is ultimately in danger of part or whole privatisation. The concept of universal education is lost if we continue to allow Free Schools and Academies to operate a different system of schooling to mainstream state sector schools. As far as Ofsted is concerned, they’re not therefore assessing like for like.

How independent have Ofsted really been when inspecting academies over the last decade? We, and others, have plenty of evidence of academies receiving Ofsted reports that were positively inflated beyond belief; all in the name of justifying Adonis’s policy of introducing academies and not truly reflecting the education provision in these places.  Some of the early Ofsted reports on the Harris Academy chains in South London were risible and bore no relevance to the experience of working or being educated in these schools.

“First, we need a clearly independent Ofsted to scotch rumours about politicisation – that fear among teachers that inspectors are somehow doing Gove’s bidding, especially when it comes to forced academisation.”


Yes, we do need Ofsted to be seen as independent. But look at the evidence from all the schools that have received a notification for improvement or special measures. How many have received a call from the Academy brokers whilst the proverbial ink is still moist on their Ofsted report? Naturally, people are going to make connections.

Why is it that certain schools deemed to be in need of a change of governance have become academies, and on returning to the “new school” Ofsted miraculously judges that the school is viable and improving – within a space of time where such improvement couldn’t be put down to the change in governance, and couldn’t be judged to be sustainable? These are not fictional cases. So is it any wonder that people have suggested that Ofsted is politically motivated?

“We need a clearer line between judgments about achievement and teaching, between the data of past performance and what inspectors see for themselves.”

Yes we do. We also need clearer lines about what we are judging. How many Ofsted inspectors are truly capable, for example, of judging whether a school is truly “promoting the wellbeing of their pupils” other than anecdotal, trite references to the number of after-school activities? We also need to have dialogue between teachers and inspectors so that there is a greater understanding of what learning is actually taking place rather than inspectors decontextualizing a lesson and then making judgements based on a sub section of it rather than the provision as a whole.

“For while every good headteacher welcomes a thorough inspection from an experienced and well-qualified inspector, there are doubts about the capacity and judgments of some inspectors who don’t have enough relevant school experience themselves.

So it is time to think carefully about the balance between in-house inspection staff and private contractors. When so much rests upon an Ofsted inspection in today’s high-stakes schooling system, having confidence in the quality of inspection is vital.”

Any inspectorate or accountability model should have a strong element of the critical friend and reflective practice. In some cases, it’s doubtful that Ofsted ever had that. Yet  stringent policy direction has undoubtedly led Ofsted inspectors to criticise and judge anything contrary to the political preferences on pedagogy rather than enter into constructive dialogue with school staff about what works for their children.

teacher stress

As Tristram Hunt rightly says, so much rests on an Ofsted report. Livelihood and careers are at stake. High-stakes schooling is inspected, not education as a whole. We need to redress this immediately, and Labour should certainly look at precisely how this can be done within its manifesto for the General Election.

“The more interesting challenge is to work towards an inspectorate system that seeks to judge the broader criteria of education we in the Labour party want to develop. There can be no slippage in holding heads and teachers to account for the quality of leadership, teaching, discipline and attainment. But we also need to disaggregate curriculum from qualifications; question the breadth of provision on offer; and highlight the broader function of schooling in building character and resilience in young people; and, similarly, the kind of careers provision on offer.”

Yes! We most certainly do need to disaggregate curriculum from qualifications, Mr Hunt. But please tell us how this is done when the curriculum is imposed from politicians and not agreed at a local level in a school? How can the curriculum be disaggregated from qualifications when the credibility of a school solely rests on their exam successes and their place in the league tables? How can we free teachers to teach what they know is best for their children and young people rather than what the Secretary of State and his “unmarked irregulars” have deemed to be important?

The simple truth is that if you are merely judged on one aspect of learning, and that learning is dictated to you by politicians, then guess what? – that is what you are going to concentrate on. Otherwise the “independent” Ofsted will come in and give you a damning report that could cost you your job.

[We do welcome the new language here and the dropping of the phrase “soft skills”.]

Ofsted will NEVER be anything but politicised unless we de-politicise the system of education. That includes the curriculum and governance. Furthermore, the quality of teaching won’t improve if teachers have to teach a politicised agenda that goes against everything they know, understand and value about pedagogy.

You want a depoliticised inspection, Tristram, and so do we as educators. When we say “depoliticised” we’re talking about party politics, of course. There are ways and means of doing that. We’re sorry to say this but the only way this can happen is a complete reinvention of our education system.


Now who is brave enough to be the next Secretary of State who chooses to give policy powers back to the professionals? Educators too are concerned about achievement. Educators too want to have accountability measures in place. Educators too want to improve the life-chances for our children and young people. Educators are best-placed to make the significant changes to schooling and education that maintains “rigour” and “standards” in a way that is reflective of the needs of our children and the 21st century society to which they belong.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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