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Ofsted positivity could mark clean break from 'Dirty Harry'

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

It is fair to say that Sir Michael Willshaw was a contentious figure in local government.

His ruthless, no-holds-barred approach to leading Ofsted was perceived by some as ego-driven and belligerent, rather than balanced and constructive.

Former leader of Birmingham City Council John Clancy (Lab) encapsulated this frustration in response to a characteristically forthright critique of the council’s corporate leadership from Sir Michael, who once likened himself to Dirty Harry during an interview with a panel of MPs in 2011.

Cllr Clancy described “pompous” Sir Michael as having “an appalling record of harm to both education and children’s social services”.

Sir Michael’s retirement and subsequent replacement by Amanda Spielman was then met with some optimism that a new era of mutual respect and productive criticism between Ofsted and local government could emerge.

But for some it would have been a case of being more positive about losing a powerful adversary than welcoming the prospect of an Ofsted chief inspector who is a founding member of an academy chain and has limited experience of children’s social care.

Significantly, today’s annual Ofsted report, penned by Ms Spielman for the first time, begins with praise for the “exceptional dedication and commitment of the people who serve children and learners in this country”.

She adds it is thanks to their efforts that “right across the sectors we inspect, we are seeing not only widespread good practice, but also evidence of continual improvement.”

Ms Spielman was keen to highlight an increase in the proportion of council’s rated good or outstanding, up from 26% to 34% since last year’s report, a rise that will be relatively modest in numerical terms.

She also stressed that overall ratings do not provide a complete picture of council performance, with “many areas of good practice” identified in councils that require improvement.

This is evidence of a marked change in tone to her predecessor and suggests a concerted effort to improve relationships with councils, some of whom have felt they were unfairly treated, or hindered in their efforts to improve, by the previous regime.

One prominent director of children’s services recently told LGC that under Ms Spielman’s leadership Ofsted had been working “extremely hard” to make the often feared and demanding inspection regime “fairer and more balanced”.

And in  an interview with LGC last month, Ofsted’s outgoing national director of social care, Eleanor Schooling, said the new inspection framework, which comes into effect in January, will be more nuanced, proportionate and attempt to support councils before they deteriorate.

Despite an apparent determination to strike a positive note in her inaugural report, Ms Spielman did not shy away from stinging criticism.

For example, she describes the growing practice of some schools off-rolling pupils with special educational needs and disabilities as an “inexcusable” practice that “shames our education system.”

Councils with the legal responsibility to ensure there is adequate provision for all children will agree and hope the government sees the logic of providing powers alongside this duty to make this happen.

Tellingly, the report also highlights the issue of funding for children’s social care, an established and intensifying concern in the sector.

It says councils are consistently spending more in this area than planned and admits, for the first time, that it is “clear” councils in deprived areas with high demand on services that are facing reductions in funding will struggle more to achieve or maintain good services.

This recognition, which should strengthen the case for further government investment, along with progress made in re-aligning Ofsted’s relationship with local government suggests Dirty Harry’s days are truly done.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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