The head of the schools watchdog Ofsted has said it will play a much bigger role in school improvement, arguing too many councils have cosy “fireside chats” with local schools rather than properly challenging them.
Speaking to MPs on the education select committee on Wednesday, Sir Michael Wilshaw, left, said he had had a “Damascene moment” about Ofsted’s role in school improvement – for which local government is currently responsible.
“I think we [Ofsted] have got a moral responsibility to try to help schools to improve”, he said. “There’s very little else out there. It you’re a school in a poor local authority area, what are you going to do to get that advice?”
Sir Michael said he was “repositioning” the regulator. “We’re an inspections body but we’re also going to try to help schools that are finding it difficult to improve”, he told MPs.
He said some councils, such as Wigan MBC, played an effective role in supporting local schools. But others did not “get the balance right between challenge and support”, he said, and had “too many fireside chats” with school leaders.
Sir Michael said he was confident that providing school improvement services would not conflict with Ofsted’s role as an independent regulator. Asked how it could remain impartial when it was re-inspecting schools that it had been trying to improve, he said he would make sure that the Ofsted official in charge of the inspection would not have been involved in the improvement work.
Sir Michael also insisted that councils had an important role to play in monitoring academies and free schools as well as maintained schools in their area. He said they should write to a school’s chair of governors or its sponsor, or to the Department for Education, if they were concerned about underperformance.
He added that with maintained schools, councils should make better use of their “wide range of powers”, saying some authorities with a large number of inadequate schools had not sent a warning notice to those schools over the last five years.
“We will take action against those authorities unless we see improvement”, he said.
Also at the hearing Sir Michael said he was concerned about the performance of some academy chains. “A number of chains are doing outstandingly well but looking at the raw data, some aren’t doing very well and we need to worry about those chains”, he said. He added that Ofsted did not have the legal powers to investigate the chains, but that he hoped it soon would do.
He said it had been “incredibly difficult” to get data from the DfE about the composition of academy chains and agreed with the committee’s chair, Graham Stuart (Con), that this was “shocking”.