Tony Blair was arguably the greatest and certainly the most successful leader Labour has ever had. Whilst he was always the decisive captain of his political destiny and often happy to be out on a limb leading his party, he was never entirely alone. The team around Blair was remarkably talented, and contributed considerably to why he was so effective as Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly many of these effective and able people went on to become public figures themselves: Peter Mandelson (MP, EU Commissioner, linchpin of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet), Alastair Campbell (writer and campaigner), Matthew Taylor (chief executive of the RSA), Lance Price (writer of books about how dreadful the whole experience was). However, one of the most important members of Blair’s team, who joined the Downing Street staff from the Labour Party in 1997, served briefly as a minister before returning to No. 10 as Director of Government Relations, was Sally Morgan. Despite her immense influence and great skill at holding the No. 10 operation together through the second and toughest term of Blair’s government, Morgan is little known by the public: of the six people mentioned in this paragraph, she is the only one whose Wikipedia entry is designated “a stub”*. She doesn’t even come up first when you Google that entry. And that’s precisely as it should be: Sally Morgan was a significant part of what made the Blair government work, and a crucial component of how she did that was by never being the person in the public eye.
I relate all this because there have been three types of response to the news that Baroness Morgan of Huyton, as she now is, is not to be given a second term as Chair of the Board of Ofsted:
- Anger – that the current government is trying to stuff public bodies with Tory-supporters (and, whilst doing so, is dismissing the very few women they’ve bothered to appoint to public office);
- Boredom (mostly feigned by political commentators) – that this women no one has heard of is complaining about a job no one understands
- Acceptance – that Ofsted is basically a broken reed and sacking its chair is a damned good thing
Whilst I think the first has some justification, and was clearly articulated by Morgan herself on yesterday’s editon of the Today programme, I think it does not reach completely to the heart of what is wrong with the decision not to re-appoint her. The second response is, as I’ve tried to illustrate above, wilfully ignorant from people whose job is to understand politics: the whole point of hiring people like Sally Morgan is you don’t hear a lot about them because they are exceptionally good at their job, and part of their being exceptionally good at their job, is that they do it in a low key fashion.
It is in rebutting the third response, however, that I think it is possible to begin to see why everyone in education should be interested in why Baroness Morgan will be unwelcome in Ofsted’s Store Street HQ come September. Ofsted has never been short of critics: Chris Woodhead, the last Chief Inspector under the Tories and the first under New Labour, was so reviled that the NUT website still carries a blog from a teacher wishing him dead. The impact of Ofsted inspection decisions on a school is such that no one in education—not even me, who is proud to defend the role of Ofsted in the school system—thinks about a visit from HMI without some trepidation. And, of course, the political debate around education has often made Ofsted a hot topic, as when Downhills School in Haringey was instructed to take on academy status as a result of poor Ofsted reports. Recently, however, a stronger strain of criticism has emerged. Whilst the theme is similar to that in the blog referenced above (that Ofsted is imposing terrible things on our children), the content is very different: Ofsted’s reports have been clinically dissected to illustrate that inspectors continue to endorse and expect a child-centred pedagogy, predicated on a progressive educational ideology. Certainly, it is not necessary to accept in full that Ofsted is in the grip of its own Summer of Love to follow Old Andrew’s evidence that reports have violated the guidance laid down by the Chief Inspector; indeed, the Chief Inspector has himself pointed this out.
But, and this is the crucial thing for challenging the assumption that Morgan has been fired for failing to deal with this, it is being dealt with. That letter from Wilshaw is unprecedented in the history of Ofsted in both its frankness and the publicity it has received. It is now said that HMIs are being pulled off other work to take in hand the teams of sub-contracted inspectors who continue to produce sub-standard reports. The whole question of whether Ofsted should even be inspecting individual lessons in the manner which allows reports like those cited to be produced, is up for discussion. It is not easy to shift any bureaucracy, least of all a government one, to a point of self-criticism and change but Morgan and Wilshaw have actually achieved this: before our very eyes Ofsted is changing, and changing in a direction its most vocal critics have demanded. But now, apparently on a political whim, Ofsted faces massive disruption, not simply getting a new chair but the eight months in which the current one remains in place waiting for removal coupled with the inevitably months whilst the new person comes to grips with the levers of the office. The education system built up by both Labour and Tories over the past 35 years requires strong accountability, and that needs an effective inspectorate. Whatever might still be wrong with Ofsted, sacking Morgan is a staggeringly unhelpful distraction from making the necessary changes.
* As, incidentally, is the Wikipedia entry of Blair’s previous Director of Government Relations, Anji Hunter. Although, of course, Morgan and Hunter share one other characteristic which may explain why Wikipedia editors are in so much less of a hurry to fill in the details of their lives #EverydaySexism.