Rocking the boat: How Ministers may reform an independent agency – the Ofsted example

There are 22 non-Ministerial Government agencies in England, from HM Revenue and Customs to the Food Standards Agency to Ofsted. These bodies have a significant amount of power but, as their names suggest, they are mostly independent from Ministerial influence which makes them very difficult to reform.

So if a case must be made to Ministers to reform an independent agency, how can they do so?

1) Changing the law underpinning their legal remit is the traditional way. However, a Bill can take months and months to worm its way through Parliament and it rarely does so without picking up some debris en route that can change the intention of the reform. If you want the job done quickly, political strategists will tell you legislation is not the way to go.

2) Changing how the agency is funded could be effective, with Ministers threatening to withdraw funds unless the agency changes the way it works. However, should the Government have to follow through with its threat, the withdrawal of funds could do more harm than good. This aggressive all-or-nothing approach will win few friends even if it’s successful.

3) Changing the leadership is a method used more and more often. This subtle method requires Ministers to appoint leaders sympathetic to reform to run an agency, encouraging them to change the organisation from within. The risk here is that the agency’s new leaders could become less enthusiastic about capsizing the boat once they’ve been appointed its captain.

A recent case study of how the problems identified in option three were overcome were displayed last month when Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, announced changes to way in which the schools inspectorate, Ofsted – called in some circles “the Blob” because of its resistance to change – conducts its operations.

This reform had the fingerprints of Education Secretary Michael Gove all over it, and this example shows whether by accident or design Ministers may reform an independent agency without resorting to options one or two.

Step 1) Appoint a bold leadership to captain good ship reform.

Case study: Michael Gove appointed zealous school reformer Sir Michael Wilshaw as HM Chief Inspector, alongside Ofsted Chair Baroness Morgan, a Labour Peer and reformist sympathisier. Gove then strongly backed a series of reforms announced by Sir Michael to the way Ofsted inspected schools, which reinforced his own plans to transform the education landscape.

The pair were considered close, aligned by ideology and the same mission to improve the schools system, but what remained unsaid was what would happen if Ofsted was thought to be not reforming fast enough…

Step 2) When good ship reform drifts, rock the boat.

Case study: As Gove’s school reforms settled, there were rumours of complaints from aides close to the Education Secretary suggesting that, despite some changes, Ofsted remained stuck in its old “1960s progressivist methods”. A chief criticism was that the inspectorate was supposedly “wasting” its resources inspecting good schools when it should be focusing more on underperforming ones.

This was the background to news at the beginning of the year that Policy Exchange, a think tank that Gove helped to set up and has remained close to, was undertaking research to explore how the schools inspectorate should be reformed. Civitas, a right wing think tanks with links to Gove’s aides, also was revealed to be exploring the same theme.

Within weeks, it emerged that the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), one of the few teaching unions with close ties to the Education Secretary, was turning against Ofsted. The ASCL was drafting a position paper that would set out its views on how Ofsted should change its model of inspection, while carrying out a survey of head teachers’ views of the inspectorate. Meanwhile Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, a long-time critic of Ofsted’s variable inspection regime, also raised his concerns.

A storm of external pressure was brewing…

Step 3) If the leadership resists, threaten mutiny.

Headlines were made when Sir Michael Wilshaw was reported to be “displeased, shocked, angry and outraged” by what he claimed were attempts by Gove’s aides to brief against Ofsted to the think tanks. Gove denied these accusations, emphasising his strong relationship with Sir Michael who later said he accepted the Education Secretary’s reassurances.

However, more headlines were generated when it was announced that Labour Peer Baroness Morgan would not be appointed to Chair Ofsted for another term. An outraged Baroness Morgan blamed “political pressure” from Downing Street but Gove claimed full responsibility for the decision, arguing he wanted to “renew” the inspectorate’s leadership. Sir Michael poured public praise on Baroness Morgan once news of the decision broke, defending his colleague, while also significantly emphasising his respect for the Education Secretary.

Only a few weeks later did it become apparent that Baroness Morgan’s removal may have been a warning shot to Ofsted’s leadership to reform or else…

Step 4) Know that the key to a perfect storm is timing.

On Monday 17th March, Policy Exchange published its report on Ofsted, entitled “Watching the Watchmen”, which proposed an overhaul of its inspection model. The report suggested that the bulk of visits for each school should be carried out by a solo inspector every two years – rather than high-profile visits by a team every three to five years – with tailored inspections for those schools that are identified as a “risk”. By the end of the week the ASCL released its survey of 900 head teachers, which found that 65 per cent said they do not have confidence in Ofsted.

On Friday 21st March, in a speech to the ASCL’s conference, Sir Michael made a conciliatory announcement when he said that Ofsted was “going to change the way good schools are inspected”. Sir Michael said there was “little point” in Ofsted sending in teams of inspectors every five years to the 60 per cent of schools the inspectorate rates as “good” schools just to confirm “what the school already knows and what the data already says”. Sir Michael was acknowledging some of the well versed complains made against his organisation.

It was not a coincidence Wilsaw’s proposals aligned with the core recommendations in Policy Exchange’s report, as he explained that Ofsted will plan shorter visits for good schools to allow more time for it to focus on under-performing schools, such as those that are in special measures and schools that “require improvement”. The ASCL’s General Secretary Brian Lightman commented on Wilshaw’s proposed plans by saying they were also “absolutely in line” with the position paper they were publishing.

Three separate organisations drew the same conclusions all at once, creating the momentum for change about which there will be official consultation later this year. Unsurprisingly, in his own speech to the ASCL, Education Secretary Michael Gove welcomed the proposed overhaul to the way schools in England are inspected and described it as a “reflection of success”. He was referring to the success of his schools reforms, but he may as well have been referring to the success of a well-managed storm.

The episode was an example of how an agency may be reformed from within in response to external pressure. To achieve change, legislation and funding are powerful weapons but sometimes you simply only need to rock the boat…

Oliver Cardinali