The Department for Education needs a Chief Education Officer

It is good to see that the Education Select Committee has backed my proposal for a Chief Education Officer in the Department for Education, emphasising that it is the only major government spending department that does not have a senior professional giving policy advice. The Dept of Health has a Chief Medical Officer and a Chief Nursing Officer, DEFRA has a Chief Veterinary Officer, there is a Chief Scientific Officer and others less well known.

During the foot-and-mouth crisis, it was the Chief Veterinary Officer, not the Minister, who regularly appeared on television to explain the situation to the public. During flu epidemics, real or threatened, the Chief Medical Officer, not the Secretary of State for Health, is the public voice of government policy.

There is a good reason for these people to appear in public at these times – they explain the situation in a non-partisan way and they outline policy without any party-political overtones.

Equally important, when Ministers are making decisions about important policy issues, they have the advantage of independent advice from a senior professional, who is widely respected by peers and public alike.

In education, this role was filled up to 1992 by the Senior Chief Inspector, who was a Grade 2 civil servant (just below the Permanent Secretary) with direct access on demand to the Secretary of State. This independent professional voice in the policy-making process meant that, whenever education policy was being made at the most senior level, the breadth of experience of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate was available to the decision-makers. This was replicated in the middle levels of the Department by Staff Inspectors, who were the leading people in their field, participating in policy discussions.

The greatest loss to the education system in the creation of Ofsted in 1992 was the loss of this independent professional voice in the policy-making process.

There are advantages to Ofsted being outside the Department and I would not advocate the return of HMI into the Department for Education, but the knowledge gleaned from Ofsted inspections can be used by the Chief Education Officer in framing advice for the government.

The Department for Education has various mechanisms through which it consults head teachers, and this is welcome, but, however successful these heads are, they do not have the breadth of up-to-date knowledge right across the system that the Chief Education Officer, drawing on Ofsted and other evidence, would have.

The Select Committee went further and, in line with its recommendation to split Ofsted into two, suggested that the Department should have both a Chief Education Officer and a Chief Children’s Care Officer. This is a sensible proposal, as the two areas of expertise are different.

Michael Gove reacted positively when I proposed the idea of a Chief Education Officer in September 2009. This is an idea whose time has come.  It should be implemented now.

Extract from the Select Committee Report, The Role and Performance of Ofsted, HC 570

44.  It is important that Ofsted—which has a unique overview of the education and well-being of children across the country—is a serious voice in the policy-making process, and that its evidence is considered fully by Ministers. As one inspector summed it up, “If we are to have an inspection system that is independent of political influence, then the least that can be done is to listen to….the reports that are made by it!” The Committee, for that reason, sees merit in the proposal—put forward by Baroness Perry and Dr John Dunford—for a new “Chief Education Officer” role to be created within the Department for Education. Dr Dunford outlined to us what that role would entail, and how it would sit alongside—rather than replace—the Chief Inspector:

The Chief Education Officer] will be the senior professional voice in the policy-making process with direct access to the Secretary of State, as the chief inspector used to have, and use evidence from Ofsted. Ofsted’s role should then be to stand between the Government on the one hand and individual institutions on the other, reporting without fear or favour, on the performance of not only the institutions, but of Government policy, and feeding that back into the chief educational officer’s advice.

45.  Furthermore, the Committee is inclined to agree with Baroness Perry that the Department for Education, in lacking such a figure at present, stands alone within central Government:

The only major Government spending Department which does not have a chief officer to help it with policy is the Department for Education. The Department of Health has a chief medical officer… and a chief nursing officer. The Home Office has chief officers in all its various range of expertise. The Department of Education… does not have a chief education officer, which seems very strange to me.

46.  In light of our recommendation to split Ofsted into two new inspectorates, we feel that this proposal has significant merit, but should be applied not only to the education aspects of the Department’s remit. These two professional officers, whilst playing no part whatsoever in inspection judgments and therefore in no sense replacing the important roles of the Chief Inspectors of both inspectorates, would act as senior policy advisers to the Secretary of State, using inspection findings alongside other evidence to ensure that Ministers had access to recent and relevant experience of the settings they are dealing with around their table in Whitehall. There is no reason why these appointments could not, in the interests of financial efficiency, be either part-time or advisory, if the Department is so inclined. They could even be current senior practitioners on secondment from their own institutions.

47.  Furthermore, and conversely, the Chief Officers would be able, where necessary, to temper any indication that Ofsted judgments were being over-used in the policy-making process. The Institute of Education shared a concern with us that “the inspection process is [currently] being asked to bear too great a weight in policy development”, for example in the approval of early applications for Academy status, and Professor Tony Kelly agreed that the existing evidence base is not strong enough to support some of the policy burden it is asked to bear.

48.  Ofsted’s independent status is broadly valued by inspectors, by professionals, and by the public, and we strongly support the retention of that status. However, the Committee is concerned that there is no front-line voice within the senior echelons of the Department for Education, working alongside the inspectorates and Ministers to ensure that policy is informed by recent and relevant experience through a more direct means than consultation. We recommend that the Department considers appointing two new senior advisers within the Department—a Chief Education Officer and a Chief Children’s Care Officer—along the lines of the chief professional officers of other Government departments. These roles would in no way replace the Chief Inspectors of Education or Children’s Care; nor would they seek to replace the important existing relationships between civil servants, senior inspectors, and special advisers. Rather, they could work alongside those people within Government, ensuring that the inspectorates can retain their independence.

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