Is the new head of Ofsted going to come from the United States?

It has been confirmed, although still unofficially, that ministers are “seriously looking in that direction for the next education watchdog for England.” Sir Michael Wilshaw's term of office will end this year and the government - it's up to them rather than Ofsted - is “casting its recruitment net overseas.”

In particular, they are considering candidates who have been involved in the charter school movement, state-funded independent schools, with a similar ideological DNA to academies and free schools in England. The big impact of charter schools has been in the most deprived urban areas, credited with re-energising schools that had been in a state of chronic decline.

It's a claim rejected by their opponents, particularly in US teachers' unions, who say that the successful glitz and PR around charter schools is “not backed up by any significant long-term advantage”.

Some charter schools do well, some do badly... like any other type of school, they argue. The current mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, has been accused by charter school groups of putting up "roadblocks" to their expansion.

The names in the frame so far include Dave Levin, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, which runs more than 180 schools.

Another name is Doug Lemov, who runs Uncommon Schools. Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy is also mentioned, a deeply controversial figure in US education, whose school chain is currently firefighting a viral video of a teacher ripping up an infant pupil's homework in front of them.

A much stronger candidate, so far not mentioned, might be Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children's Zone. Also suggested by other insiders has been Michelle Rhee, who runs an education reform group and is a former head of state schools in Washington DC.

But there are also informed opinions arguing that the idea of a US watchdog “might be a smokescreen” and there are a lot of practical complications that might make such a transatlantic transfer unlikely.

For instance, the salary might be a barrier. It has to be enough to tempt someone over - but if it's too much it's going to be a constant source of complaints.

National Association of Head Teachers' leader Russell Hobby was not enthused by the idea of a US import, saying that "seeking home-grown talent might be wiser".

"Quality of leadership is usually considered higher in the UK, so there's a good pool to draw from. Our unions are nothing like the US unions in terms of restrictive practices."

And Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers, said: "If the government is scouring the world for a new head of Ofsted they should look to Finland. 

"It is universally agreed to have an excellent education system characterised by co-operation, collaboration and trust. A far cry from the charter school ethos of the US."

Sir Michael Wilshaw is probably the most influential figure in England's education system, with his views and rulings often overshadowing education ministers.

Although he has faced much criticism from the teachers' unions, Sir Michael has been “a powerful force in defending a comprehensive school system, rooted in public service and the public sector”.

When Sir Michael steps down, it will be the chance for ministers to decide how sharp they want the teeth to be on their new watchdog. (BBC News)


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