Michael Gove denies aides briefed against Ofsted chief

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Michael Gove has been forced to deny that his aides orchestrated a dirty tricks campaign against the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Sir Michael – head of Ofsted, the UK education standards regulator – had said he was “spitting blood” after two think-tanks close to the Conservative party cast doubt on his organisation’s suitability to regulate academies and free schools and the consistency with which it was upholding standards.

Sir Michael said, in an interview with The Sunday Times this week, that he did not believe the attacks on inspectors emanated from Mr Gove, the education secretary, but suggested that they were being “informed by people at the department of education”, “possibly” special advisers.

Asked by the newspaper if he wanted Mr Gove “to call off the attack dogs”, he said: “Absolutely . . . it does nothing for his drive or our drive to raise standards in schools. I was never intimidated as a headteacher and I do not intend to be intimidated as a chief inspector.”

In a statement released after a day of recriminations, Mr Gove described Sir Michael as “a superb professional and an outstanding chief inspector” who was making the changes that Ofsted needed.

“No one working for me has had anything to do with any campaign against him or briefing against him. No one working for me has sought to undermine his position. Anyone who did would be instantly dismissed,” he added.

Chosen by Mr Gove to head Ofsted in 2011, Sir Michael reacted with fury to a suggestion by Civitas, a rightwing think-tank, that a new inspectorate should be established to oversee the semi-independent free schools and academies, which are at the forefront of the education secretary’s agenda for the sector.

Separately, Policy Exchange, another Conservative think-tank that numbers Mr Gove among its founders, has asked teachers to send in examples of contradictory Ofsted inspections as part of an inquiry into the body’s future.

Sir Michael said he wanted to express “my displeasure, my anger, my outrage” over a Times report about the think-tanks’ work, suggesting that the implied criticisms of Ofsted were “completely unfair and unjust”.

The attacks on the inspectorate might, he suggested, be motivated by critical assessments it had delivered of some academies and free schools that have cast a cloud over Mr Gove’s most cherished policy.

Both the think-tanks denied to the FT that they were acting at the behest of Mr Gove or his advisers. Policy Exchange said it had not decided whether Ofsted “needs an overhaul or not” and would not publish its report on the institution for two or three months. Denying that it was acting as an outrider for the education secretary, it said: “Number one, that’s not what we do: number two, we haven’t written the paper yet.”

At the heart of the attacks is a suggestion that Ofsted inspectors back “progressive” ideas of children being taught in smaller groups, rather than the traditional, teacher-led lessons that are favoured by Mr Gove.

However, David Green, chief executive of Civitas, said the idea that Mr Gove was in any way directing its criticism of Ofsted was “well wide of the mark”. It had had “serious misgivings” about the body for many years, he said.

Mr Green added: “The fact is, whatever Sir Michael Wilshaw’s intentions, we know schools that would like to innovate are scared to do so because of the misguided notions of many Ofsted inspectors.”

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