Pushy parents, staff clothing, and canes

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief of Ofsted, and one of the most hated names among teachers in the country at the moment after his changes to inspections to little or no warning among other things, has spoken in the last few days about not shying away from improving every English School. Sounds nice, but he also talks about a few other things.

While Sir Michael has no recollection of ever owning a cane in the 1970s, he does recall using one on pupils. “I am sorry to say that I did,” Wilshaw admits, with what appears disarmingly like a flush to the cheeks. “I was a head of year in London at a time when it was part of the disciplinary cultures and procedures of the school. It never worked. I stopped corporal punishment because I realised that it didn’t work, because the youngsters you were using the cane on were used to physical violence, often at home. It sent out the wrong message. When I look back on it now I can’t imagine why we ever did it.”

This all sounds very nice, recognising that corporal punishment shouldn’t ever exist. But the problem for some of the 400,000+ teachers is that this where all the regrets from this man end.

It is now two years since Wilshaw, former headteacher of Hackney’s Mossbourne academy, and “hero” to education secretary Michael Gove for his undeniably impressive work in building one of Britain’s best schools on the old site of arguably its worst, was appointed to head the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) to whip England’s schools into shape. “It feels longer,” he admits. Indeed for me it feels longer too.

Before taking up the post, Wilshaw told a committee of MPs that he used to glaze over when reading Ofsted reports, because the language was so dull and bureaucratic. Of all the criticisms that could be thrown at Wilshaw, a lack of clarity and straight talking from Ofsted under his leadership would not be one. His tenure has been peppered with demands by unions for his resignation.

Whether by introducing school inspections with little or no warning, relabelling schools as “requiring improvement”, dismissing complaints of poor morale among staff as a sign of progress, or questioning the stress levels of principals, Wilshaw has managed to irritate many, probably most, of the country’s teaching staff. He insists that his comments have either been misconstrued or taken out of context. And, while Wilshaw’s regrets over the use of his cane in the 1970s don’t quite extend to his employment of tough talk over the past couple of years, he is keen for his goals to be understood. “I am not going to say that I haven’t made mistakes. And one of those is I need to be judicious in what I say. But, broadly, do I regret making important policy decisions? No.”

The 67-year-old insists that everything he says and does is with the aim of rescuing children from what he described in last week’s Ofsted annual report as a “poverty of expectation” in some schools that condemns unlucky children to unlucky lives. It is, he says, the poorest children who benefit the most from the structure and discipline that he wants to see in schools.

It is not that children fail to live out their dreams because of poor schooling, but that they are not supported in even having dreams, he suggests. And it is not that he wants to be loathed or feared, Wilshaw says, but that he has a job to do. “If we are seen as a soft inspectorate, a soft regulator, we won’t then do what we should be doing. It is not so much about fear as knowing that Ofsted will be tough on schools that are underperforming. I am in this job at a relatively advanced stage of my life, so I will do what I think is necessary.”

Earlier this month figures from the respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development compared standards achieved in core academic subjects by more than 500,000 pupils aged 15, in 65 countries. The UK was ranked just 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science when tests were taken in 2012. Wilshaw says the UK can’t ignore the results. I never thought I’d say this, but I agree. That is a pretty shocking statistic. Of course what this doesn’t tell us is who the other countries were. I wouldn’t mind betting countries like South Korea, China, Finland and Singapore were all there, taking the top spots.

Meanwhile, the government’s own figures, out last week, showed that 25% of children (129,000) left primary school in July without hitting the expected standard for their age. This is quite a scary thought in itself, and poses question marks on our education system eg. how are 25% getting through and not coming out of it with everything they need?

A major theme of last week’s report was that low-level disruption by unruly pupils is a major problem that drags whole classes down, and that too many teachers are turning a blind eye to it. Authority needs to be imposed, Wilshaw says, whether that means teachers dressing as professionals, or ensuring no child is tempted to call a teacher “mate”. “It is the responsibility of headteachers to be out in the corridors making sure that isn’t happening, and impressing upon teachers that they are in authority,” he says. “Teachers who dress badly, for example, or who become too friendly with children, shouldn’t complain when children are cheeky back. There has to be a degree of formality.” I agree that there needs to be formality in the classrooms. There needs to be some ground rules to ensure the maximum amount of learning can happen. I wear a suit, which to some might seem like overdressing but that is my style. It shows children how to present themselves, and may encourage them to smarten themselves up to. I’ve seen a lot of kids even in secondary schools go into school like they’ve been dragged out of a hedge first thing in the morning, which annoys me to no end (OCD much?)

And far from criticising the pushy parents who complain about teacher performance without understanding the pressures they are under, he celebrates them for pushing standards up. In fact, he adds, more parents should write to Ofsted to complain if they feel their school is failing. Wilshaw doesn’t necessarily want to upset teachers, but all of this obviously will. Indeed, he can barely stop himself from upsetting them.

Do teachers have too many holidays? “I think the six-week holiday is too long.” Is there too much time-consuming and pressure-inducing testing in schools? Not at all, says Wilshaw, who would bring back external national tests for children at seven, to ensure that schools put as many resources into that age as to older groups. He’d even have children tested annually. “If a headteacher wanted to introduce tests every year they would receive my support in doing so,” he says.

As much as I despise the man, there are some points worth mentioning which are airing on the positive side. For Example, Wilshaw insists he will be as tough on free schools and weak academies as on any other institution. What I like about this is that this comes despite the strong working relationship Wilshaw has with Gove, he’s not prepared to be suckered into Gove’s intention to make his flagship education reforms look like a success. We’ve already seen a couple of free school dilemmas, including closures, so Gove is not necessarily going to have everything his own way with such institutions.

And there is another telling facet to Wilshaw that is lost on many. Next week the Sutton Trust is expected to publish the results of a survey showing the extent to which middle-class parents admit to having moved home or started going to church to access a successful school. The survey also found that the 500 highest-achieving comprehensives have half the proportion of pupils on free school meals as the national average.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the trust, says: “Lower-income students do better when there is a mix of students of all backgrounds in a school.” Wilshaw agrees. He abhors the social exclusivity that sees a good school becomes a middle-class school because of the £200,000 premium on homes in its catchment area.

There are other things to note in Wilshaw’s employment history. In his first headship (1985 to 2003) he turned St Bonaventure’s school, in Newham, east London, from a failing school to an outstanding one. He then moved on to Mossbourne Community Academy, which replaced the fail Hackney Downs School. Wilshaw revolutionised Mossbourne and received two outstanding judgments from Ofsted and placed eight people in Oxbridge, despite turning it into one of Britain’s strictest schools with a traditional uniform policy, haircut regulations and Saturday morning detentions.

Despite all appearances – and confessions of cane-wielding, Wilshaw may not be the hang ’em and flog ’em chief inspector many assume. For me question marks still remain over his approach to reforms. Getting almost an entire country’s teaching staff on your back is not a criterion I would place for a job as the Chief of Ofsted. That’s Gove’s job it would seem …

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