This is Sir Michael Wilshaw. He’s the man that I blame above all others for the mess that the education system is currently in.
Sir Michael was Ofsted’s Chief Inspector for five long years from 2012 until 2016. On paper he should have been great. He’d been Head of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, where there’s no doubt he did good. He made it one of the best schools in the country. Friends of mine who worked there talked of a man who commanded respect, was tough, uncompromising and dogged.
Great qualities for someone charged with British schools, you might think. And it’s true that – like many dangerous leaders throughout history – much of his rhetoric was impressive, even inspiring. Standards and progress were his watchwords. Only through a relentless focus on raising standards could we truly improve the life chances of the most deprived pupils, the spiel went. No arguments there from me. So what went wrong?
Well firstly he rubbed teachers up the wrong way. He criticised a culture of teachers heading “out the gate at 3 o’clock”. He said it was teachers’ responsibility to stand up to and even fine bad parents. And most offensively of all, as schools struggled to recruit teachers and others left due to unmanageable workloads, he had the audacity to claim that “if anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right." It makes my blood boil even typing it.
Everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated in their work. Sniping like that makes it even more of a challenge to face Year 9 on a wet Wednesday afternoon. But ultimately teachers are a pretty resilient bunch, and if he was doing otherwise brilliant work, I reckon most would have bitten their lips and secretly admired him.
The real issue is that his admirable, even noble, focus on exam results and pupil achievement became an obsession. Ofsted put more and more and more emphasis on stats. Just as the vote to leave the EU means that the current government has been consumed by Brexit to the exclusion of almost everything else, so exam results data gained a stranglehold on schools. The feeling was, with plenty of justification, that even before an Ofsted inspector crossed the threshold of your school they would have made up their mind what their judgement was going to be, because they would have internalised every aspect of the school’s exam data.
And it’s about a lot more than just how many kids pass their exams. It’s whether boys and girls are achieving equally. It’s whether there’s any ethnic group that’s lagging behind. It’s whether children on free school meals are doing as well those that aren’t. It’s whether every department is equal. It’s whether each kid has made enough progress from primary school. It’s whether targets have been met in each and every one of those areas.
Again, none of those are bad things to look at. But when so much emphasis is put on that data, and the stakes are so high - a damning Ofsted report can end a headteacher’s career - here’s what happens. Heads become understandably stressed and overburdened with the frankly impossible task of making sure all those numbers stay where they’re supposed to be. Leadership teams, which should be spending their time talking about how they can better meet the needs of all the families they serve, how they can improve the school community, how they can engage more kids in learning… end up spending all their time colour coding spreadsheets.
They are not at the chalk face, so they pass their own stress on to Heads of Department who in turn are encouraged to crunch data rather than focus on what’s going on with their teams. They inevitably communicate that anxiety to classroom teachers who transfer it to students. You end up with a school community operating on a knife edge, where you can feel the panic barely concealed beneath the hubbub in every corridor. That’s where the obsession with putting on extra revision sessions that I wrote about here comes from.
Whole organisations were established to capitalise on that anxiety and to help schools game the system. The most famous one is called Pixl. I went to quite a few of their early meetings. The focus was on loopholes and shortcuts to getting the best exam results. Which exam board runs qualifications which are easy to pass and could therefore make your results look better? There was even a time when they encouraged teachers to enter pupils for an English Literature exam they had never studied for, because just by having sat the paper it could improve the school’s overall numbers. The student would literally go into the exam hall, write their name on the exam, and write nothing. What on God's good earth does that teach them about the value of education?!
And kids aren’t robots. No matter how good the teaching they’ve received, no matter how many revision sessions they’ve been to, no matter how many spreadsheets have been analysed, their performance is unpredictable. A drop in any one of those numbers in any given year isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. It’s the nature of the beast.
And even if all the numbers are brilliant, what does that mean? We’ve succeeded in teaching kids to pass exams. Brilliant. Is that really our ultimate aim for our education system? Kids have learned exam technique. The school is branded outstanding by Ofsted. Hurrah.
Well personally, Sir Michael, I’d rather my hypothetical and very-unlikely-to-ever-exist child went to a school which looked at its exam results, but didn’t obsess over them. Which valued teachers who inspire and care and are passionate, not just those who churn out results. I’d like them to learn how to love learning, not just to how to pass exams. I’d like the school to value education in its broadest sense, preparing them for exams but more preparing them for life after they walk out the school gates for the last time. And I’d like them to study in an environment where they don’t feel they’re under the cosh at all times.
Ofsted have recently admitted some of this, although of course not apologised for it. The new Head of Ofsted has said some sensible things, which is encouraging. Meanwhile, your friend and mine Sir MIchael is still bleating on about levels of progress and targets and results. Someone said recently that after the apocalypse there will only be Ken Livingstone talking about Hitler and Tim Farron talking about gay sex… I’d add to the list Mikey boy and his exam results data.
Unfortunately Wilshaw’s tenure at the top of Ofsted overlapped with one Michael Gove’s time as Secretary of State for Education. Like a nightmare photographic negative of The Chuckle Brothers, they wrought untold damage on the system. I’ve written here about the problem with education secretaries. They were both terrible for schools, but in a way Michael was worse partly because he was in post longer, and also because as a teacher himself he should have known better.
So, Sir Mike, that’s why I lay at your door the charge of severely damaging the schools you were responsible for improving. Your decisions are a large part of the reason teachers rightly complain about stress and workload and why so many decided to leave a profession which at times felt like it had the fun and the joy drained out of it it by your penchant for data. I hope that your own thinking has shown sufficient levels of progress to realise the error of your ways. But I fear insight is a significant gap on the spreadsheet of your abilities.