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Bye, bye, Sir Michael

June 12, 2016

This is a little early as I don’t think his term of office officially ends until the end of the year, but I thought my first response to the news of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s replacement as Chief Inspector would be to reflect on the job he has done since his appointment in 2012.

I’ll start with the two main negative points, and then explain why I’m now generally inclined to view his time as chief inspector positively.

Firstly, one of his biggest weakness is that he has been too high profile. He has been too willing to do media interviews, and too willing to express opinions on how to run schools that go beyond reflecting the plans and priorities of his own organisation. I’ve agreed with a lot of opinions he’s expressed, but time and time again things he’s said have been used against him to damage the credibility of his organisation. Usually the comments have been taken out of context or distorted. He did not say it was good for a school if “staff morale is at an all time low” only that people will claim that to stop you improving a school. He did not claim that teachers “don’t know what stress is”; that was a comment about headteachers who won’t accept responsibility for the job they have chosen to do. However, no HMCI has so frequently had his own words used against him since the days when it was normal for every newspaper story about Chris Woodhead to mention his claim that 15 000 teachers were incompetent.

The effect of his outspokenness on his organisation may not have been as bad as the effect on schools. A legion of consultants are still making money out of spreading myths to scared managers about what OFSTED want. Sir Michael’s publicly expressed opinion could be used to add to this. Here’s a quotation from one speech that affected me:

So, what sort of questions will HMI ask? Well, they are ones you would expect. Have the leaders got a grip on the institution? … Are they, for example, people who tolerate scrappy worksheets? [my emphasis] Are they people who insist that children should have good materials to work with, including textbooks, readers and library books which they can use for classwork and homework?

I make this last point because HMI increasingly report to me, and I’ve seen it for myself, that too many schools, particularly secondary schools, have conceded defeat on this issue. As a senior leader in a secondary school said to an HMI recently, ‘we don’t allow our children to take books home because they won’t bring them back the following day’.

What on earth does that tell us about the culture in that particular institution? What on earth does it tell us about leaders who are not prepared to fight the good fight on this basic issue?

Now to me, the point that some schools cannot even enforce a standard as basic as ensuring that students to take home and look after exercise books and textbooks is fair. But following media reports about “scrappy worksheets” one school I worked at last year banned me from using worksheets entirely even though some of my students were working way below the level of the textbooks I had access to and they could not take textbooks home. The OFSTED watching industry feeds off comments like this. Careless words from the HMCI give bad managers a license to tell teachers they are doing it all wrong.

Sir Michael’s other shortcoming was that he took too long to realise what it would take to change the workings of the organisation. He inherited an organisation that was heavily invested in telling teachers the correct way to teach. He himself was fairly traditional, and perfectly happy to tolerate traditional teaching in his own school. He said as much right from the start of his time as HMCI, but it took over two years to get the message across to his inspectors that they were no longer the “child centred inquisition” in charge of driving out traditional teachers. His instincts were to defend his organisation from political pressure first, rather than to seek to change it. Other parts of his organisation, and many, many inspections reports contradicted his claims not to be enforcing a particular style of teaching. The full saga of how gradually things changed can be found by searching for “OFSTED” on this blog. My chapter in Changing Schools also provides some accounts from behind the scenes in the DfE about how concerns were raised.

So why do I think that he was a good Chief Inspector?

I think that most of what I describe above, and most of the other criticisms levelled at him, stem from his efforts to do the right thing. The key point for me is that he always did want to stop OFSTED from dictating teaching methods to classroom teachers and for that we can all be grateful. His pronouncements may have been ignored at first, but over time he made the message clearer and clearer. Reform started to happen within the organisation. Training for inspectors working for private inspection companies was  taken in house. There was a deliberate effort to remove inspectors who had never taught from inspecting teaching, and to bring in inspectors who still worked in schools. Teachers stopped being graded. Eventually inspections stopped being contracted out. Those working as inspectors can no longer advertise that fact in order to get consultancy work which was a likely cause of the spread of myths about how teachers were required to teach. More can still be done, and the latest education white paper suggested further changes. There are still crazy things done in schools in the name of “what OFSTED want” and there are still aspects of what they do that need clarification or reform. But it is now easier than ever to find out what OFSTED actually want, and it impinges less than ever on classroom practice. He has been a successful reformer, if not an efficient one, and I do think classroom teachers, and their students, are better off now than if he had never been Chief Inspector. If his actions have undermined the credibility of OFSTED, it is not because his actions were wrong, but because they helped expose what was wrong with OFSTED before he started the job.

8 comments

  1. A long view comment Andrew. I wrote an article for the TES as far back as 2012, in which I argued, “Teachers can’t mend the crippled limbs of society” to which Sir Michael responded with a confident rebuttal in the following week’s edition. Two years later he made one of the highly publicised pronouncements you note were so unhelpful, blaming lax heads for accepting a “culture of casual acceptance” of bad behaviour.

    I wrote in my 2012 piece that, “we have a substantial group of children in our society for whom school is in no sense a meaningful option. What they need, we don’t yet have. And every day that we waste, failing to appreciate this harsh truth, is a day that our wider, healthier society and culture contracts further.”

    At the end of Sir Michael’s tenure that problem remains as intransigent as ever and far too many people paid not to be, remain in denial about it.


  2. Some reasonable questions to ask.

    Has Ofsted become a more effective or less effective organisation since 2012? Have England’s schools improved? By how much or how little? Has teaching quality improved? If not, why not?


  3. […] for Education to be seen to be listening to teachers’ anxiety about workload and the Herculean efforts by Ofsted to reinvent itself as less “pitiless” are to be admired. Why then is Hanson so appalled at Spielman’s appointment as Her […]


    • “At the end of Sir Michael’s tenure that problem remains as intransigent as ever and far too many people paid not to be, remain in denial about it.”

      Apart from some considerable doubt on my part about the correct use of “intransigent” this sentence is a succinct summary of the fantasy-land which lies at the heart of English state education.

      I am struck, for instance, by the failure of all the UK media outlets to reflect on the fact that the hard working and easily biddable children who populate the peaceful classrooms of England should, within a few years of leaving, so easily be provoked into vicious and mindless violence by the CRS louts in Marseille and in Lille.

      Unless, perish the thought, said media are complicit in the very societal fantasy at the apex of which sits Sir Michael.


  4. […] Teaching in British schools « Bye, bye, Sir Michael […]


  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  6. […] positive about the attempts to address these problems. Improvements have been made and in the end I was positive about Sir Michael Wilshaw’s time as HMCI. There are good people in OFSTED trying to get the bureaucracy to work, and I am convinced […]


  7. […] Having had the pleasure of meeting her briefly a couple of weeks ago I can attest to the now well-trodden statement that Spielman is very different to Sir Michael Wilshaw. Whether a fan of Wilshaw or not, I reckon we can agree that he didn’t always endear himself to those people and institutions in whose interests he acted: although at times misquoted, he did attempt to change Ofsted for the better, succeeding in places and failing in others. Andrew Old, among others, critiques his reign much more elegantly than me here. […]



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