‘Charlatan heads’ to blame for grammars’ resurgence

Sir Michael Wilshaw takes aim at ‘stuck in the 80s’ comprehensive school leaders
12th May 2017, 12:00am
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‘Charlatan heads’ to blame for grammars’ resurgence


Education has been largely united against the Conservatives’ plan to open more grammar schools. And comprehensive heads have been at the forefront of the opposition - jeering and heckling education secretary Justine Greening over the plans at this year’s Association of School and College Leaders annual conference.

But one of the most prominent anti-grammar school expansion campaigners, former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, argues that it is actually heads from the comprehensive sector who are to blame for a return to the 11-plus exam being on the agenda at all.

He claims that “charlatan headteachers” have paved the way for the controversial plans by being unable to get the basics right and running away from their responsibilities.

Wilshaw says they have led some people “to think that to continue the comprehensive ideal is a failure”.

“I get very frustrated sometimes by headteachers at comprehensive schools who really don’t have ambition and do some of the things that got comprehensives such a bad name in the 70s and 80s,” he says.

“The heads who fail often are the ones that haven’t learned the lessons of that era. We still have them, unfortunately. They are what I call charlatan headteachers.”

Wilshaw, who was a headteacher at comprehensive schools for nearly 30 years before joining Ofsted in 2012, admits that the system has improved since the 1970s and 80s. Back then, “there were all sorts of madcap ideas in comprehensive schools led by people who believed in mixed-ability throughout, and who believed that behaviour and uniform wasn’t important”, he says.

“This whole idea of selection, in terms of setting and streaming, was frowned upon and seen as elitist,” adds Wilshaw.

“There wasn’t a great emphasis on getting youngsters to top universities.”

The ‘Grange Hill image’

The introduction of academisation - in particular multi-academy trusts (MATs) - and the educational reforms over the past two decades have helped to improve standards, the former Ofsted chief says. But the public image of state education being like TV show Grange Hill remains and existing school leaders have helped reinforce this idea, according to Wilshaw.

He says that “charlatan” comprehensive heads do not worry about behaviour, patronise children and spend too much time out of the school at consultation meetings and headteacher roundtables.

“Headteachers who are running comprehensive schools, that don’t give time and attention to the basics, are letting down a whole system,” he says. “They undermine the great work that is being done by the great comprehensive headteachers out there.”

Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy, Harlow, disagrees. “Are there some schools that have suffered because they haven’t had a strong enough headteacher?” he says. “Yes, of course. But to say that comprehensives haven’t been good enough because of headteachers - and that’s why the grammar school conversation is there - I just think is nonsensical. It’s a shame that the brilliance that Sir Michael had in running his school, and some of the really strong work that was done at Ofsted - that sort of stuff ends up being overshadowed by that sort of comment.”

Goddard argues that Wilshaw has picked the wrong time to criticise school leaders. “We don’t need another kicking,” he says. “This feels like somebody’s just joined the queue - it’s worse when it feels like it’s one of us that’s doing it to us. It’s not easy being a head at the moment.”

Wilshaw cites three current and former London comprehensive heads who have successfully emulated a grammar school culture: Max Haimendorf from King Solomon Academy; former Burlington Danes Academy head Dame Sally Coates; and Delia Smith, principal of Ark Academy, Wembley. All three are from Ark Schools - where Wilshaw served as education director before joining Ofsted. He took a similar approach while heading the Mossbourne Academy in East London.

“Why can’t all heads adopt that same position?” Wilshaw asks. “I think if the grammar school issue is not to become any more popular, then we need many more of these types of school. And we need the MATs to ensure that they are running a trust with schools like these. There is no excuse for them not to do that.”

More clarity needed

Goddard is a founder member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and says such forums can be “hugely beneficial” in providing a much-needed “support network” to heads.

He also points out that the London comprehensives that Wilshaw praises have benefited from this sort of “collaboration” in the past.

“What was the London Challenge about? It was about collaboration - it was about those roundtables that he criticises,” says Goddard.

As the grammar school debate rages on, Wilshaw argues that greater clarity over what all heads of non-selective schools should be doing to raise standards has become even more pressing. But the variation of practice across the comprehensive system is not simply the fault of individual heads and MAT bosses, he admits. The National College for Teaching and Leadership and the National Professional Qualification for Headship should have set out over the years what it takes to run a good comprehensive, he says.

Some comprehensives have introduced grammar streams to meet the needs of the brightest students. However, with the publication of the government’s White Paper on expanding selection expected in the next few months, if the Conservatives win the election, Wilshaw worries that the changes have come too late. Non-selective schools “should have introduced [grammar streams] a long time ago,” he says.

Wilshaw also remains unconvinced that comprehensives - which could become secondary moderns if new grammar schools open nearby - will be able to overcome the challenges that selection brings.

“They will be seen as a second-rate school,” he says. “We are facing a recruitment problem and all the best teachers will go to the grammar schools because they’ll think it is a more comfortable life. There is a real danger that standards will decay and progress will slow.”

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