Pale Rider, black mood: Why Wilshaw's fury is misplaced
The first thing that caught my attention was the blood. He wasn't just spitting nails – he was spitting blood.
The cause of it? Sir Michael Wilshaw, mandarin of the Ofsted legions, has had enough of whisperers, plotters and outright conspirators decrying the work of his tireless organ, saying it's too small, saying it's too big, saying it doesn't work properly or makes a mess when it does. So far, so normal – anybody responsible for inspecting and accounting for £87.3 billion of Wonga tokens every year wouldn't be doing his job if he wasn't upsetting someone, somewhere. He tub-thumps marvellously and damns anyone who disagrees.
The Outraged Josey Wilshaw
"He said his inspectors were working late, endured personal criticism when they held schools to account and sometimes broke into tears because of the pressure they were under."
Many people are, of course, crowing somewhat at this comment, given that lacrimae mundi have traditionally flowed from schools, teachers and heads harrowed by the gavels of Ofsted. Wilshaw is perfectly correct to protect the well-being of his army; no professional should wrestle with abuse, nor should any abuse be given by one. But the tendency of the pain to flow in the opposite direction is a new one and marginal compared to the anguish of the judged.
The difference here – and I imagine the reason why he's taken to the broadsheets, when he normally simply broadcasts his will through conference papers and speeches like a metronome or a civil address PA system – is that this time it's the enemies within, or broadly near, his tent, pissing in. Civitas and Policy Exchange, both think tanks, have recently floated the idea that Ofsted is no longer fit for purpose, inviting comments that, according to Wilshaw, undermine the whole inspection process. But so what? People slag off everything, all the time. Why pop a vein now?
"Wilshaw said he did not believe the criticisms came from the secretary of state but rather, he suspected, from unknown sources within the education deportment, briefing the press."
His interview raises as many questions as they answer: Wilshaw believes that the "attack dogs" are acting either with Gove's approval – or at least his failure to intervene. What evidence is there of this? Given the height of his chair, we would expect him to have privileged access, but it would be interesting to know what links exist, if any. Think tanks pipe-bombing the Sunday papers with whack theories ("privatise children"/ "nationalise Dixons") is a weekend tradition, but if Lord Vader knows that the Emperor is flirting with the abolition of his Tie Fighter unit, then the blood on the carpet is understandable.
Every Which Way But Unsatisfactory
More importantly: why have these ideas been born? Wilshaw believes that it's purely political: "I suspect that those people who want us to be softer in our judgements…are angry at our failing some of these institutions," he said.
This refers, of course, to the recent slotting of Al Madinah and Discovery New School, two free schools that turned out to be a little too free, in that they were insane (and rubbish). But this is where Wilshaw makes his mistake: while a minority of Ofsted's critics may or may not be motivated by sour grapes (and private motives are incorrigibly resistant to scrutiny or confirmation in any case), it's wrong to assume that this is the only reason that people might object to it.
One of the healthiest things about the rise of Citizen Blogger is that mute teachers and leaders have finally found a platform to express opinions that previously would have stopped at the staffroom door, and now they can be nailed to the noticeboards across the country in a heart beat.
Writers such as myself, but principally Old Andrew – who should receive an MBE for his efforts to raise standards in education – have been hammering on this door for years. Not to simply recoil against the indignity of inspection, but because we believe that Ofsted, which may have had a purpose in the past, is now so much an instrument of orthodoxy and dogma that it seems hard to see how its progressive DNA can be removed.
It isn't that Wilshaw hasn't tried; I have sat and listened to him on several occasions talk about how inspectors would no longer be looking for this teaching style or that, or fail a teacher because they failed to fit the mould of an inspector's prejudice. And, like many teachers, I moonwalked with joy at the thought of an inspection system that allowed teachers, and schools, to divine their own best practice, rather than suffering the cant of the progressive priesthood, insisting on discovery learning, peer assessment and group work.
But, as Sir Andrew of Old has obsessively observed, inspectors still boot the balls of schools for failing to match their expectations; recent reports have blatantly defied the expressed will of the man at the top. When this has been pointed out, reports have been removed and modified but the judgements left unchanged, leading many (ie, me) to believe that the same reasoning has been employed, only this time camouflaged.
That's the real issue here. If a pressure group or think tank wants kids up chimneys again or something, you can agree or not. Sir Michael Wilshaw shouldn't complain because people are expressing how unhappy they are with the way Ofsted operates. Every time another inspection report comes out seething with bias and faulty prescription, the case for reform dwindles and the case for a new inspection body grows. It would be madness and entirely divisive to have a separate inspection body for academies and free schools, but until someone with the nuclear codes at the DfE mentions it, why blow your cork? Such pre-emptive eruptions seem odd to anyone outside the edububble.
This isn't to denigrate Wilshaw. Unlike most armchair edupundits, he's been sheriff of his own frontier town and driven out the banditos. Unlike most, he actually understands schools. He's absolutely the right man to lead a school inspection body.
Just perhaps not this one.
- Read Wilshaw's blood-stained interview (subscription required)
Some of my older blogs about Wilshaw and Ofsted:
- Eduspeak: Why Wilshaw still has a battle to change the orthodoxy of Ofsted (part one)
- London Festival Of Education, part two: Teacher training, Flirtgate, and the Pale Rider
- Michael Wilshaw needs YOU: How we can all help improve education, right now
Other interesting bits and bobs: