'Sir Michael Wilshaw might want more mavericks, but nonconformism has been ground out of the system'

26th May 2016 at 14:02
Sir Michael Willshaw
The Ofsted boss says we should have more "mavericks" in our schools, but he leads a section of government machinery that has done more than any other to destroy the idea of free-thinking teachers and leaders, writes one leading head

The outgoing Ofsted boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, says we need more mavericks running schools. Well, it takes one to know one. 

When he was a school head he undoubtedly qualified as a maverick. He gave no quarter when fighting to get the best for the children in his care. Not by accident was he the head of Mossbourne Academy, which rose phoenix-like from the ruinous history of Hackney Downs School. I know and respect several people who worked for him at deputy or similar level: they hold him in admiration and awe.

In a speech on Wednesday, he complained that our “very ordinary” education system needs mavericks to bring in something of the extraordinary. There aren’t enough in the state sector: there are more of them in the independent, he claims (he was speaking at the determinedly free-spirited and independently-minded Bedales School).

We used to love mavericks in schools, and not just as heads: the eccentric chemistry teacher who had the knack of enthusing the most unscientific pupil with the subject, and whose leadership qualities would enable him to drag children to the top of mountains in the summer holidays; the music teacher who inspired children to sing in their hundreds, somehow overwhelming their natural reluctance to do so; the geographer who got kids to stay all hours after school to build a hovercraft.

We remember them fondly, and call them mavericks, or eccentrics: but they stand out in our memory really because they were inspirational, and different, teachers with a genuine passion for leading young people in extraordinary directions where they could discover themselves and learn that they could succeed. They were not afraid to bend the rules, so certain of the rightness of their passion and inspiration that meaningless red tape was simply something to be circumvented. As a Danish head once said to me, “I’ve always found it easier to receive forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand.”

'The pressure of grinding accountability'

Note my use of the past tense in relation to mavericks. How can such teachers hope to survive nowadays? I hope I’m still sufficiently strongly motivated to insist, when necessary, on doing the right thing, rather than the convenient thing. Yet I’m no maverick, and I guess I must have become risk-averse: not with age, but with the constant pressures of regulation and of grinding, unreasoning accountability.

The Independent Schools Inspectorate tells me that my school (independent of government, remember) is obliged to comply with more than 400 regulations. Before any Brexiteer bleats about excessive red tape from Brussels, let me emphasise that I’m not aware of a single one of those emanating from the European Union. Independent school regulatory standards are entirely Westminster-generated: and, pace Boris, the size of bunches of bananas don’t feature (any more than they’re stipulated by the EU).

The educational world in which we nowadays operate is suspicious of mavericks. The profile of safeguarding has become so enormous (sadly, with good reason over many years) that there is an almost inevitable confusion in people’s minds between those who push the boundaries to do things in different, even wacky ways and those who might prove a threat to children. The system is hostile to those reluctant to fill in the forms. Inevitable, perhaps: but don’t hope to see inspired eccentrics in the classroom in future.

As for mavericks, Sir Michael himself, while sympathetic to them, leads a major section of the government machinery that has steadily ground nonconformist heads out of the system through the relentless pressure of inspection, floor-targets and league tables.

There is little space now for any school leader who wants to do things differently or even take risks (risk-taking: the basis of all entrepreneurialism). Wilshaw may be off-message in the government’s terms nowadays, as he develops a sense of gate fever, but the inspectorate – notwithstanding his apology for its apparent previous demand for a particular style of teaching – has rendered any deviation from a safe norm, from the “ordinary” that he deplores, the action of a dangerous lunatic. The individual can’t risk it: nor can the school.

If you must enforce conformity and crush divergent views – as successive governments have done with your help, Sir Michael – don’t blame schools or their leaders for lacking the courage to be wacky or different. 

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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