All those who would seek to dismiss Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech this week in which he introduced Ofsted’s annual report (see page 11) as just another rant would do well to pause for thought. Whatever one thinks of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, there are few people as fearless of speaking truth to power.
In September, he stood firm against the government’s proposals to make all pupils follow the English Baccalaureate and signalled that he would refuse to let his organisation be used to compel schools to make this happen. The government has since reduced the figure to 90 per cent.
At the end of next year, Sir Michael will leave his post, as well as some pretty big boots to fill – boots that he used this week to deliver a well-aimed kick to a couple of the government’s most sensitive areas, namely academisation and recruitment.
We are a country obsessed with structures at the highest levels. There is little evidence that converting to academy status makes the slightest bit of difference to educational performance. But there is plenty of evidence that tells us an education system is only as good as the teachers and headteachers that it employs. It is the people who make a difference who make the difference.
There is no point to any structure, no matter how carefully constructed, if you don’t have good staff to fill it with. While there may be no magic formula for a successful school, the ingredients to give schools the best shot at success are simple: great staff, a good behaviour policy and culture, good oversight and, of course, excellent leadership.
It is with the last that issues arise; issues that are often exemplified in the approach to Ofsted itself. The inspectorate is certainly not without its flaws, which have been documented comprehensively. But as with any body beginning with “Of”, there is a duty to assure the public that the service it is overseeing is run effectively, to the highest possible standards.
For school leaders, as with leaders of any organisation, accountability pressures are huge and the stakes of inspection are high. But the job of a leader is to manage that process, to put in place good strategies to mitigate its effects and to ensure that staff are able to carry out their work unimpeded. Many of the current workload pressures on teachers emanate from leaders failing to do just that.
But quality leadership does not just happen. There needs to be a political will to drive it and to map it to areas of need. Unfortunately, as Sir Michael pointed out in his speech, there is a totally uncoordinated approach to identifying and nurturing the next generation of leaders. And there are no incentives in place to ensure that the ones we do train go where they are needed.
He did not point fingers, but it was clear where his criticism was directed. There is one institution that is supposed to do just that. Funnily enough, it’s the same one that has made such a pig’s ear of ensuring that we have enough teachers in our schools to meet demand. The National College for Teaching and Leadership should be hanging its head in shame. Good luck to its new chair, Roger Pope, on sorting that one out.
These are serious issues and it is entirely right that they are raised. But isn’t it ironic that the most credible opposition to the government comes not from the Labour Party but from its own chief inspector?
This article first appeared in the 4 December edition of TES. Read more on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.