Bumpy ride so far and still much to address

21st December 2012 at 00:00
In the eyes of teachers, Sir Michael Wilshaw went from bad to ugly. But can Ofsted's chief inspector come good? asks Fred Jarvis

More than 12 months have passed since Sir Michael Wilshaw told a national newspaper that he didn't have "many critics", something he is not likely to repeat today.

As he looks back on his first year as chief inspector of schools, what, one wonders, will he see as the highlight? Will it be the warm applause he received from teachers at the recent London Festival of Education, when he spoke about leadership and teaching? Or will it be being described in The Times as a "one-man teacher outrage machine"?

While it is too soon to judge whether Wilshaw will succeed in "making a difference to the nation's school system", as he pledged near the beginning of his reign, it is unlikely that the chief inspector would deny he has had a bumpy ride so far, and that he has important questions to answer.

In the opening months of the year, he gave the impression that he was seeking to out-Woodhead Sir Chris Woodhead with his dismissal of teacher stress, condemnation of 5,000 heads for "failing" pupils and apparent glee over low teacher morale. For a man in a hurry, such remarks were not likely to win supporters in his profession. "Why does Wilshaw become Mr Hostile when he dons his Ofsted hat?" asked one prominent head.

Things did not get much better in the summer term. Although some developments, such as the revelation of "cut and paste" Ofsted reports, could not be blamed on Wilshaw, others could be, such as reported fluctuations in inspectors' judgement of schools. And criticism by Ofsted inspector Graham Lancaster of the inspectorate's "frightening" regime was direct. "The change in chief inspector, if anything, seems to be hardening the position...Nothing is ever good enough, it would appear," he said. Reports of this kind would have done little to increase professional goodwill towards the chief inspector.

However, he did make one positive announcement before the summer break, about setting up a commission "to look at the cycle of deprivation and closing of the gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots'". The chief inspector seemed to be moving away from the simplistic proposition he put to the Commons Education Select Committee earlier in the year, when he spoke of the need to move to a "no excuses culture" and declared that there were "too many heads who make excuses in terms of background".

Wilshaw now says: "I know how difficult it can be. Too often schools have to pick up the pieces when society has failed." This suggests the commission could be important in recognising that the recent "massive" achievements by London schools through the London Challenge have been due to cooperation between schools, rather than the competition favoured by Wilshaw.

There are, however, other issues on which it is appropriate to put questions to Wilshaw. When he first met the select committee, he said: "The things I say are going to be very important and I would hope to say things regularly about school standards."

But how far will his readiness to speak out go? After all, before Wilshaw joined Ofsted, education secretary Michael Gove declared he was his "hero" - and Wilshaw said Gove was "right about most things". In light of this love-fest, will Wilshaw be prepared to make statements and ask questions - as some of his predecessors did - regardless of the discomfort they might cause his political master?

For example, given that he expected all teachers at Mossbourne Community Academy in East London (where he was head until he moved to Ofsted) to have qualified teacher status, what does Wilshaw think of Gove allowing those without such status to teach in academies and free schools? Similarly, given that he attached great importance to Mossbourne's architectural design, what will he say about free schools being set up in disused shops and pubs?

How independent is Ofsted?

There is also an Ofsted-related issue. In the summer term, with the failure of the secretary of state to persuade the vast majority of primary schools to opt for academy status, there were reports of primary schools being pressured by the Department for Education to "choose" academy status, with the threat that it would take action to impose "academisation" when a school was "underperforming". This, coupled with reports of increases in the number of primary schools deemed by Ofsted to be failing, could lead a cynic to question whether Ofsted, an independent agency, was being used for political purposes.

More recently, Wilshaw claimed in his annual report that 2.3 million pupils are being failed by their schools. Will that mean the wholesale imposition of "academisation" on the schools concerned? And does Wilshaw seriously believe that such a move would solve the problems of those schools? If he does not, will he advise the secretary of state?

With schools now awaiting their possible encounters with the latest Ofsted framework, Wilshaw is seeking to assure them that the days of "tick box" lesson observation are over and that Ofsted has no "preferred style" of teaching. Heads and teachers will judge the value of those assurances.

And then there are the eight soon-to-be-appointed "regional directors" he has described as "very powerful, influential people". Is this a bid to take over the "middle tier" role previously occupied by the local authorities? And does it signal an intent to take Ofsted into school improvement, a move that would leave Ofsted vulnerable? If that is to be the direction of travel, it conjures up the possibility of Ofsted being confronted with a conflict of interests as its inspectors adopt a dual role.

Finally, Wilshaw speaks of this country's failure to achieve "world class" standards in education, despite a new survey by Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit ranking the UK in sixth place, above the US, Germany and France.

Has the chief inspector learned anything from the experience of Finland, the country that tops the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) education performance tables? Finland has no equivalent to Ofsted and the key to its success is the trust it places in its teachers. Might one suggest to Wilshaw that it could be better for education if he sought to cultivate that kind of trust in the UK, rather than the micromanagement to which he appears wedded?

Of course trust has to be earned, but since he told the festival attendees that "we've got better people coming into teaching than ever before", our teachers are surely more deserving of that trust than politicians who yearn to go forward to the past.

Fred Jarvis was general secretary of the NUT, 1975-89.

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