The price of `progress'

3rd October 2014 at 01:00
Mike Kent

Let me make something clear from the start: I have a lot of time for Ofsted's chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw. I believe he genuinely wants the best education for our children. Indeed, when I was appearing on a panel of "maverick" headteachers at a festival of education, I made a point of attending his lecture. He was interesting, answered questions with sensitivity, told self-deprecating stories and showed humility.

Which is why I have been astonished at some of his public pronouncements. Most teachers will be familiar with his analogy that school leaders should be Clint Eastwood-style lone warriors. Far more serious, to my mind, was his comment that if staff morale in a school wasn't low, the headteacher must be doing something wrong. Was that humour as well? If so, it was of the darkest kind.

And recently, talking about the latest changes to Ofsted inspections, he told TES: "There's no point in sending teams of inspectors to inspect good or outstanding schools when we already have all the data on those schools." Really? Is he saying that a set of data tells you all you need to know about a school? It is certainly a fact that today's parents have been conditioned to judge primary schools on their most recent Ofsted reports and Year 6 test scores, because that's all that politicians think is important. Primary schools have become cramming institutions and teachers slaves to data, because that's the only the way the government can show it is "driving up standards".

When my grandson goes to school in two years' time, what will he experience? Will his teachers be warm and welcoming, delighting in what should be the best job in the world? Or will they be worn down from form-filling and data-gathering, unable to give him the attention he needs and deserves? Will he have the opportunity to form relationships, to socialise and grow into a caring young person with a thirst for learning? Will he be able to write, paint, craft, act, dance, play musical instruments, exercise his developing young body, learn about his environment and the wider world, and experience a host of creative activities that should be every young child's right? Or will he be merely a piece of data, constantly tested, urged to achieve levels in English and maths that may not even be appropriate for him?

Two primary schools operate near my home. In the past two years, one of them has lost 18 teachers, many of them talented practitioners whose enthusiasm was challenged and eventually blunted by a management that thinks the best way to get people to perform is to harass them. The marriage of one of the teachers was ruined because she worked into the small hours trying to keep up with the demand for reams of data and planning. In the second school, children in Years 5 and 6 undertake hardly any creative activity. The pressure is constantly on to achieve high test results and everything else is secondary. Again, staff leave in droves.

And here's the thing. Both of these schools received an outstanding rating from Ofsted.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email:

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