You say you trust us, Mr Gove. Now prove it

15th June 2012 at 01:00

At last, a ministerial olive branch. At last month's conference of the NAHT heads' union, education secretary Michael Gove drew back from the threat of no-notice inspections. He said it appears that schools and their leaders don't feel trusted by the government: Ofsted is seen as arriving, dreaded and unannounced, like the Spanish Inquisition. "That was not the intention," he assured delegates.

Well, I guess that's a start. In my 20-plus years of headship, precious little trust has been shown in the profession by the many secretaries of state who have come and gone, their lieutenants or their civil servants. You don't feel much warmth towards teachers or their leaders in the leafy offices of the Department for Education.

Ernest Hemingway said: "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." It's not a bad dictum, so will Gove call off the Rottweilers? Not yet, it appears. Since taking up the post in January, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has done little but utter dire threats against complacency in schools. He's hard to fathom. He models the headship role on some of Clint Eastwood's film characters, the lone warrior fighting wrongdoing: a scary guy. By contrast, people who have worked with him cannot praise him too highly. He was committed to his pupils, they say, and a fantastically supportive and empowering colleague. As heads' halos go, his is very shiny.

Indeed, Wilshaw ceaselessly proclaims his mission to give all children a fair chance, to ensure they are not let down by lousy opportunities offered in school. This is a personal mission with which we all empathise and which we should applaud. Schools will - and, in a sense, should - never be "good enough". We all want to see our schools get better, all the time. That's a given. We mustn't ever be satisfied. But if it's at odds with his real, generous persona, why does Wilshaw become Mr Hostile when he dons his Ofsted hat?

If ministers claim that the current inspection regime is anything but threatening, they're being wilfully disingenuous. I'm at an age where my pension's almost complete: they can't nick much of it and I guess I could take a risk. But given the present timescales with regard to "schools in categories" (a curious euphemism), I would feel obliged to advise any head asked to take over a failing school, either as a sole headship or as a "group executive principal", not to touch it with a bargepole.

Small wonder, then, that the NAHT predicts a headship crisis: why would a bright, young teacher crave the hot seat when so much risk is attached? They may have a vision and a social mission, but they may also have a family to feed, a mortgage to pay and a pension to build at an increased rate of contribution. With those monthly outgoings, even the prospect of making a real difference in a school whose setting clearly makes the raising of floor targets something of a challenge is unlikely to appear to be the chance of a lifetime. "No school or head will be penalised for moving in the right direction," Gove promised. I suspect that NAHT members will be waiting to see the proof.

Of course, all this takes place against a background of ministerial insistence on giving schools the power to make their own decisions. Academies are "independent state schools": the description, calculated to try to grab ground from the private sector, is a calculated half-truth. Academies, free from local authority control, are more in thrall to central government than ever: just witness the budget cock-ups some are dealing with.

At the expense of the minority

Whatever schools' status, all suffer government micromanagement. Schools minister Nick Gibb, for example, has got his way over forcing phonics teaching, and testing, on schools.

The synthetic phonics approach is well respected and effective for many children. But the effect of ministerial micromanagement will be one more step towards deskilling the profession. Teachers will be pressured to use phonics, and viable alternative or parallel approaches will be discouraged.

Is that a problem? It is in the case of a seven-year-old girl I met recently. She has auditory problems, discovered a little late; she hasn't heard sounds clearly and cannot relate them to what she sees on the page. She struggles with Gibb's made-up phonic words: "zoot", "kloob", "gax".

Presumably such words have a use for some children, although I can't think of one. But they won't help this little girl. She's beyond the age of five, when Gibb wants to have his tests, so she won't embarrass her school. But what will happen to her? My hope is that she will get the speech and language therapy she needs, connected in a coherent and joined-up way to help with her reading.

I wish I felt confident. I fear she'll be left behind while her school, under more pressure than ever, concentrates on the majority it can get to the next target level, as government pressure always forces schools to. Still, we can stop worrying. The secretary of state says he does trust schools. Any suggestion to the contrary was unintentional.

So prove it, ministers. Stop ramping up your threatening "or else" language; tone down the damning descriptors and implied penalties from Ofsted; stop interfering and attempting to micromanage; and make the department get its sums right.

That would be a start. Then schools might trust you to trust them.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School. The views expressed here are personal.

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