It’s time for Sir Michael to sing up about the arts

13th May 2016 at 00:00

I have a confession to make. I have just read Sir Michael Wilshaw’s last annual Ofsted report, a rather impressive 150-page document. It doesn’t stop there: I followed up – “for afters”, as it were – by reading a dozen Ofsted school inspection reports. Yes, I know I am a saddo. (“Get a life, Grandpa,” was the sage advice of 10-year-old Poppy, with whom I now have to argue about my insecure relationship with grammar.)

There was, however, a purpose to my gorging on Ofsted reports. I was searching for mention of music, drama, dance, art, creativity and residentials; and of character and resilience. Of the first group, there was no mention and of the second, half-a-dozen cursory references. Had I searched for English/literacy, maths, behaviour, attendance or the quality of teaching, learning and leadership, the story, as you can probably guess, would have been different.

I would have emerged well-informed. Indeed, I learned a lot in my surfeit of HMCI writing, as I always have since Eric Bolton initiated these reports in the late 1970s, and I do hope that Sir Michael’s final effort is written in the same tradition of no-holds-barred brutal honesty.

It is what HMCI emphasises in individual reports and the annual survey that interests me as, of course, it most affects what schools themselves seek to do. On present evidence, they could be forgiven for thinking that the arts don’t matter.

Most heads used to have the courage of their convictions. When faced with a difficult decision they would choose the right course for the individual pupil, even when it seemed to go against how the school wanted to be judged when Ofsted came calling.

Many still do that, but every head is deeply aware that any given set of results might put their school in the firing line and that a one-day inspection can so easily turn into two and end in a dreaded “category”.

It is time for the fearless Sir Michael to use the last months of his tenure to change that atmosphere by reflecting on the importance of the less easily measurable. His latest pronouncements, many profoundly embarrassing for the government, make me think he would be up for it.

If he decides to take up my challenge, I would encourage him, for example, in his valedictory annual report to tell us lots about the importance and the health of the arts, of creativity and of what is known as the “second timetable” (where there’s room for immersion in intensive learning through residentials and other learning within and beyond the classroom). In that way, schools might be encouraged to think such activities matter.

That they do was brought home to me recently by Sir Anthony Seldon when he quoted Henry David Thoreau to the effect that all of us have a song inside us and the tragedy is that so many go to their graves with the song still inside them.

All those in schools know it’s their job to find and encourage that song, as they seek to unlock the minds and open the shut hearts of those they teach. And in my experience, it is that task that gives them energy and satisfaction in what they do.

If we had school Ofsted reports that reflected that purpose, we would have something to balance the reductionist league tables and the unforgivably backward-looking English Baccalaureate, which too many schools slavishly follow for almost all their pupils when they know that it isn’t right for some.

At the moment, I look in vain for a “balanced scorecard” of what schools do. Ofsted inspections of schools should provide that.

Sir Michael Wilshaw should take the opportunity of his last year, through his briefings and his final annual report, to create a climate in which that balance can thrive.

Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London

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