On yer bike, Sir Mike

12th February 2016 at 00:00

I try to stay positive, I really do. But sometimes something gets so far up my nose that I can’t continue without a rant to clear my pipes. There are a few educational leaders who spout misguided bollocks with such confidence that it causes lesser mortals to question their own grasp of reality. Even a few weeks on, I’m still bristling from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments about our sector. I usually give this sort of nonsense a big “whatevs” but, much like a fungal infection, this speech keeps returning to irritate me.

I’m quite keen on what Ofsted represents. Advocating for students; providing an impartial yardstick of quality. I’ve had conversations with senior Ofsted people who are enthusiastic about FE, empathetic towards its challenges and, most importantly, knowledgeable about it.

Compared to my personal experience of Ofsted leadership, Sir Michael’s views sound like those from an offensive relative for whom you have to apologise in advance.

In a recent speech, Sir Michael rated post-16 non-academic progressions (vocational courses in the FE and skills sector, then) as “inadequate at best and non-existent at worst”.

In rebuttal, it’s taken me two clicks of a mouse to learn that in the last academic year, 2.9 million people were served by 335 colleges, with a success rate of 85 per cent. In their most recent Ofsted inspection, 82 per cent of colleges were judged “good” or “outstanding” for overall effectiveness.

Of the young people who failed to achieve academic targets at his school, back in the day, Sir M said: “Most of them went to a local FE college, usually a large, impersonal and amorphous institution, and did badly.”

So not only are all colleges being judged by his personal experience of a few, but there’s an assumption that a large college must, for some reason, mean an impersonal experience.

Now here’s my personal experience: today, I directed a student who’s having an unthinkable time to the appropriate college department, so that he could access the support he needs to continue his college career. The staff there showed him such compassion that I had to go to the loo for a little cry afterwards. Learners are given the tools to empower themselves in many ways, by staff who care about what happens to the people that they teach. “Impersonal” is just wrong.

Predictably, Sir Michael used the comparative success of Germany and Switzerland to wallop us with, countries where vocational education is valued and supported as a progression route, by both the government and the establishment.

I feel hugely let down that someone with such influence can make such inaccurate, unhelpful comments. Perhaps he should do his homework before gobbing off in future?

Rant over. That feels better.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands @MrsSarahSimons

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