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'Wilshaw's pessimism and headline-grabbing instincts paint us as both hapless and hopeless'

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Suffolk, writes:  

There’s a scene in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie On Golden Pond when the character played by Katharine Hepburn has to explain why her husband – once a distinguished high school principal – is so relentlessly objectionable and snarky.

With a world-weary sigh she says: “He’s like an old lion. He has to remind himself that he can still roar”.

I wonder if that’s what it’s like being Sir Michael Wilshaw. Spending long hours locked in board meetings and strategic discussions, peering no doubt at spreadsheets charting disappointments and infrequent triumphs, then being driven through nondescript suburbs to stand at lecterns in front of blank pinstriped audiences, does Sir Michael sometimes have to remind himself that he can roar?

That’s what he did again yesterday.

Many of us remember him being publicly paraded at a conference by education secretary Michael Gove, ceremoniously brought out and displayed like some rare but proud circus specimen.

Wilshaw was, we were to understand, one of the big beasts of the school system – fearless, indefatigable, relentless. He was what we feckless stragglers in the jungle’s scrubby margins should aspire to be like.

No one therefore expressed much surprise when Sir Michael turned up as Gove’s draconian and frequently finger-wagging chief of Ofsted, someone still inclined to address the nation’s teachers as if we were the perspiring new recruits at our first staff meeting.

He was back on the national stage yesterday with the annual Ofsted state-of-the nation report, and teachers and school leaders were most decidedly in his bad books, especially those of us working in secondary schools.

You don’t have to read beyond the first paragraph of his inspection report to be reminded of last year’s catalogue of “indifferent schools”, “weak leadership” and “poor teaching”. Then Sir Michael’s not-entirely-motivational message kicks in: “This year, I have to report that the outlook is less promising.”

It takes a certain glass-half-empty outlook to see 70 per cent of our secondary schools being good or outstanding as a badge of national shame.

So, at the risk of being one of the petulant voices that would no doubt land me a Mossbourne Academy double detention, I merely make the following observations.

First, this year’s national inspection gradings come against a backdrop of a much tougher Ofsted regime. It insists that grade 3 schools – termed “requires improvement” – are re-inspected much more frequently based upon an inspection framework that itself gets changed every time a new fad hits town.

Thus inspections have got tougher, and more of the previously satisfactory schools are being inspected more often. Perhaps we should not therefore be surprised that more grade 3 gradings are showing up – unless we think that becoming a good school is a merely stitched-together formula of quick hit strategies. Doesn’t real school improvement, like real learning, take a bit of time and stability?

Secondly, isn’t there something a bit rich about being condemned based on a report which urges society to support school leaders? Sir Michael writes: “Heads who are battling an anti-learning culture and taking a stand against those who are too ready to defend the indefensible deserve support, and not opprobrium.”

From where I sit, today has felt like a day of opprobrium, this time initiated by the Chief Inspector himself. Not for the first time, Sir Michael’s perennial pessimism and his headline-grabbing instincts have set the tone for media coverage which at its best was dour and at its worst played into the hands of those ready to think all of us working in state schools are hopeless or hapless or both.

Finally, I’m not sure what life feels like at Ofsted HQ, but it’s not as if the inspectorate is without its own significant quality control issues. We hear too many stories of inconsistencies between inspection teams, lingering accusations of early warning tip-offs to favoured headteachers, and apparently cack-handed inspections, then re-inspections, following a flurry of moral panic in Birmingham.

It may just be that some feel the Chief Inspector would be better directing his ire at an organisation which too often lacks trust, credibility or a reputation for doing anything much other than undermining schools in struggling contexts.

One year ago today our school was inspected. A purposeful team held a mirror up to our school, noted the hard work of teachers and other staff to help students of all backgrounds to achieve their best. They saw where we were doing well and where we weren’t. They noted our commitment to the aspects of school not easily measured – the sense of calm purpose in behaviour, the positive relationships, the depth of extra-curricular provision in the arts, sport, debating, and our determination that children from this proudly comprehensive school should have as much chance as those from the fee-paying opposition to get places at colleges and top universities.

They saw this. They helped us to know ourselves.

Theirs was a positive and enlightened approach, with a tone rooted in a philosophy of wanting to help us to improve.

They genuinely helped us in our drive to make our school better.

We ought to be able to expect a similarly constructive tone from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

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