Newspapers this week picked up on Michael Wilshaw’s speech to the Brighton College education conference. Most centred on his mention of stress.
“(we need) to challenge those who have power invested in them to make the difference, but too often make excuses for poor performance – it’s just too hard, the children are too difficult, the families are too unsupportive, this job is far too stressful.”
Do school leaders use these as excuses for poor performance and school development? If they do, they need to be helped to find a career better suited to their skills. I, however think that the truth in many situations is that headteachers and school leaders strive to achieve the best possible results despite the fact that the job is hard, some children are difficult, some families unsupportive and the job is stressful (and Mr. Wilshaw, which agency do you think is the biggest cause of stress to educators?).
I think it probably takes a person with an above average sized ego to occupy such a position as his so it came as no surprise that he went on to suggest that only he (oh ok then, his father as well) knows the true meaning of stress. Feel free to reach for your hankies.
After reading the selected excerpts the press pounced upon, I decided to read the full speech (find it here).
Was I worried that among the other keynote speakers was Dr. David (it’s not my fault these stupid kids won’t listen to me, honestly I blame the parents/headteachers/society/everyone who is not me) Starkey?
Was I worried that Mr Wilshaw sees himself as the only person ever to try to do a tough job under stressful circumstances?
Was I worried that the secretary of state and Grand Meister of OFSTED were standing in a private school (The Sunday Times Independent School of the Year no less) oozing rhetoric which suggested that the poor people were doing this wrong and it was up to the well-off to swoop in and help pull the oiks out of their own mess?
You bet I was.
But why – surely it would be a good thing if private schools with all of their expertise could raise standards across the board?
To push the football analogy that Mr. Wilshaw used a little further, this is like suggesting that Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Fergusson could, by giving advice to the manager, help promote Southport FC to the premier league. This is not true. In fact, what Southport would need to gain all of the promotions needed, they would need investment in a new stadium, training resources, more staff, investment in players etc. What did happen to Building Schools for the Future initiative?
Shall I be the one to point out the reasonably obvious difference between your average state maintained secondary school and, say, Brighton College? It is about £7,000 per term in fees (not including uniform, access to dyslexia centre, compulsory club fees, music tuition, boarding fees etc). I make that £21,000 per year or in other words, GCSEs will cost a parent over £100,000 with an additional £50k for A-levels.
With this level of investment come many things that are not apparent in most state schools. Will children in academies ‘adopted’ by a rich neighbour have access to the labs, playing fields, media equipment and other physical and human resources that the private school has at its disposal (and if so, imagine what the fee paying parents would make of this)? Supposing they do. How are the governors, leaders and teachers proposing to ensure parental engagement among those who do not have a financial investment in their child’s education equivalent to he value of their home? Have they some magic formula that state schools do not already try?
It seems to me that there are two very distinct education sectors. I am not, by the way, invoking some kind of inverse snobbery here, I am not commenting on the right or wrong of a private sector (despite my very working class background, thanks to a scholarship, I was educated at a private school). I am not even saying it is wrong for links to be developed between private and state schools, though the efficacy is open to questioning.
I am saying that the idea of two of the most powerful people in education, in whose hands all of our children’s futures lie, standing in front of leaders of exclusive and expensive private schools and saying please come and fix the state system is wrong. It is like comparing apples and pears. Worse it is like saying rich = good; poor = bad. At least that’s how it feels to many teachers.
Mr Wilshaw got fantastic results in a state maintained school in an inner city area. Clearly this can only be achieved with good leadership and it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to assume he knows what he is talking about. That is until you read or hear his words since taking office. I wonder what professional conversations were like in Mossbourne Community academy? Did he make the teachers feel like failures who looked for excuses? Did students feel like second class citizens compared to those in Harrow or Windsor? I doubt it. I would predict that Mossbourne had and has a strong ethos and sense of agency where school leaders and staff pull together secure in the knowledge that they will succeed together. So why doesn’t the new head OFSTED honcho look to replicate this at a national level? Surely more schools would succeed if we were safe in the knowledge that the government and OFSTED were supportive of our efforts.
With this in mind, there was some element of encouragement from the speech. He did talk about OFSTED supporting schools which show a dedication to improvement. He also said that good teaching and learning would be recognised and that this consisted of young people being involved and engaged in lessons. I concur wholeheartedly. OFTSED will not adopt a tick box approach. Super.
But still there are one or two things that still nag at the back of the mind.
Does school success equate solely to exam results?
If so, does this not encourage, nay insist upon narrowing curriculum and teaching to tests?
Does having 5 good GSCEs, 3 good A-levels or a first class degree automatically make a person who contributes positively to society and lives a fulfilling life?
If so how do you explain the ‘educated’ MPs in jail for expenses fraud or the need for the Leveson inquiry?
Can a deficit inspection model truly measure the ways in which schools help develop character and personal qualities?
If there is to be such an emphasis on traditional subjects, when and how do schools find the time to build ‘whole person’ development into its curriculum?
How can state schools and private schools perform on a level playing field if investment is so different between the two sectors?
While there are so many more resources available to those who can afford a private education, how can we seriously begin to tackle social mobility on a grand scale and close the ‘achievement gap’?
Oh and one last question. Where is the evidence (other than that generated by OFSTED) that OFSTED actually helps schools improve?