Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Bumpy Ride So Far and Still Much to Address: Comment

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Bumpy Ride So Far and Still Much to Address: Comment

Article excerpt

In the eyes of teachers, Sir Michael Wilshaw went from bad to ugly. But can Ofsted's chief inspector come good? asks Fred Jarvis.

More than 12 months have passed since Sir Michael Wilshaw told a national newspaper that he didn't have "many critics", something he is not likely to repeat today.

As he looks back on his first year as chief inspector of schools, what, one wonders, will he see as the highlight? Will it be the warm applause he received from teachers at the recent London Festival of Education, when he spoke about leadership and teaching? Or will it be being described in The Times as a "one-man teacher outrage machine"?

While it is too soon to judge whether Wilshaw will succeed in "making a difference to the nation's school system", as he pledged near the beginning of his reign, it is unlikely that the chief inspector would deny he has had a bumpy ride so far, and that he has important questions to answer.

In the opening months of the year, he gave the impression that he was seeking to out-Woodhead Sir Chris Woodhead with his dismissal of teacher stress, condemnation of 5,000 heads for "failing" pupils and apparent glee over low teacher morale. For a man in a hurry, such remarks were not likely to win supporters in his profession. "Why does Wilshaw become Mr Hostile when he dons his Ofsted hat?" asked one prominent head.

Things did not get much better in the summer term. Although some developments, such as the revelation of "cut and paste" Ofsted reports, could not be blamed on Wilshaw, others could be, such as reported fluctuations in inspectors' judgement of schools. And criticism by Ofsted inspector Graham Lancaster of the inspectorate's "frightening" regime was direct. "The change in chief inspector, if anything, seems to be hardening the position...Nothing is ever good enough, it would appear," he said. Reports of this kind would have done little to increase professional goodwill towards the chief inspector.

However, he did make one positive announcement before the summer break, about setting up a commission "to look at the cycle of deprivation and closing of the gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots'". The chief inspector seemed to be moving away from the simplistic proposition he put to the Commons Education Select Committee earlier in the year, when he spoke of the need to move to a "no excuses culture" and declared that there were "too many heads who make excuses in terms of background".

Wilshaw now says: "I know how difficult it can be. Too often schools have to pick up the pieces when society has failed." This suggests the commission could be important in recognising that the recent "massive" achievements by London schools through the London Challenge have been due to cooperation between schools, rather than the competition favoured by Wilshaw.

There are, however, other issues on which it is appropriate to put questions to Wilshaw. When he first met the select committee, he said: "The things I say are going to be very important and I would hope to say things regularly about school standards."

But how far will his readiness to speak out go? After all, before Wilshaw joined Ofsted, education secretary Michael Gove declared he was his "hero" - and Wilshaw said Gove was "right about most things". In light of this love-fest, will Wilshaw be prepared to make statements and ask questions - as some of his predecessors did - regardless of the discomfort they might cause his political master? …

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