Tag Archives: wilshaw

Why schools fining ‘bad parents’ is a really, really bad idea

Another day, another ludicrous idea from one of the Michaels. This time it’s Michael Wilshaw, chief of Ofsted, saying that parents should be fined if they don’t, amongst other things, make children do their homework.

This story made my blood boil when I read it this morning, and I can feel the fury rising inside me reading it again now. I mean, who does this man think he is? To make sweeping statements about the causes of underachievement amongst children growing up in poverty, to drive a wedge between parents and schools in the communities where close collaboration is perhaps most important, to blithely dictate what it is that makes a good parent in such a patronising and unpleasant manner. There are so many things wrong with his proposals that I almost don’t know where to start, but I will try.

Let’s just begin with what he expects of good parents. I agree that communicating with the school is pretty important, though I also know there are a multitude of reason why someone may not be able to attend a designated parents’ evening – and the realities of those evenings (or afternoons, or days) is that there is little scope for in depth discussion about young people’s progress, especially if they’re struggling.

I agree, of course, that reading is something to be encouraged – urgently so given the impact it can have on children’s lives. But you can’t force someone to read for pleasure – adult or child – and the real focus should surely be on expanding local libraries rather than closing them, or maybe reinstating the funding that would bring inspirational authors into schools on a regular basis.

And then we come to the tricky subject of homework. I never much liked homework, neither as a child nor as a teacher. And with educational research throwing up little to support its position as a tool to improve learning, and officials in countries from China to France and Sweden seeking to reduce it or ban it altogether, it seems a funny time for Wilshaw to be insisting on its importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t times when it is appropriate for students to work on something at home, but teachers setting tasks for the sake of it then parents battling with demotivated kids to complete homework that’s only going to increase teachers’ workloads when they have to mark it just makes no sense at all to me.

But to be honest it’s not the nitty gritty of Wilshaw’s proposals that I find so offensive, even if they are typically narrow-minded and outdated in their origins. What I find really unbelievable is that he can think that pitching schools and parents against each other is really the best way to get them to work together to support the young people in their care. The bullying tactics he used against the parents at his old school in Hackney are really not going to work for anyone – and I can’t imagine that many head teachers would want to take the approach he describes.

The issues that lead to underachievement in impoverished communities are complex and far-reaching. Many of them have their roots in low self-esteem perpetuated by generations of un- or under-employment – in a lack of trust in the system, and schools in particular. The only way to truly overcome this is to help communities believe in themselves again, to show what they can achieve for themselves and for their children when they work hard, to celebrate successes and find the things that motivate them to change.

Treating parents as naughty school kids themselves would have the opposite effect – sure people might purport to play the game, might jump through the hoops they need to to escape the fines, but that is a long way from nurturing the impetus for learning that will truly help young people escape the cycle of poverty.

And what if parents don’t play the game? To be honest the ones that are hardest to reach, that aren’t already responding to schools’ attempts to engage them, are highly unlikely to give two hoots about the prospect of a fine. And what then? Protracted and costly legal proceedings, culminating in poor families being poorer still and so condemning the young people who most need our help to an even harder struggle?

I don’t know whether Wilshaw intended to be taken seriously, or whether he was just firing off another simplistic idea for the sake of it. But I do know that his way of thinking is incredibly damaging to our society – and it is time that parents stood together with schools to tell him that enough is enough.


Why we need to lay off the tests and give our children space to learn


If this article had been published today, I would have had it pegged as an April fool. Testing and academic rigour for two year olds? Surely a predictably unfunny joke dreamt up by someone at the DfE to keep us on our toes. Sadly of course that is not the case. The letter that Wilshaw sent to Early Years inspectors was published on Friday, and it appears that he is deadly serious.

It comes as part of the latest onslaught on childhood and a meaningful education system which, if Gove et al get their way, will result in formal testing from age four, the reinstatement of national tests at seven, and the raising of the bar for schools as well as individual children in the year 6 SATs.

I am not an Early Years specialist: my expertise comes from ten years working in Secondary, and more recently as the mother of a fifteen month old. I do not intend to comment on Early Years provision, either current or proposed. What I do have an opinion on – and a strong one at that – is the damage that this regime of testing will cause.

Firstly, there is the stress and psychological pressure that comes with any test, however much its proponents try to play it down. Even if we are to consider the reception ‘check’ as a baseline assessment, nervous parents will no doubt want their offspring to do the best they can – and despair if they are found to be wanting. This nervousness and sense of expectation will naturally be passed on to the kids themselves. To be honest I’m having trouble marrying the idea of this as a baseline with the testing that will already have been going on for the previous two years: these tests will generate data, the data will have to be kept and compared, and suddenly the reception ‘check’ becomes a summative assessment of progress – at least for those children unlucky enough to have been in the system from the start.

Then of course there’s the question of what will be done with the data, how it will be applied to the provision of education for children in their primary years – a period when there will of course be regular high-stakes testing on the cards. The first and most obvious answer is that pupils will be set or streamed by ability. In fact in much of the comment I’ve read on this issue grouping by ability seems to be a given. And yet the research shows that this is damaging to pupil progress – particularly for the ‘less able’ pupils who this regime of testing is ostensibly meant to protect.

Children will be labelled, told what they are good at (perhaps) and where they are failing, and thus will begin the cycle of diminishing self-esteem that will serve to crush their potential.

There is also the question of what happens to the curriculum. With all the will in the world, when the stakes are high schools will teach to the test. Succeeding in the narrow framework the test defines is vital for the pupils and the teachers – far more immediately valuable than the pesky business of creating a lifelong love of learning. And what can be tested is necessarily narrow – it needs to be objective and quantifiable when so much of learning (especially for very young children) quite simply isn’t.

What happens to the space for children to play and explore and discover? What happens to the opportunities for them to surprise and delight with a fresh solution to a problem? What happens to the freedom for them to follow a spark of interest and have the satisfaction of finding something new? It strikes me as so spectacularly arrogant that this government can believe they know what is best for our children. My son amazes me every day: if I was focused on teaching him my truths there is so much I would miss, and so much of his potential that would go unrealised.

The irony of this all is that Wilshaw claims his goal is to prepare children for the demands of their education further down the line, and yet my experience of dealing with shell-shocked eleven year olds as they transitioned to secondary school taught me that testing does anything but. Though each cohort would come in with increasingly impressive KS2 scores, they would be broadly the same in terms of their actual ability. As an English teacher, much of year 7 was spent freeing them up to be creative again, to have their own thoughts, to realise that there was more to a good story than a range of connectives and lots of semi-colons. Some students were afraid to write anything at all for fear of not being able to spell correctly – and when they did they restricted their vocabulary in order to play it safe. Even by Wilshaw’s narrow view of the world, in order for students to have a hope of reaching the higher grades at GCSE they would need to be able to be perceptive, to offer original ideas and read between the lines, to take risks in their interpretations and in their own writing. And even to get that far they would need to have a sense of why they were doing it – the lure of yet another high-stakes test just isn’t going to cut it for most kids.

It is ultimately this goal of his that is the most telling thing of all. Education at any stage should be about preparing young people for the rest of their lives, not just the next phase of education.

In the early years it is not so much what children are learning that is the key, but who they are becoming: each experience lays down the very foundations of their personalities, shapes the people who they are going to be. By reducing this process to easily measurable goals that can be tested we will be doing our children a great disservice, and very possibly causing irrevocable damage that society will be left to fix for years to come.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com


Why ‘passivity’ in our learners is most definitely something to be criticised

Some weeks ago now, Michael Wilshaw sent a letter to OFSTED inspectors impressing on them the need to leave out of their reports any comments on how teachers teach, focusing only on the outcomes of said teaching.

This missive has been lauded as a breath of fresh air by teachers, school leaders and unions – a sign that perhaps this Michael at least has some respect left for the professional autonomy of teachers. It has also been welcomed by those who believe that today’s teachers are wedded to ‘trendy Left-wing ideology’, and that it is this that holds our students back from excelling in global league tables.

In this letter, Wilshaw said that ‘on occasions… pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning’ and that inspectors should not ‘criticise passivity’. This struck me as a little odd when I read it, and I touched on my concerns last week in the context of calls for schools to build character and resilience. But his choice of words has been playing on my mind since then, and I just couldn’t let it go without examining the implications of this statement further.

There are several definitions of passive, none of which sit terribly comfortably with me as descriptions of a child in a learning environment. We surely wouldn’t want them to be ‘not active or not participating’ and certainly ‘not working’ would be the opposite of our aims for a school pupil in lesson time. Perhaps there are those who would like young people to be ‘unresisting and receptive to external forces’, but it is my experience that other humans, even little ones, don’t tend to be that malleable without actively engaging in a process themselves.

Looking at synonyms for passive is even more worrying. Do we really want our young people sitting in classrooms to be described as ‘apathetic’, ‘indifferent’ or ‘uninvolved’?

In trying to gauge opinion on this amongst other education professionals, the general consensus seems to be that Wilshaw probably didn’t really mean ‘passive’, at least not in the way that I’ve defined it above. But if that were really the case then why not choose another word? Why pick a word – and then repeat it – which has so many connotations that are the antithesis of what we would like to see going on in our classrooms?

I fear that teachers have been so quick to welcome Wilshaw’s statement because they are desperate for someone in a position of power in education to throw them a lifeline – to tell them it’s ok, I trust you to teach however you like as long as you get the results. I would argue that if that’s the case why are inspectors bothering to go into lessons at all? Why not just look at the results if they don’t care about what’s happening in the classroom? Actually reading further into Wilshaw’s letter there are plenty of pedagogical preferences evident, from what resources teachers are choosing to use in the classroom to how they choose to set homework, but apparently questioning these choices does not ‘infring[e] the professional judgement of teachers’.

To be honest, though, it’s not really the teachers I’m worried about. Ok – there are probably a few who will use Wilshaw’s words as an excuse to make their workload lighter, will stop worrying so much about whether pupils are engaged or not because hey – even the HMCI says it’s ok for them to be passive. But in reality the vast majority of teachers want their students to be engaged and to learn, and they have the skills and professionalism to help them achieve that in a myriad of different ways.

What concerns me is what this acceptance of passivity – or in fact its promotion above more active learning methods if you look at the right wing interpretation – says about this governments aspirations for its young people.

Does it want to nurture a generation who can think for themselves, who can question the status quo, who can come up with new ways to face the world’s problems? Or does it want to create a society who will be easily controlled, accept authority without question, carry forward a canon of knowledge whilst quietly going about their business and being exploited by those in positions of power?

Certainly the tactics used by the Tories so far, from their denigration of the right to strike to their desire to curb peaceful political protests, from Gove’s attempts to falsify information and then rewrite history to hide his tracks to their incredible attempts today to rebrand themselves as the worker’s party, would indicate the latter. As Tony Benn articulates so clearly, ‘a healthy, educated and confident nation is harder to govern‘.

Casual references to passivity being an acceptable mode for the classroom effectively discard decades of educational research aimed at creating empowered and effective citizens to return us to a model of learning whereby the child is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the superior knowledge of the teacher and of wider society. This is not how I want our world to view young people, either as a teacher or as a parent, and I think we should be very wary of anyone who has such low expectations of our future generations.