I see that the head of Ofsted has been on a charm offensive again.
Sir Michael Wilshaw was an outstanding London headteacher. He took an apparently ungovernable school in Hackney and brought a drive and sense of purpose that overturned its woeful reputation. Local people had given up hope that there could be good education in that pocket of London, blighted by criminality and low expectations. Sir Michael injected new rigour, a culture of high expectations, a kind of military discipline and – underpinning it all – a new sense of optimism
It led him to be described by the then education secretary Michael Gove as ‘my hero’. Well, you can’t win them all.
But since he was headhunted to be boss of Ofsted, Sir Michael appears to have relished upsetting people. Some of his targets, of course, are fair game. If he thinks school standards aren’t high enough, or that there are too many inadequate schools, then it’s his job to say so.
Just sometimes you wonder though whether he’s deliberately courting controversy. Every other announcement he makes, it seems, has someone else in its sight-lines – whether it’s schools in rural and coastal areas (complacent), teacher training institutions (complacent and out-of-touch) or, most recently, students (complacent and untidy).
Earlier this month, the Times quoted Sir Michael as saying: ‘Too many teenagers leave school without having learnt how to dress smartly, speak politely, and turn up for work on time. They are not well enough prepared for work, contributing to high levels of youth unemployment’.
He’s right, of course, that some vocational courses in some institutions appear not to have served some young people well. Ofsted’s recent findings say so..
But criticising courses and the quality of their curricula isn’t the same as making lofty generalisations about all young people. Of course there are those who don’t dress smartly or speak politely or show impeccable time-keeping. I suspect we all know adults who may be guilty of the same shortcomings. Perhaps we ourselves aren’t always paragons in all respects.
All I know after 30 years of teaching teenagers in large schools across northern England and here in Suffolk is that the majority of young people I teach work far harder than I did at school, and their teachers expect more than was ever expected of me. I also believe that the majority of schools are far more civilised, courteous and welcoming than when I began my school career.
Like many of my contemporaries, I drifted through school, finding it mostly tedious and only occasionally challenging. The lower sixth (what we now call Year 12) was a largely untroubled period of coasting, uncluttered by tests and examinations, and it was only the threat of poor exams at the end of school life that woke some of us up to finally working.
Today’s students are the most tested in educational history. They must sometimes feel like hamsters on an unstoppable wheel, such is the tinkering with examinations and qualifications that has marked their school life.
There is little room for them to be complacent because the tests come in regular waves, punctuating the rhythm of the school year. Their teachers are much more closely monitored. Thus young people appear to me to work harder and with a greater focus than I’ve previously seen.
Similarly, the students we send out on regular periods of work experience return almost always with feedback that praises their attitude and skills.
It was George Bernard Shaw who taught us that all generalisations are wrong. At the risk of generalising, he was spot-on.
Of course we should identify those students who are letting themselves down. They’ll need good personal skills in any future job.
But we should also actively notice all those young people who are doing these things well.
Unlike Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, we should celebrate a little more and criticise a little less.