A warped view of education seen through the eyes of Sir Michael Wilshaw

As I sit at my kitchen table after having returned from NEEC 2014 in Nottingham, I do so still with a sense of disbelief at some of the comments made by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector in his speech on Wednesday 20th January 2014. It’s not my intention to carry out a forensic analysis of his whole speech, tempting as that might be, but just to concentrate on some of the quotes that struck a particular chord with me and exemplify how out of touch I believe SMW really is with the world of education in this country, not to mention some of the contradictions present in his speech! For those of you interested in getting a quick overview of some of the key soundbites from his speech, the following BBC article should bring you up to speed.

One of the first comments he made early on in his speech was:

‘We’ve never had a more motivated, more enthused group of young teachers than we have now’. 

I have mixed feelings about what my instinct tells me to write about this as I want to ensure that I’m balanced in my interpretation of the comment and equally don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon. At the same time, it’s important to situate this comment in the context in which it was made (i.e. at the longest running education conference in the country) and by whom it was made (i.e. the grand custodian of education standards). One interpretation of this comment could be that it’s encouraging to hear the Ofsted Chief talk so positively about the motivation and enthusiasm of young teachers as it projects a positive image of the current generation of new entrants to the profession. Whether this is based on a personal assumption of SMW or feedback from his own inspectors about the time they spend in schools and colleges during inspections is difficult to decipher. However, given the way in which he seems to pay little attention to the views of the profession or the findings of contemporary educational research into the experiences of newly qualified teachers, I’m inclined to believe that it must be largely a personal assumption, which brings me onto another of his comments.

‘Teachers now have more freedom and autonomy to teach than ever before’.

This was the comment that had me gasping in disbelief more than any other and it was the one on which I challenged him at the conference. I made the point that this could only be a personal assumption as it not only flies in the face of what current research tells us about the working lives of teachers, but also what teachers themselves (from NQTs to the very experienced) say about what it means to be a teacher. And that is that whilst it is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating and privileged jobs to have, that positive aspect is being continually squeezed and compromised by the systemic pressures that have come to dominate the everyday work of teachers. What I mean by these ‘systemic pressures’ is the continuous ratcheting up of performance management systems that have come to be the key drivers in the work of schools and colleges. These endemic systems have given rise to a culture of perpetual surveillance and agencies like Ofsted have played a key role in making this happen. As Michel Foucault reminds us in his famous work Discipline and Punish,  ‘Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action’ (1977 p. 201). For me the term ‘Ofsted ready’ has become the modern-day epitome of Foucault’s words!

SMW then went onto claim that the reason for the high dropout rate of teachers within the first five years of having qualified was due to having been inadequately prepared to deal with bad behaviour in schools by their teacher trainers. Thus those responsible for training teachers are to blame for this high level of attrition. Hold on a minute Sir Michael, is this the very same group of people who played a key role in nurturing the most enthusiastic and motivated generation of teachers we’ve ever had??? No contradiction there then! Not only is his claim about the causes of the exodus of teachers reminiscent of what you might expect a character from a Dickens’ novel to come out, but it is also a factual inaccuracy. Look at the evidence Sir Michael. As a starting point, look at some of the recent Ofsted reports into ITE provision and the exit surveys of those leaving the profession.

Yes, behaviour management is an ongoing challenge facing all teachers in the early years of their careers. But even when I look back on the secondary PGCE I did over 20 years’ ago now and acknowledge that it was, on the whole, a very poor course that did little to prepare me for the world of teaching, I don’t think any amount of preparation or training in behaviour management would have equipped me for dealing with some of the students I worked with in my first two years. I learnt behaviour management largely on the job, observing and listening to my colleagues along with trying out a range of different strategies.

No, Sir Michael, the real answer as to why there is such a high dropout rate amongst teachers in the early years of their career cannot be attributed to inadequate preparation in behaviour management but lies much closer to home. It is because the very ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ that you alluded to in your speech has been and continues to be eroded by a punitive inspection system like the one you are responsible for leading.

Never before has there been such a pressing need to re-establish professional trust and autonomy for teachers to allow them to take ownership of their professional learning and development rather than having priorities imposed on them by others. What teachers need is more collaboration and less coercion when it comes to interventions in classrooms and a greater trust in their professionalism and professional capabilities to steer change and improvement. So Sir Michael, if you want to make a real and sustained difference to the quality of teachers and the learning experience in schools, I suggest you start by working WITH the profession rather than against it.


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I work as a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. Prior to this I was the co-founder of the Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (CRADLE) and a principal lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Wolverhampton. I have worked as a teacher, teacher educator, head of department and educational researcher for over 20 years in colleges, schools and universities in England, Mexico and Spain. Much of my work and research is rooted in the field of teacher education, particularly exploring the relationship between education policy and the continuous professional development of teachers. I am well known for my work on classroom observation and am regarded as one of the first educational researchers in the UK to investigate and critique the practice of graded lesson observations. I am also the author of the 'Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning' (Abingdon: Routledge 2014). Qualifications: PhD in Education (University of Warwick); MA in Applied Linguistics & ELT (King's College London); PGCE in Spanish & ESL (UCE Birmingham), RSA DipTEFLA (King's College London & British Council Mexico City); BA (Hons) in French & Spanish (University of Southampton)

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