Was Wilshaw right about secondary school failure?

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Michael Wilshaw’s Christmas present to the nation – that one third of secondary schools were failing to improve, and some were even backsliding – came as a bit of a jolt. After all the upward exam trends of recent years and the constant release of stories by the government on how Academy status had ushered in a new era of excellence, this was a ‘corrective’ movement, as they say in financial markets.

Less than inspiring school leaders were the cause, Wilshaw claimed, although he could have added that by lifting the goalposts and moving them further along the field, a larger number of schools were always going to find themselves in the drop zone.

The government would have found the statement as equally sour as school leaders, for Wilshaw also said that it had made no difference whether the schools were Academies, Free Schools or state schools. Failure to improve was evident across the board and much more marked in secondary than in primary. Indeed, many of the advances and innovations made in the primary sector were being squandered by secondary schools.

All of which begs a lot of questions left unanswered by simply blaming secondary headteachers. The first question is why, after all these years of Ofsted and the National College for Teaching and Leadership both spending billions doing what they do, are things still so bad? The second might be why, after spending billions on the introduction of Academies and Free schools, are these also languishing in the 30 per cent ‘critical zone’?

One insight is from a brilliant article in this issue from Lisa Jane Ashes. She was given the task – inspired by a directive from Ofsted – that reading, writing, communication and maths be planned collaboratively across the curriculum. She was totally committed to the task – after all, England came 22nd out of 24 of the top industrialised countries for literacy and numeracy, so there was a lot to go for. She was though, totally shocked at the deadening, obstructive hand of subject departments on any innovative or ‘joined-up’ teaching: ‘Once classroom doors were shut, it seemed that teachers may as well have worked at different schools, in different continents (despite being responsible for the same students’ success or failure), the gulf that was created was so big.’

This so vividly shows how teachers operate in atomised cells within subject bunkers in our secondary schools – how their creativity and engagement in broader educational issues languishes when isolated teachers are drilled to deliver curriculum milestones. Gove’s new emphasis on traditional subject teaching and facts, rather than the process of learning and acquiring transferable skills has just made the situation worse.

More creative approaches to curriculum delivery come from collegiate working and this is easier to effect within primaries, which are smaller and not burdened by subject nationalism.

This remarkable lack of creativity in the way our schools do business, in an otherwise very creative and innovative culture, was the main theme of this year’s Whole Education Conference in London. It was inspiring to see so many teachers and school leaders getting together to explore how they could break the mould with new pedagogies and leadership strategies. But it was also profoundly dispiriting to see so many educators responding enthusiastically to ideas about project-based learning, team teaching, oracy, learner-led learning and changing the nature of the school day, as if they were all newly invented! They were around twenty years ago and were in many experimental schools at the beginning of LMS (Local Management of Schools).

It revealed how far that creativity and innovation was driven back by oppressive regimes like Ofsted, the micro-management of Labour and the authoritarian destructives of Gove. But it was also squashed by the heads and their organisations being too compliant with policy makers who thought they knew best. The only response to this, as Dr Kevan Collins, chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said at the conference, was a research-based profession that had the courage to stand up for evidence-based practice. It’s all been said before, not least by Creative Teaching and Learning, but it’s as far off as it has ever been.

One small start might be to make CPD compulsory for teachers as it is in other professions, and that a license to teach would be dependent on this continuing yearly CPD. At the moment, its absence simply gives teaching a license to be a learning resistant profession.

Creative Teaching & Learning