Play the accordion with Sir Michael Wilshaw

Est. read time: 9 min

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, is passionately committed to closing the gap between high performing schools and those struggling to deliver meaningful and saleable schooling outcomes to children. He rightly identifies school leadership as a key factor in this. But, he appears to want to widen an already existing and pernicious knowledge and skills gap within the membership of governing bodies in the very attempt to raise school standards and narrow the achievement gap. Clearly, one of his lesser known abilities is his prowess with the accordion.

Ofsted's channel on YouTube (

Ofsted’s channel on YouTube (

There is though a certain logic in Wilshaw’s position. If the nation’s schools are increasingly multimillion enterprises run by magnates or entities capable of putting up a couple million pounds of their own to be matched by 15 to 30 times that from the public purse while they retain control of the lot and are answerable to no one but themselves, then surely the composition of the corporate boardroom (the non-executive directors) must match up to the task of ensuring that the enterprise produces value for money and could beat off the competition.

The ordinary parent, shopkeeper, grassroots football coach or bus driver cannot be assumed to have the knowledge, understanding, skills or social and cultural capital to monitor or direct what the captains of that marketized schooling industry do, far less the temerity to hold them to account.

It is perfectly logical for Wilshaw to suggest that: “For example, all large and medium-sized companies could insist that their senior and middle managers join the governing bodies of local schools. I believe Rolls-Royce strongly encourage their managers to do this.”

Where are large and medium-sized companies to be found in the ‘local’ areas where many of the nation’s children receive their schooling, whether in rural or urban areas? How many of those senior and middle managers send their children to ‘local’ schools?

Presumably, school children and their parents in areas where there is little employment and a panoply of social challenges should feel privileged to know that managers who had the option of buying properties near high performing schools and whose children would never have to mix with theirs, are socially committed enough to come down-market and help raise standards in their struggling school. Indeed, they should feel so honoured that they would not dare make comparisons between the financial and material resources available to the managers’ children’s schools at the expense of their own. No doubt, they could be expected to take comfort from the supposition that it is in order to displace such invidious comparisons that Michael Gove wants every school to become an academy.

Empowering governors and parents

When I was Director of Education in the London Borough of Hackney in the 1990s, then one of the poorest boroughs in Western Europe, I got the elected members of Hackney Council to commit to providing ‘a good school for every child in every community’. Even then, the gap in knowledge, skills and understanding among some governors as compared to others and the commensurate influence the latter were able to exert over the leadership and direction of their school was all too obvious. The power of social and cultural capital played itself out unapologetically, to the extent that many governors felt cowed, out of their depth and roundly patronized.

Moreover, those who had white collar jobs that allowed them the flexibility to organize their diaries, alter their work schedules and turn up at their school as and when they chose, were in a much better position to influence decisions by joining employment committees, grievance and disciplinary panels, curriculum implementation groups, finance and general purposes committees, etc., than those who dared not take time off work or ask too frequently for leave to attend school meetings about their children’s misdemeanours, far less about the running of the school.

I argued then, especially at a time when the influence of local education authorities was already being displaced by the power of schools to ‘opt of’ of their control and become grant maintained, with more powers accruing to governing bodies, that if the government genuinely wanted to empower governors and parents, it needed to do a number of things. Without those things, ‘parental choice’ was little more than an elaborate con. If those measures I proposed were necessary then, they are even more necessary now that local education authorities and their power to hold schools and their managers to account and guarantee the educational entitlement of all children are virtually a thing of the past.

So, what were those measures?

1. Ensure that every parent with a child in a school had as much right to be nominated and elected to become a governor of that school as any other parent and that that right was upheld;

2. Ensure that the mechanisms for recruiting members of governing bodies were such that headteachers or existing governors could not capriciously exclude others from joining or conspire to get rid of those who asked ‘awkward’ questions of school managers and their fellow governors;

3. Make it a legal requirement that employers facilitate their staff to act as governors once elected or appointed, in the same way that they are expected not to obstruct anyone from doing jury service; that requirement to extend to attendance at school for additional governance responsibilities such as: governor training, sitting on recruitment and selection panels, attending grievance and disciplinary panels, etc.

4. Ensuring that proper checks and balances were in place to prevent the manipulation of governing bodies by headteachers and school managers, aided and abetted by chairs of governors; (essential, particularly in situations where there is a culture of management bullying to be confronted; the rate of school exclusion to be questioned and challenged; issues of gender, disability, race, etc. and the institutional culture surrounding them to be addressed);

5. Ensuring that governing bodies have the information, knowledge, understanding and skills to hold school managers to account for evidence of compliance with employment law and with equality and human rights legislation, as well as for building and sustaining a culture of equity and inclusion in the learning community;

6. Ensuring that the governing body did not focus mainly if not exclusively on test and examination results as evidence of school performance, but had due regard to the success the school was having in supporting the development of children as social beings with the life and social skills and the values that make them fit for living in civil society and contributing to the economy and to society;

Wilshaw upbraided some governors for spending time “looking at the quality of lunches and not enough on maths and English”. Wilshaw sees school lunches as a ‘marginal’ issue. It surely is not fanciful to argue that if schools spent more time making sure that children ate the right things in school, they might just save themselves time and grief dealing with behavioural and other problems in the classroom that get in the way of children studying maths and English.

What is entirely missing from Wilshaw’s clutch of measures which he dubbed ‘radical solutions’ is any suggestion of children’s wellbeing and the role of schools in promoting and preserving it and teaching them how to take personal responsibility for it. It is entirely sensible for governors to monitor and seek to influence what the school does in this regard as far as the quality of the lunches it provides or of the lunch packs that children bring in is concerned.

It is becoming more and more commonplace for politicians to trade in an industrial conveyor belt model of schooling and the measurement of schooling outcomes. Schools cater primarily for children, children still in the process of becoming skilled and rounded individuals capable of managing themselves, managing their interactions with others and bringing sound values to bear in those interactions. I have long believed that, spin it however you may, the Alpha and Omega of schooling and education is to humanize society. That is why ignorance is so deadly. Schooling is about developing people, not commercial entities or robots for the workplace.

Widening existing gaps

Wishaw wants his new report card – the school data dashboard – to give information on how well a school is performing in test and exam results, as well as attendance, compared with other similar schools. He talks about the data dashboard enabling governors to know, understand and challenge their schools and argues that those governors who do not would have no excuse.

What is so curious about Wilshaw’s proposals is that he is placing the onus on governors to find out and know those crucial facts about a school, its performance and its culture.Is it not more equitable, just and fair to require headteachers, school managers, executive directors, captains of those public institutions, to routinely provide evidence in an accessible, coherent and systematic way for governors, evidence that can form the core of the business of the governing body?

What good is it to any body of governors to know, after Ofsted has told them and the world, that their school is performing excellently in science but is rubbish at maths? Why can’t the school have a system for reporting to governors on performance in all areas of the curriculum, including the steps school managers and staff are taking to account for and improve upon poor performance? Is that not what is happening already in schools where there is a focus on the quality of teaching and learning and on students’ learning experience?

It is one thing for politicians to focus the attention of the nation on some constricted purpose of schooling and education that serves their neo-liberal, market oriented agenda. It is another thing altogether for a professional educator and head of a school inspection service to expect school governing bodies to focus on that agenda rather than on ensuring that every child receives their educational entitlement and that the governing body itself is inclusive, diverse, and operates in a manner that guarantees the rights of every child, irrespective of their background and their needs.

Play the accordion as he might, Wilshaw’s measures fail to address the core issues bedeviling the schooling system. What is more, if followed, they will lead inexorably to a widening of the gap not only between certain schools and their counterparts and certain student cohorts in those schools and their counterparts, but also between governors of a certain class and income bracket and those with far less financial, social and cultural capital.

From the outset, schooling was designed to maintain social and class divisions in society. It served that purpose a couple centuries ago and it is structured to serve the same purpose now. There are those who argue that we live in a classless and post-racial society and that schooling in this era is designed to reflect that. Would that this convenient and politically expedient construction of reality coincided with the lived experience of black and white working class children, teachers and school governors.

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