Postman Pa – Sir Michael Wilshaw’s father never had it so good!


COMMENT – In all the dreams I’ve had about school since I stopped working in one, I’ve never usually been the headteacher.  This is a fact which, were I to go in for psychotherapy, would probably result in four years of regular, expensive sessions, only to deliver the interpretation ‘You never much liked being a headteacher, did you?’

It was, therefore, to my great surprise that I awoke this week from a dream in which I was most definitely the headteacher.  Unfortunately, I was the headteacher teaching a lesson which was unplanned, entirely awful and in which the all-male class of year 11 pupils at one point went out of the room and returned with their dinners, all whilst I attempted to teach them what I think was an English lesson (it’s hard to tell – it really was dire).

I tell you about this dream – which must rate, for teachers, right up there with the ones about being naked in public or on the toilet with no door – because sitting at the back, throughout the whole, sorry episode, was an Ofsted inspector and I woke up with an audible gasp for air, my heart hammering for quite some time.

It can be no coincidence whatsoever that I had this nightmare soon after reading a series of articles about Sir Michael ‘I’m hard, me’ Wilshaw’s recent pronouncements fromOfstedTowersconcerning teachers, morale and stress.  Sir Michael could only have been more provocative to the teaching profession as a whole if he’d simply said, ‘Come over here if you think you’re hard enough’, rather than ‘”If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.”

Well, speaking for myself and what I believe to be the views of many currently serving and excellent heads, Mikey, any head who thinks low staff morale is a good thing should not only be thoroughly ashamed of himself (and I’m keeping it at ‘himself’, because he’s the only head I’ve heard say it), but should be immediately dismissed as not fit to hold public office at taxpayers’ expense.

Wilshaw’s series of provocative remarks, especially his claim that ‘real stress’ was the kind his postman father must have felt whilst trying to support his family in the fifties and sixties, put me in mind of the Python ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch.  Fortunately, as my Dad is a Yorkshireman, a former coal miner and probably of a similar age to Wilshaw’s father – he was certainly working night shifts six days a week in the fifties and sixties – I decided to compare the relative stress involved in their respective jobs.  Strangely, whilst I will concede that carrying a heavy bag, getting wet in the rain and risking occasional attacks by angry Jack Russell terriers might have given Wilshaw senior a bit of heartburn, I decided that descending a mile underground and hewing coal whilst listening to pit props creaking under the weight of millions of tons of compacted earth, all the time keeping an eye on the methane gas indicator lest you be blown to pieces, might just have given my Dad the edge in the stress competition.   My Dad only dreamed of being a postman, instead of paying for the privilege of going to work miles down a hole filled with mud and being thrashed senseless every day by the pit manager, etc.

Put simply, Wilshaw has decided that he’s going to leave his mark on the history of Ofsted and the way to do it is to turn it back into the punishment squad that Chris Woodhead never quite managed to create.  Why else am I hearing stories daily, from friends still in headship, of schools which for quite some years have been on the cusp of ‘outstanding’ during Ofsted inspections, now barely scraping a ‘satisfactory’ – and remember, Sir Michael ‘no job’s as hard as being a postie’ Wilshaw has deemed ‘satisfactory’ as the equivalent to ‘something nasty someone might tread in’.

One such report that I heard earlier this week was of a headteacher being told by Ofsted inspectors, when she asked why the excellent behaviour in her school didn’t rate the highest grade, that the children’s behaviour was ‘self-managed’ – as if that had happened purely by accident, nothing to do with staff following behaviour management systems consistently, building good relationships with pupils and even teaching consistently good lessons.

Elsewhere, writing on the Local Schools Network website about a talk given by Philip Jarrett, Ofsted’s lead English inspector, Francis Gilbert reported that the ‘pace and challenge’ which was so long beloved of Ofsted inspectors intent on finding something to criticise during lesson observations is now likely to gain a teacher an unsatisfactory judgment.  Gilbert reports that teachers present complained that Ofsted inspectors and advisors had for years “insisted that the “all-singing, all-dancing” lesson was the one that would get them a great grade in a lesson observation.”  Mr Jarrett said that this might have been the case, but now inspectors wished to see children having time to write in a sustained fashion and read in depth.

Once I’d recovered from my shock that someone had finally realised that shifting children along from task to task at a speed that makes their noses bleed doesn’t give them time to achieve anything, let alone think about what they’re meant to be learning, I thought about the thousands of teachers who were not present at this talk.  Has anyone mentioned it to them, or are they still spending hours every night planning out multi-part lessons in minute detail?

The expression we’ve often used in schools when talking about successive governments changing the rules, initiatives and policies on education has usually been ‘moving the goalposts’.  I’ve decided that this is too hackneyed now and that we need a metaphor more appropriate and fitting, especially where Ofsted and its opinionated head, Sir Michael ‘So hard I make Woodhead look fluffy’ Wilshaw, are concerned.  After some thought, I’ve decided that the most apposite expression would be ‘Changing the postcodes’ – that would stress a postie out no end, wouldn’t it?

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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