Michael Wilshaw addressed the great and the good in Westminster Hall last Thursday morning. As is increasingly the case, the content of his speech made a few headlines. As is always the case, everything that he said left those who actually understand early years and primary education outraged and despairing.
The seas of education have been choppy since May 2010. Right now, with a year to go to the next election, they are positively stormy. As Gove and Truss make policy announcements almost daily – desperate to make their mark, egos running amok – David Laws seems unable to rein them in. And in their midst, Wilshaw, demonstrates an uncanny ability to sound more like a politician than what he actually is, an unelected civil servant charged with a regulatory role.
I printed off the text of Wilshaw’s speech, finding myself intrigued by the depth of consternation his words had caused, as evidenced by my social media feeds and my reading of digital newsprint. What I found in no way surprised me. But boy, am I worried for the condition of early years if his ideas are allowed to flourish. I had so many objections to his pronouncements I found myself having to categorise them. His speech is too lengthy for me to reprint sections here, but I am hoping you’ll skim read his words before proceeding with this post – but even if you don’t I think you’ll be more than able to get the gist of my arguments.
Step in, dear reader, to the crazy, brutal and potentially catastrophic vision of Sir Michael Wilshaw.
Chapter One: In which Michael fails to be evidence-based in his arguments
Wilshaw does actually reference research from time to time. When talking of the enormous learning potential of very young children, he is right to say that the development of the brain structures during the early years represent a period of ‘dramatic potential’ – but many studies have told us how best to promote this potential, and it is not through formalised, structured teaching of the kind we associate with schools.
Later on in his speech he goes on to voice his support for the formalised testing of children as they begin their school careers. I find the lack of research support for this policy decision utterly baffling, and I don’t know anyone in the sector who thinks it is a good idea. But Michael doesn’t trouble himself with such unnecessary detail; ploughing ahead with his belief that it he knows best. Is this, perhaps, because his own organisation’s obsession with measuring the impact schools have upon pupil progress will be made a little easier if there yet another set of data? Just join the dots inspectors, from four, to seven, to eleven. It will save you the trouble of actually trying to get to know the school you are inspecting or the children they are educating. Surely testing four years olds will be time-consuming, stressful for pupils and staff and utterly meaningless. Who you are at 49 months is not at all who you are 58 months; why on earth would you think that a coherent set of useful data can be extracted thus? What is so wrong in allowing skilled practitioners to complete the EYFS profile and use that as evidence of where children are at?
Chapter Two: In which Michael uses terminology that makes the blood of right-thinking folk run cold
Wilshaw works hard to persuade us that his use of the word ‘teach’, in relation to our very youngest children, is the exact right one – and that anyone who resists its use is, by implication, as ‘woolly’ as the enemies of promise and Marxist blob that Gove once described. Early years practitioners and professionals have generally used a different language, one of promoting development or progress, of facilitation, of creating enabling environments and building relationships. They know that there is an element of ‘teaching’ in what they do, but they resist the description of what they do as purely ‘teaching’, because research shows them that their pedagogy must be different to the one employed by those who work with children over five, precisely because their ‘pupils’ are very different creatures. He can go ahead and call what they do whatever he likes, but the early years community knows what it is that it does, and ‘teach’ does not wholly describe it.
School Readiness. These two words now have the capacity to make clear thinking individuals look up the skies and metaphorically weep for the generation who are now the subject of this ideological narrow-mindedness. He argues that early years settings aren’t clear about what school readiness means. Far from it. Most early years practitioners are acutely aware of the gap between the skills and understanding that they know their charges need to survive the transition to the primary system, and what they believe is the correct set of learning experiences for those children. They live this tension day in, day out. I’m not the first person to say it, but when are we going to start talking about making schools children-ready, and not the reverse? When is he going to understand, what so many well-informed researchers, academics, and professionals from the world over know, that school is better later and play should go on for longer? All he will do, in pressing forward this skewed agenda, is create more failure, more disillusionment. Thousands of children, who for whatever reason (be it they are summer-born, or not possessed of learning styles that incline them towards formal learning) won’t get the hang of school, or keep up with their class peers, and will struggle. He won’t narrow the gap, he will widen it.
Chapter Three: In which Michael oversteps his remit and demonstrates a woefully inadequate understanding of the early years sector
No-one would argue with Wilshaw, as he despairs at the inequalities that persist in our society – but let’s remember he is in a trusted position of influence as a regulator, no more no less. Furthermore, there are elements of his speech that show he hasn’t done his homework.
If you are going to talk to knowledgeable people, you should bring yourself up to speed with at least the basics of their field of influence. So when he talks of children under five attending wraparound care or before and after school clubs, he demonstrate ignorance of his own organisation’s processes. These types of provision are not able to care for such young children by virtue of the regulation preventing them from doing so. Similarly, he is incorrect to suggest that local authorities do not use the quality of provision as a determinant in allocating funded places. Generally, local authorities do not allocate funding for two-year old places to settings that have been judged less than Good by Ofsted.
Some of his arguments are simply unfathomable. Why would a school be interested in the outcome of the two year old check in our present system, for example, as he suggests? It is as if he thinks that early years providers are entirely unable to promote a child’s development in the intervening years, that we should assess their abilities at two and then wait for the school to do the rest at post five?
Similarly unfathomable is his absolute faith in the capacity of schools to absorb this substantial new remit into their day to day operations. Do we ask primary teachers who specialise in Key Stage 1 to make a sudden shift into teaching GCSE History? No, we don’t. We accept that the requisite skills and professional knowledge to carry out these differing tasks may not overlap in one single teacher. So why does Wilshaw assume that a primary trained teacher will suddenly know how to properly promote the development of two year olds? I’ve seen pre-schools absorbed into schools, their managers made redundant, and the Foundation Stage teacher attempt to plan for both sets of children, with the help of teaching assistants. It hasn’t worked well…
Chapter Four: In which Michael betrays an underlying obsession with boosting the economy, at the expense of a true understanding of childhood
Wilshaw references the economic benefits to society of improving the educational attainment of our young people frequently. That’s fair enough, I suppose – we live in a global marketplace, and we have to sink or swim, so they tell us. He talks of the research done by The Sutton Trust into what we need to do to ensure social mobility is translated into economic reality. None would argue with the rigour with which The Sutton Trust put their papers together – but is it acceptable to keep on arguing that we will suffer as a global economic power to the exclusion of all other, more humanitarian, motivations for making improvements to the life chances of the next generation?
At no point does Wilshaw acknowledge the importance of secure attachments and consistent care to children under five. (We could put this down to his failure to read relevant research.) So, while he’s right to say that we need to tackle the funding gap for early years provision, he may well be wrong to argue that 15 hours may not be enough for our most disadvantaged children. These children need consistent, warm but authoritative parenting, more than they need somewhere to go between 9am and 3pm. Freeing their parents from child caring responsibilities so they can go out and do many more hours at minimum wage, and then return home exhausted to put their child to bed is not, necessarily, the best solution for all.
Chapter Five: In which Michael refuses to acknowledge the part he has played in undermining the early years sector
I would agree with Wilshaw when he states that the variety of provision in early years is confusing. What I resent is the implication that those in early years could have done anything to clear up this confusion in the last 30 years or so. No government has grasped the nettle; early years should be funded and supported in the same way that post-five education has been for so, so long. In short, all efforts to professionalise and standardise have been undermined by the failure of successive governments to see the value in provision for children under five. For me there is deep irony in how much the politicians talk now of the gap that must be narrowed – they have done so much to allow it to develop in the first place.
If, as Wilshaw says, it is difficult to find a high quality place with a childminder, pre-school or nursery, then he needs to look to his own organisation for the answer. Successive governments have left the whole early years sector despondent, under-valued and unable to gain any equality of status with others in the educational field. Every time the framework is revised, a further tranche of dedicated practitioners leave, worn too thin by the unsatisfactory working conditions and regulatory burden. So, while he is right to argue that we must make it easier for all families to find the provision that meets their needs, lets also make sure that all provision operates within parameters that the evidence shows us works best for our children, and is freed up to make good decisions about how to best meet the needs of the children in its care.
Beyond this, and if I had slaved away in the early years sector over the last decade, I would feel pretty insulted by his assertion that Ofsted’s attempts to persuade the sector to focus on learning have been only partially successful. Ofsted is the regulator (I say it again!) not the body charged with shaping policy; Ofsted’s job has been to ensure the sector meets the requirements set by government. Nothing else.
Towards the end of his speech Wilshaw talks of why we cannot rely on the early years sector, in its present form, to deliver what our youngest children need. He rides roughshod over the professional pride of many in the sector. If there aren’t enough of the right type of providers, Michael, why not? Because successive governments have refused to acknowledge, through pay, conditions and sustainability measures, the work the sector does. Every new inspection framework results in more longstanding practitioners giving up and moving on. This isn’t just sorting the wheat from the chaff, it is throwing out many good ‘ears’ too. They leave because they feel undervalued, underpaid and overwhelmed. He also bemoans the lack of inspiring leadership in early years. Err, hello Michael? You get out what you put in, and too many before you have failed to put in anything much at all. The fact is that there are many, many astonishing good leaders in early years, but in order to continue in their jobs, they have to be vocationally dedicated in the extreme. They have to accept that they are unlikely to be recognised by their local community, or society at large, for the supreme good that they do. They do what they do for not much more than minimum wage, Michael – are you as vocationally dedicated?
Finally, Wilshaw’s extended description of the family from the estate needs unpicking. He says that parents ‘from the estate’ don’t know how to find good quality childcare, but they do know how to find their local school, walk into it, and ask the questions they need answers to. I say he doesn’t really understand the people he is talking about. Putting to one side his somewhat offensive categorisation of a certain kind of family, let’s be honest here. There are some for whom school was an entirely negative experience, and the chances of these particular people seeing a school as a place of help and support, now that they are parents themselves, are close to zero. In contrast, the warm, non-judgemental welcome that those same people often receive at a children’s centre, or a charity-run pre-school, can do much to realign that family’s relationship with outside agencies.
Chapter Six: In which Michael overstates the role of Ofsted
In the middle of his speech Sir Michael talks of how poor data prevents families and others from making good choices, and prevents accountability. If we do have poor data – and I think the authors of EPPE, the CPR and the Nutbrown Review might have something to say about that comment – then perhaps Ofsted itself is to blame. You only find out what you want to know if you ask the ‘right’ questions, seek out the ‘right’ facts.
He criticises the focus on compliance, rather than on the quality of educational delivery – but compliance matters a lot in early years. An eighteen-month old cannot tell you whether or not she is being well-cared for. A three year old cannot articulate the extent to which they know they are being properly safeguarded. To ‘streamline’ regulation so that schools can more easily take on the care of two to five year olds feels like the slipperiest of slopes. When Blair’s government brought the regulation of early years into Ofsted it made a degree of sense. Local authorities varied enormously in the standards they applied to the childcare within their boundaries, but the establishment of Ofsted Early Years inspection in 2001 ended such inconsistency. Wilshaw seems keen to reintroduce local variances, by allowing schools to take on the care of younger children with less regulatory scrutiny. Wilshaw risks Gove’s wrath by insisting that academies and free schools are subject to the same inspection regime as maintained schools. So why is he prepared to tolerate a similar inconsistency in allowing schools an easier route to registration for under-fives? Who will speak for the safety and wellbeing of our youngest children if he is allowed to push his ideas through to the statute books?
Wilshaw is ultimately right to say that the gap between the most and least advantaged is not closing. Where he parts company from most right-thinking people is in believing that educational organisations – schools, early years providers – can fix all of society’s ills in this regard. He’s right to say that there is ‘nothing inevitable about the link between poverty and failure’. What the early years and teaching professions would say in return is that they alone cannot solve the inherent issues that lie at the root of such inequality. In an infamous Morecambe and Wise sketch, Eric’s concert pianist attempts Grieg’s piano concerto, while Andre Previn conducts the orchestra. Previn, his tone incredulous at the noise he is hearing, eventually asks Eric what he is playing, adding ‘you’re playing all the wrong notes!’. Eric’s retort? ‘I’m playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order.’ Delivered as only he could deliver lines, we still, forty years or so later, fall about with laughter. But Michael, hear our heartfelt plea: You are playing all the wrong notes, in the wrong order. And we certainly aren’t laughing. Please listen, think, and listen some more. We know the score much better; we’ve played the piece many, many more times than you.