Your most influential teacher was probably pretty quirky

Don’t you think? My 3rd year junior school teacher Mr Wardley was all arms and legs and loud expression, but he taught me that it was OK to make ‘knowing stuff’ my aspiration, and I have never forgotten him. My university tutor Michael Passey occupied a room mostly buried under piles of paper and never pronounced my name right in 3 years, but had a sense of well-placed righteous indignation when talking about human rights and social justice that is still with me 25 years later.

You get the picture.

I think I have spent the last two days, at the HEA Inspire conference in the company of people who are more, or less, quirky; because, let’s face it, aren’t we all? So Claire McGourlay at the University of Sheffield has bucked the trend and made teaching-only professorship a fine art, by setting her students free to practice from the earliest stages of their legal training, and letting a pro-uno stance (not per una) – doing legal work for those who would otherwise not have it – be her, and her student’s, modus operandii. Twitter could not roll fast enough with the wisdom coming through her words this morning – just check out the hashtag #HEASocSci15 to see what I mean.

With lots of session options on offer after Claire’s key note, I headed in to listen to early-career academic Lewis Simpson from University of Leeds, exploring the use of metaphor in his teaching of Sociology. For Lewis, quirkiness is a backbone of his pedagogy, as he uses chairs or tables, and their component parts, to represent complex theories, and genuinely aims to be “as weird as [he] possibly can”. I quite fancy being in Lewis’ lectures; I reckon his teaching would be big on ‘rememberability’ and low on Hancock-faced boredom – and it was he who had us pondering the relative necessity for quirkiness in our educators. Next up, Alan Hanna from Queens University Belfast described bringing the trading floor inside his institution, so that his business students understand the challenges of making other people’s money grow in a real-world way. It seems so obvious, but I got the impression very few others were doing it, this side of the pond anyway. And Hope Christie and Karl Johnson were driven by personal experience to bring a greater degree of shared anti-worry wisdom to the students on their previous degree courses, as they transitioned into the tough final year. All of their papers, and the many, many others on offer throughout the conference are available on the HEA conference website shortly.

I was lucky enough to share twenty minutes of my own quirkiness as I delivered a paper – in which I characterise myself as a Street Level Lecturer holding back the tide of performativity agendas and neoliberalisation to keep my relationship with students authentic. That this early-career academic got her paper accepted felt like a great coup – to have had a warm reception, amongst such intense diversity, was even nicer. The individuality of each pedagogue I have met in the last two days leaves me feeling encouraged for the future of HE in the UK, no matter the pressures, the measures, or the Green Paper metrics and rhetoric. It will still be us, standing in front of our classrooms, trying to do our best by our students, for a good while to come.

So, thank you HEA, for the opportunity – and the quirkiness.

Hippos, tweckling and Dame Edna’s glasses (or, what a HEA conference has contributed to my teaching)


This early-career-but-long-in-the-tooth academic has spent her day being inspired by other hard working, highly motivated HE pedagogues (yes, I use that word deliberately – ‘teacher’ or ‘lecturer’ don’t really cover it for me).

Universities have existed in these Isles for a long time, a few hundred years now. During those centuries we’ve picked up a few good ideas about how to transmit knowledge, encourage understanding, inspire criticality. And rather than running out of steam, my day at the HEA conference has confirmed for me my sense that, as a sector, and despite the 21st century pressures we face, we are collectively committed to continuing to find ways to be even better at what we do.

Steve Wheeler has encouraged me to keep on ‘running to catch up’, to grasp the flickering nettle of technology in my classroom and my student’s lives, and recognise the power it has to shape the curricula – no matter what the module handbook says.  I am part of the ‘architecture of participation’ – connected learning experiences in which my students can teach me as much as I can teach them. He’s even given me a new – and powerful word for this: Paragogy. Comfortingly for me, too, whose teaching content is often Early Years, Steve made great use of the still-meaningful work of Vygotsky, and in doing so confirmed my growing sense that much of what I know about how our youngest children learn might also equally apply to my students at the university.

Gill Seyfang from the University of East Anglia has reminded me of the value of humour as a teaching resource. She has embraced comedy in her classroom, and as we fell about laughing at her performance, the real message of her presentation – that emotional engagement = deeper learning – was not lost. Equally powerful, the work being done by Hodda Wassif and Maged Zakher at the University of Bedfordshire in using artefacts in their ‘cultural shoebox’, brought in by students, to kickstart learning conversations really moved me. I teach a module on Childhood in a Changing World, and I minded to try out their technique next week – I’ve promised to report back to them, and they’ve even given me a few cultural objects to get my shoebox started. And thus I present, learning-in-action, almost as I type.

I’ve considered the relevance of screen capture to improve the quality of feedback I give, via the work of Nigel Jones at Cardiff Metropolitan University, as well as gained further insight into the value of classroom flipping with Rick Hayman from Northumbria University. And Elizabeth Malone from Liverpool John Moores has further warmed the cockles of my heart by confirming my sense that all that defines good teaching with our youngest children also applies to our youngest adults – and maturest students. Darren Cooper (of University of Worcester) had me considering the power of video, and Carol Zhang (Royal Agriculture University) was disarming in her honesty – being your truest self in the classroom, and focusing on a pedagogy that prioritises your relationships with your students – well, that works for me.

This Street Level Lecturer (more on this tomorrow!) is new enough to the profession to still feel a little giddy in the company of people who have been at this stuff for a while. Yet, in reality, they are a humbling bunch. They operate in ever-changing institutions, where marketing is now just as important as getting students to grasp theory, and where metrics and measures often run counter to that which would facilitate the most effective teaching. And yet they willingly acknowledge the need to be, at every juncture, what my daughter’s headmaster calls ‘White Haired Radicals’; people who know the rules so well that we know how to break them. They know how to embrace subversion, the disruptive and the new, and reject comfort and complacency, for the sake of their students – and their own sanity. I am proud to be among them – and have much yet to learn.

And the hippos, tweckling and Dame Edna Glasses? Let’s see. Joe Gadzula from the University of Bolton effortlessly applied the metaphor of hippos, and their resistance to being tamed, to the notion that we must all acknowledge our starting point (in research, in writing and in teaching) or it will come and squash us flat. Gill Seyfang had some great props for her students to use, as they got into (theoretical) character and engaged with their learning, said glasses amongst them. And ending where I began, Steve Wheeler acknowledged the power of twitter to bring the world to our handheld, to be ‘CPD personified’, while also suggesting that our students can engage with the world’s collective wisdom as they sit in our lectures, redefining notions of knowledge, and how we acquire it. Though they probably don’t do it in his lectures (my suspicion being that they are rather fun), our students are thus at liberty to challenge our omnipotence with their ‘tweckling’, democratising learning as they tap and swipe.

Let’s (try and) keep up with them.


More tomorrow from the second day of the conference; follow us throughout the day on #HEASocSci15

Are we sitting comfortably? Let’s begin.

3 reasons to go to an academic conference:

  1. A change is as good as a rest. There is something genuinely refreshing about being in a new place, with new people, hearing new things about your discipline – or other people’s disciplines.
  2. You’ll be a better teacher for it. Or lecturer. Or pedagogue. (Delete as you wish). Immersing oneself in the ideas of others is – my intuition tells me – a great way to take back new and better ways of doing things to your own institution.
  3. You might just meet the one. No. I don’t mean the one. I mean that other academic who wants to do research that you also want to do, but is struggling alone, just as you are – doing it together might just be a way to make it actually happen. Collaboration, people – it is the way of things.

As I type, I am living proof of the above. I am in a city I haven’t been to for 25 years (when I came for a University interview, ironically enough) and even before the conference I am attending has started, I’ve met some great people. Their fields don’t much overlap with mine, and their working and studying contexts are also very different, and that is thoroughly refreshing. For the next two days together we are going to listen to a tonne of interesting people speaking with passion about their pedagogical work in institutions up and down the country. I’m going to do my best to give the twitterverse and the blogosphere a flavour of their ideas. Bring it on, good people, bring it on.

You can follow what I am up to by popping back here tomorrow, and by following me on twitter @leoarnawrites, or using the hashtag #HEASocSci15.

On becoming an academic

On becoming an academic….

Between my finger and my thumb, The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it – Seamus Heaney

For this is what I appear to become. This fact became clear, or clearer, last week, when I attended my university’s graduation ceremonies, and an academic conference. It brought a few realisations with it.

Graduation means a lot to the students who participate, and their families watching on. Even though we have shifted from a position of 5% of school leavers going into higher education, to one where around 50% of school leavers do, it is still an ‘individual journey’, a unique moment in the life of the student. The rhetoric of employability screams in student’s ears so much these days that I doubt they stop to think so much about the notion that an education might just be an end in itself. But it is just that, and perhaps at graduation, there is a moment in which to think on that.

To give voice to my teenage self, I did always want to be an academic. My first job after university was in academic social research around children and families, but I lost my way, became disillusioned, and left. I think a slice of (unnecessary) working class modesty had something to do with it, though not all. A sense that I wasn’t clever enough, didn’t belong, had always pervaded, even though no-one else ever said it to me. I have always regretted leaving, but have to hold on to the notion that, without the meanderings of the intervening years, particularly down the rather dull and dimly lit corridors of Ofsted, I would not have found my way back. In essence, those years gave me something to care about – early years – something to champion, something to know.

As I get to know my colleagues, both within my new institution, and the wider academic community via conference attendance, I am forced to acknowledge the variety of approaches towards ‘the academic life’. Even those of us who strive for the moderation of ego via Buddhist principles have to acknowledge that in every professional role there is an opportunity to enjoy status, and its close friend, privilege. Academics are no different. Social science academics – which is how you might best describe me – are no different. They desire impact and recognition, and have done since the days of their godfather, Richard Titmuss, whose mouth was never far from the ear of government. Titmuss set a precedent, and the Blairite government fanned the flames of desire in us; “Come, tell us interesting things, and we’ll let you shape policy and society” they cried. Many of the people I have heard speak in the last few months have achieved those giddy heights, can rest their heads knowing they have been heard by those who count.

So as I step out onto the very crowded stage of social science academia and research, there is a need for me to consider my role. As I sat through plenaries, and workshops and honorary doctorate acceptance speeches last week, I pondered this question. I heard one senior academic describe her deliberate abandonment of status as she participated in action research, got her hands metaphorically dirty, and found out something useful along the way about how children play and the unassessibility of true child-led play. I heard another absorbed in an idiosyncratic preoccupation with the redefinition of otherwise familiar concepts. She spoke in a classically academic way, and I was intrigued, and impressed – but also left wondering what had been added to the body of knowledge that might make a difference to ordinary lives. I found myself leaning towards the example of the first over the second – siding with the notion that an academic life, however rarefied the atmosphere within which it operates, can yet still make a useful contribution to the debates around how best to organise society.

Thus I find myself really wanting to tackle injustice via my work, to really ‘tell it like it is’. To do this academia – and I – need to remain connected to society in a genuine fashion, and pitch our collective wisdom in terms that all can understand. I don’t believe many academics these days live at the top of ivory towers – the reality of university life in England, chasing research grants, and dealing with ever more diverse student cohorts, precludes such an existence. Indeed, universities are themselves an increasing site of policy shift and politicisation. But we need to remain wary of the accusation of ivory-tower residence, and keep our work, and our language, firmly focused on the notion of being accessible, both to our students who carry our messages out into the world of professional practice, and to the wider community.

For me then, a hope of keeping the research work in early years and social policy I do purposeful; not necessarily in the grand way of reaching the ear of the minister, more in the sense of being a common sense exploration of current troubling issues that we could, as a nation, better address. And a hope of keeping the teaching I do ethically located in meeting student need and shaping, for the good, their one-day-to-come practice, rather than aspiring towards some imagined and surreal elevated status that might afford me an invitation to Whitehall. The graduations I attend each year will hopefully serve as a reminder of why I have a job in the first place. And this way, I might – just might – find a way to tackle the injustices endured by British children, through both my words and deeds.

This person

This person tried to bring to an end safe ratios for childminders and nurseries. This person refused to listen to the evidence about school starting age, and subjects English children to the most atrociously inequitable system of results driven schooling in the developed world. This person wrote a primary history national curriculum that is oft described as a pub quiz, and he calls the academics who tried to help him do better ‘marxists’ and enemies of promise’. This person has removed democracy from huge swathes of our education system without a mandate, and handed the responsibility over to private companies with unproven track records. This person relentlessly pursued childcare policies that place stress on parents and children, commodifies childhood. This person let his pal Murdoch design tablets that they can together sell into schools to deliver ever narrower curricula. He told us that some subjects are more important that others, that the only way to teach children to read is via synthetic phonics, and he shouted down a colleague using the phrase ‘yada yada yada’ on national television. This person stops families taking a well-deserved holidays together outside prescribed times of the year. In short, every clear thinking educationalist in Europe, Scandinavia and Australasia has looked at us with incredulity as we allowed this man to govern the schooling of our children for so long. 4 teaching unions carried a vote of no confidence in him. (That’s never happened before.)

England, I know you voted for reasons other than education. I get it, I really do. No politician truly spoke to me about education during the campaigning. But really, is this what we intended? The man who gave the man I describe above a job is back in power without even breaking sweat. The man you voted in saw no reason to stop the man I describe for 4 years; twice as long as any other Education Secretary for nearly 40 years. In fact, he only ousted him when he realised that such policies might cost him the election. People voted for their small businesses. They voted for their hospitals. They voted for their welfare, or for (or against) Europe, or interest rates, their tax bill, and more besides. All very reasonable, rational and sensible. But sadly, I’m not sure anyone (or not enough ‘anyone’s) used their vote in defence of English children. I look at our two tonight asleep in their beds and I feel genuinely fearful for what lies ahead.

Maybe education policy isn’t as important as other stuff. Maybe childcare issues just don’t flick people’s switches. Fair enough. I truly don’t expect everyone to get as hot under the collar as I do about this stuff. But, but…. If we don’t get schooling right, there will be no nurses and doctors, no social carers, no innovators, scientists or researchers, nor any bus drivers, creatives, social workers, supermarket managers….. ad infinitum. If we don’t get childcare right we do lasting harm to children and break their parent’s hearts. I have absolute respect for every person who used their vote in a thoughtful to defend or support any number of causes. But is this really what we meant to do?

Ex Inspectors 4 Early Years

I believe in ground-up democracy. As Richard House has noted this week, the coming together of so many early years professionals from disparate backgrounds, united by concern about the policy direction of the DfE and Ofsted (who, let’s face it, shouldn’t even be making policy) is heartening. It gives those of us desperate for the voice of common sense to be heard in the corridors of power hope. To that end, I have of late been enjoying online discussions with former inspector colleagues. We have moved on to different things, but we keep ourselves up to date with what is happening in the field of early years. We are shocked at the pressures our former colleagues who still inspect are under. We are astonished that Ofsted is attempting to shape policy. We despair the lack of evidence base to the almost daily policy announcements. We, we, we….. well, I could go on, but instead you could 1) follow our new blog 2) chat with us on twitter @ExIs4EYs and 3) give us a like on facebook. We are adding our voice to the online throng. Join us.

The wrong notes in the wrong order

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.