More on Ofsted, Thanks to Will Hutton

In today’s Observer Will Hutton published a strange and disappointing column on the subject of education, with particular reference to achievement, attainment, Ofsted and the new Chief Inspector. Whilst reading these extracts bear in mind the idea of a “no-excuses culture” goes way back to the era of David Blunkett and Chris Woodhead. Bear in mind also that the teaching profession tends to become ‘defensive’ whenever it feels itself under attack:

Teachers, stop being so defensive. It’s time to embrace the no-excuses culture

Instead of bridling about criticism, teachers should take on board Michael Wilshaw’s plans for improving schools

The army of teachers’ critics too rarely acknowledges the many heartbreaking barriers to teaching well in so many of our schools – the children’s disillusion and poverty, endemically disrupted classes and the recognition that however hard a pupil works he or she will never get a good job locally. The pupils and their schools are trapped.

But yet. To concede everything to broader economic and social forces is a counsel of despair. There are examples of brilliant schools in these areas; a well-led, dynamic school can become a site of hope and the unleashing of possibility. If the depressed parts of Britain are to break out of their spiral of decline, we have to start somewhere.

So it was good to hear Sir Michael Wilshaw, the incoming head of Ofsted, announcing in his first major speech last week that he would not tolerate the educational mediocrity that so besets Britain. Too many schools had been labelled as “outstanding” by Ofsted when they were not; he wanted outstanding to mean just that.

Wilshaw’s aim is to create a “no-excuses” culture and he sees the indispensable means as stronger leadership in schools. Heads and their senior team should show their passion and commitment to teaching in everything they say or do, he said. They must be committed to professional development; they must ensure that performance management robustly rewards those who teach well. Equally, they must make sure something is done about those who consistently underperform.

Some individual heads rallied to his side, but then came the ritualistic condemnation from the teachers’ unions. Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, said Wilshaw “is trashing the school system, trashing the reputation of Ofsted… this is puerile game-playing at the expense of schools, their teachers and pupils”. Even Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of ASCL (which represents many heads), declared that Wilshaw’s comments were “demoralising dedicated professionals… this is no way to improve our education system, nor to treat hard-working professionals”.

So the battle lines are drawn. Keates and Trobe do speak for many teachers and heads who feel beleaguered and misunderstood. But defensive aggression in protection of the status quo, the default mode of so much contemporary trade unionism, will not advance the teachers’ cause, the cause of education or the interests of their pupils. I know I dream, but imagine if the teachers’ collective response had been to welcome Wilshaw’s call to arms; to say that they agreed that it was a disgrace that thousands of our schools produced such woeful results; wanted to work wholeheartedly to improve leadership and agreed fully that good teachers should be acknowledged and rewarded; and action would be taken against poor performers. The nation would have applauded.

They could then have built on that bridgehead of support to argue that teachers could not fight this battle alone; that to inspire kids while doing so little to create possibilities for them once they leave school is betrayal; that to try and make any progress in the face of swingeing cuts in capital budgets and frozen teacher pay is to ask close to the impossible. They would do their part, but others should do theirs. In this way, teachers could transform themselves into the formidable leaders of a coalition pressing for broad-based economic and social improvement.

There will be teachers and heads who are desperate to open up such a national conversation, but their voices are drowned out. The heart of the problem is that teachers as a profession are reluctant to embrace the idea that there must be rewards and consequences for good and bad performance – the operational guts of what Wilshaw proposes when he argues for a no-excuses, performance-orientated culture in schools.

It is understandable why teacher unions are so resistant to performance-management: the doctrine is that teaching is a vocation and every teacher wants to do a good job. Performance-management is divisive. But yes, while everyone might want to do a good job, not everyone can or does. Not to manage performance is itself an extraordinary statement; it means giving up on trying to establish a framework for what good might look like and means selling the pass to state education’s many enemies. Education, like the country, is at a crossroads. Having hundreds of underperforming schools is unacceptable. Wilshaw is right, and while his proposed changes won’t alone do the job, they are a start. And they should be backed.

It’s difficult to know where to begin in order to engage with this article. 3Di posted the following comment beneath Will’s column:

I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of Will Hutton’s columns and books for over twenty years, and regard him as second to none in terms of his grasp of economic, financial, industrial and social policy.

[Note to Sir Michael Wilshaw: see what I did there? Begin by acknowledging the very real strengths and achievements of the person or people you’re about to criticise.]

I would guess, however, that Will has neither taught in, nor tried to manage, any kind of state school. If this is so, he would do well to take note of the many thoughtful comments on this thread, particularly those posted by ChrisMcCabe, yamaneko, kernowken, davric, garmisch, DaveAboard, seeoou, kernowken, Rochdalelass, AnotherAngel, calumlaw, PennyCrayon, Mendocino, Trogopterus, DavidPavett, YorkshireRelish and TheGreatRonRafferty.

The new head of Ofsted has been highly successful (along with his highly successful senior management team) in managing two secondary schools which have achieved the rating of ‘outstanding’. For this he (and they) deserve enormous praise.

This achievement does not, however, entitle him to behave disrespectfully towards hundreds of fellow teachers and headteachers whom he’s never actually met. He’s said that over 5,000 headteachers are ‘inept’. He’s also said he’s proud of his ‘Dirty Harry’ image, which he told the Commons education committee “could be useful in raising school standards”.

Last week’s Observer carried an editorial about the difference between education and mere schooling. Will Hutton could perhaps reflect on whether he, and Sir Michael, are in favour of education or schooling. The countries who do best in the international league tables are firmly in the education camp – they do not need bodies like Ofsted to set professional or pedagogical standards, and have not turned their schools into results factories that focus on quotas and targets rather than the real educational needs of their pupils.

I’m guessing that neither Will Hutton nor the head of Ofsted (when do they ever?) have any experience of teaching or managing in an early years setting or in a Primary school. If they had then they might be a lot more inclined to see the role of schools as far greater than ‘driving up standards’, ‘raising attainment’, and all those other worn-out cliches beloved of those who care little or nothing about all the other aspects of achievement – loving learning for its own sake, enjoyment of school, becoming an independent learner, development of resilience, creativity, imagination and problem-solving abilities, development of personal, social and emotional intelligence – and all the other attributes necessary for living and working in the 21st Century.

Nobody wishes to inflict poor schools and poor teachers on pupils. Chris Woodhead tried, unsuccessfully, to scold and belabour the teaching profession into improvement. Test and exam scores HAVE improved – thanks to the efforts of the teaching profession. For this they should receive thanks, further encouragement and more enlightened leadership. Sir Michael is making a rod for his own back if he carries on in the way he’s begun. He doesn’t need Will Hutton to encourage him to do so.

MrsEAdams also commented:

Before calling fo the performance management of teachers, some simple research would have told Mr Hutton tat this has been statutory for some time. Teachers are required to undergo an annual performance management process which evaluates their performance against previously agreed objectives and the national standards relating to their role/level of seniority. Failure to meet expectations prevents teachers moving up the ‘spine point’ (i.e. their pay) and can trigger capability proceedings which, if the supportive measures put in place fail to secure improvement, can ultimately lead to dismissal. Before there are the howls of ‘but hardly any teachers are sacked for incompetence’, most teachers see the writing on the wall and move out of the profession before things reach the ultimate conclusion. Of course this leads to howls of ‘too many teachers are leaving after public money is wasted on training them’, so you can’t win. And whether this performance management is a good thing, and whether it is done well, are of course, a different argument.

Ideally, of course, teacher training institutions would be able to tell who would be able to perform outstandlingly and consistently in the face of violent parents; children with chaotic family lives who arrive at school unfed and with insufficient sleep; several different first languages and a range of special needs in each class; constant pillorying from the media, the public and the government; frequent and ill-thought out changes to the curriculum etc. And HEIs do require that applicants have spent some time in schools before applying, but not all can cope with the reality in practise.
I am not a teacher, but know several well and have never seen morale so low. I fail to see how that helps them perform well or to meet the needs of our children.

Natacha‘ pitched in with this glorious polemic:

Response to Mendocino, 12 February 2012 12:27AM
Absolutely. Ofsted and politicians have been banging on about “bad teachers” since the late 1980s. This is nothing new.

I’m surprised at Will Hutton for joining with this badly-researched Daily Mail crap. I normally read Will Hutton’s articles because they are well-written, well researched and offer a new and interesting point of view which illuminates a subject in a new way. This is just churnalism of the worst kind. Indeed there is a pattern for articles like this which seems to vary little from Daily Mail to Telegraph to Sun…

1. Talk about Oxbridge entry, as if that is the only worthwhile yardstick by which to judge successful schools (newsflash Hutton, there are plenty of great Universities out there other than Oxbridge)

2. Blame the Unions (easy, an old favourite, makes them appear dinosaurs, standard fayre, yawn)

3. Talk about “no excuses” “poor performance” with no statistics to support your contention (and as the late Christopher Hitchens said “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”)

4. Suggest that there should be a dialogue. (of course teachers know what “dialogue” means, it means other people shouting at them and then not listening to their concerns. If you wanted a serious dialogue Will, you would talk to the unions, they have always done very well at representing the views of me and my colleagues.)

5. Come out with something using words like “tough”

This is nothing more than copying the unilluminating crap you could read any day in any other paper written by any substandard hack.

Every time journalists start open season on teachers, supported by yet another robotic head of Ofsted whose wizzard wheeze is to “slag off teachers” , churning out the same old stuff they have always done, it puts people off becoming teachers. As a result of this, there will be less competition to become teachers and the quality of the new intake goes down…which results in more “bad teachers”.

Will, if you had done even a tiny bit of research, and even talked to a few teachers before writing this drivel, you might have found out that there are alternatives to the Ofsted/performance-related-pay system which has so comprehensively failed over the last quarter of a century.

In Finland, there is NO Ofsted and NO performance-related-pay. Finland is consistently at the top of the PISA world rankings in education. They achieve this by a very high level of training for teachers which filters out those not up to the job before they get into the classroom, and an inclusive approach for all children, rather than our divisive system.

I’m afraid Will that your usual high standards of journalism have dropped below an acceptable level for me as a Guardian/Observer reader. You are simply following the pack of media hacks going on about schools in the same old predictable way they have been for decades. If there were an Ofsted for journalists (and I think it would be great for people like you to experience an Ofsted, because you clearly haven’t the slightest idea about what one is) you would be in “Special Measures” or “competency”.

If I wanted to read badly-researched, moronic drivel like this I would read the Daily Mail. There is a real story here about how the education system is failing children, if you bothered to do a bit of research instead of churnalism.

“Must do better.” #fail


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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