Sir Michael Wilshaw’s Comprehension of the Comprehensive System

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech at the opening of the Sunday Times Festival of Education was somewhat provocative and controversial. Whether this was a deliberate move on his part is debatable. What was clear was that there was inflammatory language used – delivered by a man who is resolute in his mission to ensure that all schools have “academic rigor” as their absolute purpose.

Word Cloud SMW speech

Click here for the whole speech.

Our comments on the speech are as follows.

Firstly, the title of his speech was “Reclaiming Comprehensives”. Precisely who he thinks he’s reclaiming comprehensives from is a genuine question. As we reported in our previous post, he seems to be under the impression that our state secondary schools are awash with child-centred learning, where teachers allow children to study what they choose and where there’s an air of liberalism in every aspect of school life.

“They still indulge in attitudes and practices that are far from exceptional and are a throwback to the 60s and 70s. ‘Informal’ or ‘individualised learning’ is a case in point……..academic rigour is undervalued; basic literacy and numeracy are neglected; subject specialism is relegated in favour of cross-curricula muddle.”

This is simply not the case. There’s a National Curriculum that has to be followed. There are league tables that “force” schools to insist young people take certain subjects, even if it is beyond their ability or their interest. The lack of freedom to study in a particular way is exemplified in Wilshaw’s derogatory terminology, when he stated that cross-curricula teaching was a “muddle”. If there are any schools that manage to have a holistic approach to learning, which includes genuine individualised learning, they are limited and so frequently ridiculed or criticised for being so.

Considering the strait-jackets of bureaucracy that our schools endure, they can only do so much – and that includes the academies, which may be free from the National Curriculum but are still constrained by performance tables. Whilst some offer personalised or active learning and flipped classrooms, the large majority teach the curriculum in a formatted way that has been around for generations. There may be new resources and new methods for imparting knowledge, and some are more adept at developing additional life skills, but let’s not pretend our schools have the freedom to teach in a manner that necessarily suits their young people or the teachers, when the likes of Ofsted and the dreaded league tables essentially direct the management and implementation of learning.

John Dewey quote

Let’s think about that word “comprehensive”. According to the dictionary it means – “Including or dealing with all or nearly all elements or aspects of something” or “large scope, covering or involving much; inclusive”. A school that focuses wholly on “academic rigor” as their core purpose can’t possibly call themselves “comprehensive”.

A truly comprehensive education would concentrate on educating the whole child, enabling young people to think for themselves, to recognise and develop their own unique skills and passions, to develop an enjoyment and passion for learning. A truly comprehensive school would concentrate on the personal and social intelligences as much as the intellect. A truly comprehensive school would “include or deal with all or nearly all elements” that support the growth of a young person.

Is this the comprehensive system that Sir Michael Wilshaw wants?


Now let’s talk about authority. Sir Michael Wilshaw appears to be quite obsessed with it. Here are some snippets from the speech that back up this supposition.

“But in my opinion the biggest single cause of failure was a loss of authority at all levels. Teachers no longer respected the head, students no longer respected the teachers, parents no longer respected the school and few respected academic tradition. The authority conferred by learning, by academic excellence, was wilfully trashed.”

“‘Call me Pete,’ one urged his students. I can assure you none of my students ever called me ‘Mike’”.

[Not sure that any of his teachers did either.]

 “‘How dare they send my Oliver home because he has the wrong colour socks!’ they complain to the local paper.‘ It’s not vital to his education!’ Oh yes it is.

Strict uniform rules send a key message:‘ We, the teachers, are in charge. This is our school; these are our rules. And if you want your children to attend, you will abide by them.”

“If we are to entrench the gains we have made, all school leaders must learn to lead from the front. They must radiate authority.”

It’s evident that our views on education are never going to chime with SMWs. Wearing the wrong socks means that a child can’t concentrate, apparently. Calling a person by their first name means that you don’t respect them, apparently. Does that mean colleagues at work can’t be respected unless you address them by their surname or title, or that young people can’t respect one another because they are on first-name terms? Really?

We wonder if Sir Michael Wilshaw has ever contemplated the idea that because some parents were so frightened and damaged by overt authoritarianism experienced in their school days, it could have turned them (and potentially their children) away from learning. Most people don’t work well when faced with fear.

“We, the teachers are in charge”……. “This is our school”.

Are we the only ones to see gravity and horror in such a statement? Our school? What on earth is education about if it’s not for the children? Surely it should be their school first and foremost?


But then we wonder whether Sir Michael Wilshaw really considers students as an integral part of school.

Here are some more quotes.

“In many schools the child was a ‘partner’ and the teacher a ‘friend’. The idea that a teacher could insist that a student follow his or her instructions was therefore moot.”

“I still see articles today with headlines such as ‘Do strict behaviour policies make for happy schools?’ and comments like ‘children must be able to discover what rules are appropriate for themselves’.

What nonsense. Children, especially those who lack structure at home, want and expect teachers to give them rules. In their absence, they do not sit around politely debating the most appropriate ones to follow. And they certainly don’t think much of teachers who give them the option.”

“A good comprehensive school is a well-disciplined school where important rules are non-negotiable.”

In other words, children and young people should have absolutely no say on what they are taught, how they are taught or how the school as a whole should operate. Or in other words “done to, not done with” – the mark of a traditionalist………… or an autocrat.

[Interestingly, later in the day when asked about their own errors as Secretaries of State, both Estelle Morris and David Blunkett used that very phrase in reference to their relationship with the teaching profession. “It looked like politicians telling the profession what to do………done to not done with”. It didn’t work, they said because doing to rather than doing with doesn’t engage. It loses meaning.]


Sir Michael Wilshaw would have done well to stick around for the duration of the festival, and then some of his archaic views on how to engage young people in their learning may have been dispelled. Even his “good friend” – his words no ours – Michael Gove conceded to the value of pupil voice and involvement in their learning.

Sir Michael Wilshaw also commented on competition and provided some damning statistics about the number of elite athletes who attended private schools. Point taken.

On Radio Four’s Today programme earlier in the day, he had suggested that state schools should use local resources (if any exist) and in this speech he said that,

“It is not resource that is the key to their success but attitude. Children are expected to compete and teachers are expected to go the extra mile to help them.”

Resources may not be the entire problem but comparing these photographs below of state versus private resources may give a hint of the extent of the problem.

private public

So why does Sir Michael see competition as important? Is he hoping that England finally reaches another World Cup final in living memory or that we can have other British contenders at Wimbledon, other than Andy Murray?

No, there’s something more fundamental than that.

“The school that wins on the pitch wins in the exam hall.”

Academic rigor, respect, discipline, done to not done with, subject teaching, wearing the right coloured socks and call me Sir – that’s success, that’s progress and that, apparently is what the comprehensive system is all about……. Totally inclusive, totally intelligent, totally heartbreaking.

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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