Sir Michael Wilshaw, CentreForum and Comprehensive Education

Earlier this month Sir Michael Wilshaw gave a speech at CentreForum – a charity that “develops evidence-based research to influence both national debate and policy making”.

Wilshaw’s speech was largely focused on attainment and projected outcomes – as one would expect, considering the “charity” that hosted the Chief Inspector.

Centre Forum

In March CentreForum will be publishing its annual report where there will be a comparison between educational attainment in the UK and “world-class standards”. Its pre-emptive report, “Education in England: Progress and Goals” outlines projections, statistics and opinions on attainment at the end of Early Years, KS2 and KS4.

David Laws (former Education Secretary and CEO of CentreForum says,

Education is about more than attainment in examinations, but attainment is one of the most important measures of how our education system is performing . . .  We need robust benchmarks of performance and the ability to assess attainment and performance gaps reliably over time.”

On first glance, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech seemed to be saying something slightly different – that the “one-size fits all” approach to education and schooling doesn’t work, and indeed he was quite vociferous in his comments about how education has failed many with its lack of focus on vocational learning.


However, don’t be misled by this. Wilshaw is still talking in terms of academic attainment alone. He’s still talking about aiming high – about ambition, high expectations, rigour, the importance of leadership, and about economic aims as the key purpose for education. The language and the content is the same as it’s always been.

Furthermore, Sir Michael Wilshaw resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that our system of high-stakes exams, with its determined focus on academic attainment, is a cause of the disaffection in learning and has been highly detrimental to many young people.

Wilshaw said,

“Nine out of 10 employers, according to the British Chambers of Commerce, say school leavers are not ready for employment. Six out of 10 firms say the skills gap is getting worse . . .  We simply have to improve the quality of our technical provision and present it as a valid educational path if we are to equip youngsters with the skills they need and employers want . . . It is a moral imperative as well as an economic one that we do something now to change direction. We must all make sure that the ambitious programme for apprenticeships does not prove to be another false dawn.”

His solution? Don’t “dilute the strong core curriculum”. No surprise there. But other solutions to the vocational problem aren’t clear in his suggestions for improvements to the system, thereby bringing another “false dawn” to deal with the fact that not all children are academically inclined.


There was no mention of personal development. There was no mention of key skills that the Chambers of Commerce and the CBI have referred to previously as lacking in young people because of the exclusive focus on attainment. There was no suggestion of new proposals for vocational qualifications that would have parity with academic attainment. There was no reference to the views of young people, only an acknowledgement that the “one-size fits all” approach resulted in “the most able . . . . not being stretched. The options for those who struggle are limited. And too few children have access to a curriculum that prepares them for the workplace.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw also criticised the comprehensive education of decades past.

“People forget how bad things were in the miserable decades of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. They forget how many children were failed by political neglect, misguided ideologies, weak accountability and low expectations. They forget how local authorities failed to challenge and support headteachers. They forget how much they conceded to vested interests and how infrequently they championed the rights of children to a decent education.

The second issue we have to address is the lingering damage caused by the botched reform of our schools in the ’60s and ’70s . . . But the ideologues who drove the comprehensive agenda confused equality with equity. They took it to mean that one size should fit all. . . . . It meant paying scant regard to literacy, numeracy and good behaviour. It meant the erosion of headteacher authority by militant unionism.”

His solution? Set up federations of cross-phase schools.

  • I would make sure the secondary schools learnt from what is working well at primary – [Good, about time primary schools were appreciated for their comprehensive education]
  • I would make sure the different phases worked together to understand and track pupil progress [Progress in attainment or a programme of tracking for all 7 areas of learning that the EYFS does – Personal, Social and Emotional development, Communication and Language, Mathematics, Understanding the World, Physical Development, Expressive Arts & Design, and Literacy.]
  • I would appoint a heavy-hitting senior leader to track free school meal pupils from one phase to the next. – [Important but must be part of a range of strategies to engage economically disadvantaged young people – one of which must be to offer a curriculum that inspires learning]
  • I would include in my federation a 14-19 university technical college that would admit youngsters across the ability range – [Agreed – too often vocational learning is seen as something only for those who can’t master the art of exam taking]
  • English, maths and science teachers would be contracted to work in the partnership and would be obliged to move across the different schools in the consortium – [Why only the teachers of these subjects. Why not teachers of all subjects?]


Many of these suggestions are laudible but the focus is still clearly on targets, attainment, tracking pupil progress and raising “standards”.


As David Laws said, education is about more than this, and yet it is this and only this by which educators and young people are judged. How is that “comprehensive”?

Sir Michael Wilshaw, however, is right. A strong core curriculum doesn’t have to be diluted by giving equal worth to other important areas of learning. A focus on key skills is supported by good literacy skills and vice versa. Learning about and through the arts can strengthen the will to learn. PSHE lessons can incentivise learning in the core curriculum by developing young people’s personal insights and intelligence. It’s not an either/or.

A truly comprehensive education recognises the uniqueness and the needs of the individual child, supports learning experiences that accommodate those needs and provides quality teaching and learning in all subjects. The system, with its total focus on passing exams, distorts the true nature of comprehensive education, and until Sir Michael Wilshaw and others acknowledge that then we won’t have the right changes to education – vocational or academic.


Sir Michael started his speech with a comment about former pupils at his schools.

“Most of my former pupils went on to lead successful lives, even though many came from poor backgrounds with limited experience of success. I was as proud of the student from a troubled family who started his own plumbing business as I was of the former pupil who ended up as the first black president of the Oxford Union.”

You may feel proud of the former, Sir Michael, but the system simply isn’t supporting the thousands of other would-be plumbers, entrepreneurs, carpenters, carers, technicians, designers, performers, creative thinkers . . .

And we’ll keep on repeating – education is for life, not just for work. Life skills are learned in the best of our schools, and it’s life skills that are lacking in so many of our citizens who end up destitute, depressed, defeated and sometimes in prison.


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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