Sir Michael Wilshaw, An Education Select Committee and Not Quite the Purpose of Education

It’s sometimes sensible to wait a few days to respond to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s (SMW) comments on education. That way you avoid an instinctual fight or flight reaction. However, having spent some days reflecting on his recent meeting with the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, the initial feelings of bewilderment and astonishment persist.

SMW PESCHMCI is known to have no experience of primary and early years education apart from his current employment as head of Ofsted. His comments on further education indicate a similar lack of understanding. But he is a former headteacher of secondary schools, so he ought to have some understanding of what it’s like to work with a room full of adolescents, and some idea about what motivates and demotivates them. Yet this doesn’t come across in his responses to the select committee.

The key question posed to HMCI and his colleague – the National Director for Education, Sean Harford (who similarly has no experience of primary and early years education) – was to clarify the purpose of education.

The committee chair, Neil Carmichael, asked, “How important is it for government to have a clear and consistent view of education, and more importantly, does this government have one?”

SMW’s response? – Successive governments want to raise standards, want children to do well “across the spectrum”.

Mr Carmichael’s response was a valid one – “Well at what?”

Cue the usual mantra – education is good – for the spirit, for the soul – knowledge is good – little knowledge is bad – do well – get a job – be “better in life” – be happy – the be-all and end-all of education is good exam results. This is how Sir Michael Wilshaw defines “doing well”.

He went on to say that three quarters of pupils are NOT attaining the EBACC and 45% aren’t attaining 5 A*-Cs at GCSE. According to his definition of “doing well” this equates to an epic fail by Ofsted and HMCI. When you also factor in the narrowness of the interpretation of “doing well”, you have a catastrophe.

It gets worse.

The Chair then mentioned the Department of Education’s submission to the committee regarding the purpose of education. He described the DoE response as “focused on academic knowledge and attainment”. No surprise there. Was this too narrow an interpretation for Sir Michael?

His response was that the department’s response isn’t narrow. We want children to learn to read and write and do maths. We want them to “get their grades”, he said.



He simply doesn’t get it. According to SMW, the only way one can achieve happiness is to attain good grades at GCSE and A-Level – and to get a Level 5+ in Year 6. He also sees the acquisition of these grades as far harder than the development of other key skills which are frequently and erroneously called “soft skills” – the ones that really determine whether you live life well, whether you are able to work effectively – independently and with colleagues, when you know your own capabilities and the expertise or insufficiencies of others, when you can empathise with people, whether you can manage relationships, feelings and emotions, when you can constructively employ creative thinking in a given situation . . . . . .  when you don’t have narrow, intransigent interpretations of the purpose of education.

Another opportunity for SMW to broaden his perspective was offered when someone suggested that “soft skills and wellbeing” could be replaced with “resilience and character building”. Would this semantic repositioning change his views on whether these skills were worthwhile?

Ah, said Sir Michael. You can’t learn unless you are resilient. Our job is to build resilience so that children can pass tests. Poor children don’t have resilience unless we instil it in them (and yes, that is a quote).

Once more, he was offered the chance to review his comments.

SMW quote

Yet another question from the committee – slightly paraphrased, “Are these characteristics of resilience etc, – (the ones that help you academically) what you are looking for, or are you looking for wider characteristics?

SMW’s response – Teachers and head teachers need to know their children. If teachers know their children, they can build resilience.

Mmm. Not sure whether that one answers the question. Try again?

“You’re talking about academic resilience?”

SMW: Enjoy school, do well.

Another interjection from the committee. Ian Austin MP asked about the disparity between what employers wanted and what’s lacking in some young people going into work – the ability to collaborate, to think for themselves – a lack of ‘social skills’.

Ah, said SMW, “It’s because they [ALL children with poor social skills] go to poor schools. If you go to a good school you will see people learning and working together”.


At this point in the proceedings, Sean Harford interjected with a timely reminder that Ofsted now has a judgement on “personal development, behaviour and welfare” and that all those lovely “soft skills” are judged through this.

What does this actually mean? – asked a member of the committee.

It covers a whole range – culture of school conducive to good teaching and learning – are the corridors calm and safe, are they bullied, are they safe, promotion of welfare, what are assemblies like re SMSC, and those soft skills that we’ve been talking about.” – said SMW.

Again, he doesn’t get it. His response implies that all this “fluffy stuff” should directly feed into the raising of academic attainment, and if it isn’t contributing to attainment then it has no place in school.

His inability to be anything other than vague regarding the “personal development, behaviour and welfare” criteria should start alarm bells ringing – if they weren’t already sounding about Ofsted inspectors’ ability (i.e. lack of ability) to thoroughly review a school’s work in this area.

Here’s a hint, SMW. Get the personal and social development aspects of education right and you will undoubtedly improve the academic results you so desperately want. Help young people to understand what they want, and how to achieve it – in broad, not narrow terms. Enable them to understand and act on constructive criticism. Provide them with opportunities to learn how to express themselves. Stop directing and start listening to young people. Praise them for initiative. Give them opportunities to be intuitive, creative, imaginative. (This works well in early years education, where egotism, selfishness and aggression impact on learning for everyone. It works equally well with adolescents. What’s not to like about SELF control?)

Behaviour improves immensely when children are engaged and they can see a purpose to their work that goes beyond the attainment of an expected set of grades.

Every good teacher knows that to be true.

As if this isn’t enough, Sir Michael was then asked about the value of PSHE, in the light of the Secretary of State’s refusal to grant it mandatory status. His response was staggering.

SMW quote PSHE

Words fail us.

So if a subject is taught badly, then it shouldn’t be statutory. Is that it?

And if maths is taught badly, or if maths has to be taught by a geography specialist? Is it remotely possible that the problem lies in the fact that you have someone untrained in teaching a subject rather than any problem with the subject itself? Isn’t a subject (and training for the teaching of that subject) devalued by its lack of statutory status?

Isn’t it irresponsible to simply hope that ‘good’ schools will teach PSHE? And if it is taught badly, which it often is, then why does the office for standards in education effectively ignore this fact and carry on regardless, allowing it to continue to be taught badly – if it’s taught at all?

[N.B. The All Party Parliamentary Education Select Committee gave strong support for making PSHE and SRE statutory – an argument that was ignored by the Secretary of State for Education. ]

Sir Michael Wilshaw went on to talk about the importance of good leadership and good teaching. Perhaps he might consider his own leadership when it comes to fully understanding and addressing the fundamental issue of personal development and wellbeing as an integral part, and purpose, of education.

We sincerely hope that the Parliamentary Education Select Committee will consider the tragedy and the narrowness of these responses, and will interview other educators who can convey a more appropriate vision of the purpose of education.

As for Sir Michael – Bon Voyage. We only have the gestation period of a human being to wait until you are on your way.

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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