Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Leave those kids alone

I once thought that Christopher Woodhead was the Demon Headmaster: a Chief Inspector of Schools who seemed to openly despise state education and all who sailed in her, a reactionary blowhard whose positive view of sexual relationships between school pupils and staff may not have been entirely unconnected to suspicions that his own relationship with an ex-pupil might have started earlier than he let on… This is the man whose next job after several years of unfounded, bitter attacks on state schools was CEO of a chain of fee-paying schools - and called for the leaving age to be reduced to 14 (obviously all the most successful countries believe in less education).

Pretty bad - but it's time for Chris to move over: there's a new massive wanker in charge of OFSTED now. I'm used to governments putting their most unintelligent, populist, sinister and dangerous MPs into the Home Office (Straw, Blunkett, Howard, Waddington…): the same treatment seems to have been instituted in education policy. Privately-educated Michael Gove is hellbent on abolishing state education, while his Universities Minister, David Willetts, seems to see himself as the Man Who Abolished Universities.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, OFSTED's new head, seems to be instituting the equivalent of corporal punishment for teachers. To him, teachers are layabout scum, whose namby-pamby niceness to pupils will lead to ANARCHY and HAPPINESS:
 We tell the youngsters and we tell the parents we don't care really what background you're from; it's where you're going that's the most important issue. If you take into account ethnicity, free school meals and a whole range of other indicators, it can give the impression that you're making excuses.
Superficially positive, isn't it? I've a colleague who told us all that we should treat our students as blank slates, with no identity at all. Their backgrounds were irrelevant: she claimed this was a form of radical, progressive liberation, which is typical of privately educated people who've never had to struggle. It's dangerous and reactionary. Many of our students are from genuinely poor backgrounds. A lot are from minority ethnic groups which have been badly served in school and in the wider community. These are hurdles we need to appreciate and adapt to: not by making excuses, but by tailoring our educational approach to their needs. Wilshaw rejects this, and therefore firstly denies his students any cultural identity - a classic example of hegemonic racism and classism by someone who has never had to struggle - and secondly ensures that any failure is automatically the student's fault: never mind if she's a primary carer, or he's got no study space or access to books, who cares if the kids in front of you are hungry?

But that's not all: how's this for charming?
A good head would never be loved by his or her staff, he added: "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right."
I can think of several leadership models he's learned from. Stalin. Hitler. Pol Pot. More importantly, the idea comes directly from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and from Machiavelli's The Prince. Both these texts are taught on MBA programmes and the kind of 'leadership' courses beloved of the terminally shallow. I am profoundly worried by the idea that the country's most important educationalist envisions schooling as a state of permanent internecine warfare in which those at the top must ceaselessly crush factions jockeying to overthrow him. The idea that any management system must be based on fear is frighteningly unintelligent - or the product of a deeply damaged psyche - I wonder what his schooldays were like.

I don't know if you watched Educating Essex last year: the fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed in an Essex comprehensive school. Staff and students faced appalling problems: behaviour, mental illness, resources problems, the lot. Each episode was a lesson (sorry) in emotional maturity. The headmaster was warm, witty, passionate, caring and loving, both of his students and his staff, and they reciprocated. If you treat your colleagues as the enemy, you'll end up alone and paranoid - the point of Educating Essex was that every member of staff adored each other, the boss and the kids - a healthier, more successful way to success.

The other point about Wilshaw is that he's utterly contradictory: while proclaiming a credo of uniformity, respect and obedience to the kids (literally: uniforms, mass standing up, silence etc), he's practising a life of radical individuality in which it's him against The World (his colleagues, whom he despises). Clearly not a reflective thinker.

In contrast, a school managed through fear will poison the children, who will learn (as if The Apprentice and similar shows aren't enough) that only individualist victory over everybody else (the enemy) is the criterion for success. It's a vicious, backwards mentality which will only aid social decay. Children aren't evil spirits to be contained and bent to your desires: Educating Essex was the perfect antidote, because that school did its very best to persuade a bunch of spiky, complicated, messy kids that education is a personal and social good. Wilshaw wants to produce obeisant robots - students and staff - through terror: Passmore's school added to its students individuality by widening their horizons, whereas Wilshaw wants to remove any trace of personality.

The Demon Headmaster has a catchphrase - one which Wilshaw could easily adopt.
I hope you are not going to be a person who won't co-operate with me . . . "
Start 5 minutes in for a taste of Wilshaw's reign of terror.


Ewarwoowar said...

A good head would never be loved by his or her staff, he added: "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right."

I've read that quote six times now and I still can't fathom how exactly he can justify that opinion. True, a headmaster doesn't have to be LOVED, but "you know you're doing something right" when staff morale is low, good teachers are leaving, others go off with stress? I'm sorry?

One other thing - I'm glad you feel the same about The Apprentice as I do. I try to stop my friends watching it but no-one ever listens :(

Nasher said...

Well said Vole. It is a massive struggle when you have essays to write and you have kids to feed, a home to run and your trying to support a husband who has redudancy looming over him. To be treated as a blank slate is OK if your slate is smooth and untarnished, but if like mine its almost been shattered many times a kind word or that little nod in the right direction makes all the difference. Not just to the student, or pupil but to a whole family, if I can get through uni (and i'm the first one in my family to try) then I'm hoping my children and my brothers children will have the courage to at least try . Several times I have nearly thrown the towel in but kind words from supportive lecturers have encouraged me to carry on, one said "It will make such a massive difference to your life, and to your children's futures" I hope she got it right because it is that comment said quite passingly that has given me the drive to carry on with putting to one side the death of my first husband has been the most challenging and life changing experience I have ever encountered. Long may people like you and some of your colleagues fight to give a chance to those of us who actually thought we simply were not good enough. I applaud you all.