EdFest: Wilshaw

Wilshaw begins by likening the marquee to the Star Chamber, with its twinkly ceiling. He is speaking about comprehensive education and competitive sport. He wants to reclaim and celebrate the comprehensive ideal. He disagrees that the best way to address the problems of the comprehensive system is to bring back the grammar school system. A country will only progress if it provides an excellent education for all children, not just some of them.

He was disheartened to hear many voices last year nay saying the idea that comprehensives can provide stretch and challenge for the most able. He thinks that this is now much rarer than it used to be; comprehensives should be proudly academic, promoting the idea that all children should be provided with an intellectually stimulating education.

What happened to Wilson’s grammar school for all? Toleration of poor behaviour, disdain for competitive sport, half hearted pursuit of academic excellence and occasional disrespect for authority are all painful legacies of the system that we need to face up to. The original school model had been based on sound principles, but became the school parents sought to avoid. Why? He thinks a loss of authority at all levels. Teachers didn’t respect the head, pupils didn’t respect the teachers and nobody had respect for academic principles. Middle class ideologues were busy reinforcing class barriers with threadbare education. Intellectual excellence was a sacrificed on the altar of equality.

At this point the mic went off. One of those ideologues!

To show respect was craven. Pandering was encouraged, heads expected to be friends rather than leaders. There was no external support from LAs to help heads resist this. Management was conditioned to concede. Those few who did manage to resist saw their comprehensives flourish.

Good leaders today must refuse to concede and must challenge the orthodoxies that have damaged education over the past 40 years. Tired teaching orthodoxies must go: a demanding intellectual curriculum must be imposed. Academic rigour is undervalued and this problem must be addressed, along with resistance to exams. There can be no suggestion that academic achievement is limited by class background.

Leaders must also confront parents who are not willing to take responsibility. Their engagement is critical to the success of the school and too many comprehensives have ignored this concept, infantilising parents. Poverty or wealth does not excuse parents from engaging and supporting the school.

Thirdly, good leaders challenge the idea that competition is a dirty word. Competitive sport was, for many, tainted with the old ideals of grammar schools. But learning to deal with and move on from failure is one of the he biggest lessons competitive sport can teach. In independent schools, competitive sport is a key component in building self esteem. Some state schools have also take those lessons to heart, using it to energise the whole school. The school that wins on the pitch also wins in the exam hall.

Discipline is also vital. Weakness has been dressed up as respect for a child’s innate difference. Respect for the teacher was replaced with disdain, as teachers abrogated their responsibility to discipline and educate. Children who lack structure at home, particularly, need a framework of rules in school, although some teachers still struggle to provide it. “Behaviour management” suggests there can be some negotiation with the child about the behaviour: there cannot. Discipline is not a dirty word.

School leaders must radiate authority, attending to the small details as well as the big picture, and learning the lessons of where schools went wrong. Good learning and teaching cannot miraculously happen without excellent leadership. We need to reclaim comprehensive education, acknowledging that there is only one school model that can educate all children to a standard they, and we, deserve. We must be honest about what went wrong in the the past, ditching the blighted legacy in favour of intellectual challenge, fierce competition and strong leadership. The future is definitely comprehensive!

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