Michael Wilshaw interview: Ofsted's outgoing chief on the “gaping hole in our education system” and what Gove would be like as PM

Written by Mark Leftly on 7 July 2016 in Interview

As Sir Michael Wilshaw approaches the end of his tenure as head of education inspectorate Ofsted, he looks back on his time in post and vents his concerns about a worrying lack of leadership in schools

Coalition by David Laws, who was the Liberal Democrat schools minister until he lost his Yeovil seat last year, lies on a small table in Sir Michael Wilshaw’s eighth floor office in Aviation House, central London. 

Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools in England and head of Ofsted since the start of 2012, features in only three pages, but the no-nonsense 69-year-old makes a memorable cameo. Michael Gove is spotted by a shopper in Selfridges’ toy department having a “blazing row” over his mobile phone with a “Sir Michael”, who is furious he has been ordered to be more “on-message” by the then-education secretary’s advisers. 

Chief among Gove’s advisers was Dominic Cummings, whose aggressive style was loathed by David Cameron. Cummings quit in 2013 and Laws describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. Wilshaw is not much subtler: “I think some of the people around Gove were pretty untrustworthy, the were adept at briefing [the press to attack colleagues]… Not good.” 

Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw: "I'm accused of being too outspoken – but I'll never stop telling it like it is"
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Despite the Selfridges showdown and a few other “bust-ups”, Wilshaw likes Gove, with whom he has occasionally shared red wine, describing him as “a radical, reforming minister”. 

Wilshaw is speaking to CSW’s sister title The House on the day Gove unexpectedly announced he would run for leadership of the Conservative Party. 

He compares Gove to another much-derided former education secretary who harboured prime ministerial ambitions, Margaret Thatcher – “a woman for her time” – and chuckles: “He would bring radicalism to the job. He’s an interesting character. Very intelligent, very articulate, very well read. He is a social reformer.” 

He adds: “I don’t think he’d be consensual. When he asked me to do this job, I believed he was someone who would have very, very clear ideas about education, understood it, did his homework and had a very clear mission to improve standards, particularly for the poor. That’s why I came to Ofsted.” 

Wilshaw outlasted Gove’s time at education, but is reflecting on his record before his term at the 1,457-staff inspectorate finishes at the end of this year. 

He will be succeeded by Amanda Spielman, who helped set up the Ark multi-academy schools chain. Her appointment has been attacked because she has no practical teaching experience (indeed, the choice of Spielman is again questioned by MPs on the education select committee just after The House speaks to Wilshaw). By contrast, Wilshaw, who betrays his south London background with the occasional dropping of his “t”s, started teaching in 1968. 

Extensive experience means he has the confidence to be tough with ministers and he retains that bluntness in public, emphasising Ofsted’s independence from government.  He recently wrote to Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, to tell her Ofsted inspectors found seven multi-academy trusts to have “serious weaknesses”. He now points out the majority of academy chains are “pretty mediocre”. 

Academies are funded directly by the Department for Education and free from local authority interference. The establishment of more academies has been a flagship Conservative policy in recent years. Spielman has already made headlines, telling MPs last month she would consider scrapping the “outstanding” grade inspectors award to the best schools. 

Only 12% of schools are outstanding and there are criticisms the grade puts too much pressure on head teachers who are trying to improve badly struggling institutions to reach the level of “good”. Wilshaw insists he won’t advise Spielman, because she “needs to come with her own views and her own perspective”. 

But he’s perfectly happy to tell everyone else what he thinks: “If I was staying, I would have written a letter to the secretary of state to say, ‘if the outstanding grade is to be kept – and my advice to you is keep it – then we need to inspect all outstanding schools on a routine basis in the way that we inspect all other schools’. One of the first things Michael Gove did was to bring exemption to outstanding schools, which is a dangerous thing to do, because some outstanding schools are [only] just outstanding and can easily decline.” 

Wilshaw upset the profession within weeks of his tenure by changing the “satisfactory” band to “requires improvement”. He admits he faced “a lot of opprobrium” over the change, which he believes was vital to improve standards at 2,500 schools – teaching nearly three million children – that had coasted at this level over two, three, or even four inspections. 

"Satisfactory denotes mediocrity and we can’t have a mediocre system" – Sir Michael Wilshaw

He argues: “I’ve said that ‘good’ is only ‘good enough’ for state-educated children, anything less than good is not good enough, and that satisfactory certainly isn’t good enough. Satisfactory denotes mediocrity and we can’t have a mediocre system. You could actually spend all your educational life in a primary and secondary school that was mediocre.” 

Wilshaw is a hard man to please, as his children – now 41, 38 and 35 – would attest. He says they thought he was “teacherly” at the dinner table – but points out his quizzing of them means they can name the world’s capital cities and know the Spanish Armada was launched against England in 1588.  

Wilshaw, then, was obsessed with improving education standards in his own home even before Ofsted was established in 1992. He adds Ofsted has been “the key accountability lever” that has improved the “absolutely dire” education youngsters received in 1960s to early 90s. 

In his book, Laws says Wilshaw had “a tendency to involve himself in policy debates that fell outside” the “narrow remit” of leading Ofsted, which made 49,000 inspections last year alone. 

He certainly doesn’t need much pressing to address contested policies, admitting he sees “nothing wrong” in establishing for-profit schools – many on the left are suspicious that academy chains are a pre-cursor to privatisation – provided they are “not asset-stripping the school”.  

It’s an argument at odds with his decision in 2014 to scrap third party inspections by Serco, Tribal and CfBT, because Ofsted could not effectively monitor their quality; he says 80% of inspection teams now include a head teacher against 10% when he started. 

When he leaves Ofsted, Wilshaw will continue to look into inequality in schools. A recent Ofsted report showed a growing educational divide between the south and the rest of the country, with 46% pupils in the East Midlands failing to achieve five or more A* to C grades in their GCSEs. 

“Parents and families in the Midlands and the North need to have the same [education] provision as families in the south and elsewhere,” he sighs, arguing the lack of investment fostered their anger in the EU referendum. “A lot of people voting in the Midlands and the North for Brexit is the result of poverty, unemployment, disaffection, alienation.” 

The other concern is what Wilshaw calls “the big gaping hole in our education system”, which is leadership. Wilshaw says 40% of head teachers are due to retire in the next five years, while the greater autonomy given to schools over the past 10-15 years has not been accompanied by training to help leaders use that freedom. Recruitment for top jobs has been “downright amateurish”, claims Wilshaw. 

He wants to establish a national college to identify young candidates for headship and place them on five or six-year apprenticeships at a variety of schools, be they inner-city, rural, or coastal. They would benefit from the type of investment in their careers that Wilshaw says is offered in major organisations from BP to HSBC. Government would then be able to decide where their headship posting would be, meaning officials could make sure geographic gaps are filled. 

As he ponders the art of leadership, Wilshaw need look no further than his desk, on which sits Sir Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War. It would be interesting to know the grade Wilshaw gives Gove as a potential prime minister when benchmarked against the great man: outstanding, good, requires improvement, or inadequate?  

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