Marking the retirement of a chief inspector: what is and what might be

Michael Wilshaw is about to retire as chief inspector of schools.

A chief inspector of schools who on his retirement denounces the stance he has previously taken publicly would be noteworthy at any time. So it was in 1911 when Edmond Holmes published his wonderfully titled book What is and what might be. His views on many issues were diametrically opposed to those of Michael Wilshaw, as illustrated in his recent and last Annual Report.

Holmes had been appointed as an HMI in 1875 and before his retirement in 1910 had inspected hundreds of schools in the era of “payment by results” – a system he describes as “the most fatuous and most pernicious educational system that the mind of man ever devised”.

With disarming honesty (tempered by humour and enhanced by exaggeration) he describes his inspection career : “During the first 18 or 20 years I did as much mischief in the field of education as I possibly could. I spent the next 10 or 12 years in realising little by little what mischief I had done. And I spent the last four or five years in making solemn vows of amendment and reparation”.

It was partly as a result of visiting an elementary school in 1907 that he realised the error of his ways. He pays homage to the school’s head teacher who has “revolutionised the life, not of the school only, but of the whole village” and who has transformed Holmes’ personal outlook on education from “the path of mechanical obedience” to “the path of self-realisation”.

His comments on “What is” are memorably scathing. Here, he warns about educational measurement:

“The implicit assumption that the real results of education are ponderable and measurable is a deadly fallacy which has now the force and the authority of an axiom”.

He is equally withering about the effects of too great an emphasis on test and exam preparation: “In a school which is ridden by the examination incubus the whole atmosphere is charged with deceit. The teacher’s attempt to outwit the examiner is deceitful and…he makes his pupils partners with him in is fraud”.

He criticises inspectors as “mere examiners, mere appraisers   and tabulators of cut and dried results”.

He castigates civil servants for imposing a curriculum “binding on all schools alike. In doing this they put a bit in the mouth of the teacher and drove him, at their pleasure, in this direction and that. And what they did to him they compelled him to do to the child”. There are many more such gems.

In “What might be” he does, however, offer a positive vision- again in memorable terms. He sees the role of the teacher “is to help the child to grow, healthily, vigorously and symmetrically, on all the planes of his being.”

He believes in eliciting the learners’ “willing cooperation….This will take the form of releasing him from all pressure which is needless and injurious…; and of making him feel trusted and believed in …The next step is to provide him with an attractive programme of school organisation and schoolwork.”

He stresses that “reading, writing and arithmetic are means to ends beyond themselves” and that children should be expected to seek for illumination whenever the find themselves in the dark and to pause inquiringly at every obstacle to their understanding”. He is emphatic that “The real “results” of education are in the child’s heart and mind and soul, beyond the reach of any tape or weighing machine”.

You may not agree with him, Michael Wilshaw certainly wouldn’t, but you will find his views thought-and mind-provoking and perhaps all too relevant to the contemporary context.

Michael Wilshaw, any second thoughts on amendment or reparation as you approach retirement?

What do you think? Any advice for the departing Sir Michael Wilshaw, or his replacement starting in January? Let us know via Twitter…

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Categories: Columnists, Policy and Uncategorized.


  1. RobertYoung3

    What a timely reminder of another set of values about education. Holmes may not have been Sherlock but the wisdom was there to unlock the mysteries of the educational process! Thank you, Colin – as always.

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