Following his encounter with head teachers at the NAHT conference this weekend where he was jeered during participation in a panel discussion, Michael Gove has launched a fierce attack on school leaders, labelling them “defeatists” who are resisting higher standards. This is from the Times…
The defeatism I heard from some head teachers only encourages me to press on with reform
I’m used to disappointing Saturday afternoons. A season ticket at Loftus Road is rarely a passport to paradise. But I was particularly disappointed on Saturday afternoon by the attitude of some of the professionals I’d hoped to cheer on.
I was in Birmingham for the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers. I had hoped to hear about the best in contemporary teaching — primary school children learning to appreciate Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot or master the stepping stones to algebraic fluency. I see achievement like that every week and imagined the conference would want to showcase such excellence.
But I’m afraid that too much of what I heard was defeatist. The most disappointing was an apparent criticism of my approach from the NAHT President, Bernadette Hunter. I was acting like a “fanatical personal trainer” because I demanded higher and higher standards every year. To which I can only reply: guilty as charged, and what’s the problem with that? Other countries are reforming their education systems, the world grows more competitive every day and I want our young people to be able to succeed.
That’s why we’ve accelerated the pace of reform in our schools — setting higher standards in maths and English in our new national curriculum, recruiting more top graduates to teach maths, physics and chemistry and introducing computer programming and coding, 3D printers and tablets into many more of our classrooms.
These reforms are designed to ensure children are liberated from ignorance in a world where low attainment at school means increasingly limited opportunities throughout life. That’s why it’s so depressing when the response from someone affecting to speak on behalf of the profession is a direct attack on the principle of setting higher expectations. And it’s equally disappointing when others join in, as some heads did at the weekend, to criticise the tests that help to drive up standards, the inspectors who help ensure every child is making the maximum level of progress and the academy schools that help poor children aspire to greater things.
I’m always happy to discuss, with anyone, how we can set expectations fairly. The quality of inspection is still sometimes inconsistent. That’s why Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector, is rooting out weak inspectors and recruiting more serving heads to monitor other schools. We’re also changing league tables so there’s more emphasis on the progress children make, allowing schools with disadvantaged intakes to be better recognised for their achievements.
But what I won’t do is compromise on standards to appease the defeatists. The tests that they object to are there to ensure schools get children reading, writing and adding up properly. Far from being too tough, I fear the minimum expectations we set are still too low — we only begin to consider a school might be underperforming if more than 35 per cent of children fail to reach the basic standard. This is hardly a regime of Prussian harshness.
So when I encounter people in the education world who reject the drive for higher expectations as a cause of “stress” and “worry”, I’m afraid I’m not impressed. I do worry about children, but what I worry about is the stress children will feel at the age of 11 if they arrive at secondary school unable to read properly. Or the stress they will feel at 16 or 18 when they don’t have exam passes to secure a good job.
Encountering defeatism only underlines how important it is to press ahead further and faster with reform. And what encourages me is the determination of a growing number of heads and teachers, especially more recent recruits to the profession, to fight for higher standards. Hundreds of outstanding head teachers such as Andrew Carter, Anita Warwick and Dana Ross-Wawrzynski now lead “Teaching Schools” — like teaching hospitals in the NHS — places where professionals pass on excellent practice to others wishing to improve.
Last month another 100 joined them. This month we’ll be announcing an acceleration of our free school programme, with more outstanding teachers opening new schools to help drive up standards in our poorest areas. Genuinely world-beating heads like Patricia Sowter, Liam Nolan, Barry Day and Alice Hudson are embracing these reforms in defiance of the pessimists and fatalists.
I worry that their achievements may be overshadowed by the media amplification of those voices unhappy with higher expectations. Which is why I will take every opportunity I can to be the champion of teachers committed to excellence. It’s what any trainer — or manager — from Loftus Road to Old Trafford, Whitehall to the chalkface, should do. Salute the professionals who’ll do everything for success — and refuse to be diverted by those who won’t.