Burn the Witch: why everyone hates Michael Wilshaw

'Oh Father Sun! We offer you SMW for a bountiful value-added!'
You know how some people precede their observations on another with the comment, 'I don't agree with everything they say, but...'? This makes me tear what hair Fate has left me from my brow, because the chance of you actually agreeing with everything someone says must be something approaching zero probability, unless you follow J-Bieb on Twitter or find yourself chained to a radiator in Somalia. I take it as read that I won't agree with everyone in this vibrant tapestry of dissent and accord we call opinion. Perhaps you agree? Oh.

So it skewers my soul to see people falling over themselves to align themselves to either pole of an argument, as if discussion were digital rather than analogue. We see this in aesthetics ('Jackson was a god/ devil) such as the letter column of NME used to host, and obviously in politics. Fundamentalism in any corner of the libertarian/ authoritarian/ free market/ planned economy box is often the easiest to dispute, because universal claims are the easiest to admit exceptions. The idea that the invisible hand of the market is the philosopher's stone of equitable distribution is soon torpedoed by pointing to a favella. The Marxist's touching belief in human nature is ruined by the absence of evidence that men will spontaneously collude given a renewal in the gears of production, and so on.

So far, so obvious. It's why I couldn't join a political party and lend them my allegiance, when they represent so many incoherent and coherent aims- as do I, as do we all. I used to vote Labour all my life, until the wars, and the marketisation of education, and I vowed, like Batman, to choose more carefully.

No teacher, yesterday, apparently
It's why I wonder at the outrage Michael Wilshaw seems to generate, like dandruff, where ever he lays his mortar board. This week, the digitally literate denizens of the edusphere spasmed like a spastic colon over comments he made at the Brighton College of Education Conference. The main contention was that he claimed teachers 'weren't stressed.' This was reported EVERYWHERE. (caution: haven't checked this literally)

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw: Teachers not stressed

Teachers don't know what stress is, says Ofsted chief

Teachers don't know what stress is, says Ofsted head

See? I wasn't making it up. That was the headline, the claim, and the cause of Twitter storm- and this on a day when Rebeka Brooks was giving evidence at Leveson. My timeline was spinning like Amanda Holden's pacemaker in a boys' sixth form college. Or a Geiger counter during the Hulk's colonoscopy

Two girls, one cup

Blogs have rolled out like Panzer tanks; outrage stalked the school corridors like the tenth plague of Moses. Lines have been drawn, tents erected, and the message is clear. KILL THE BEAST. But this is a chronic misinterpretation of the situation, and the current panjandrum of Ofsted 

I've read the speech, and you can too if you have a spare click and ten minutes. Now get past the first bit, the Alan Partridge jokes and the awful attempts at warmth. He doesn't do warmth, it doesn't fall easily from his repertoire. He is no warm up act. He moves past the suicidal stand-up, and briefly says 'He doesn't like strikes.' Fair enough. I've striked. I don't like them, as such.

'Welcome to Jamrock, camp whe' da' thugs them camp at
Two pounds a weed inna van back.'

Then he goes on to say that he thinks that education in this country needs to be improved. This is often a stumbling block for any spokesman on education. Whenever anyone says that anything could work, y'know, a bit better in schools, they are often seized as enemies of the state, deniers of the sacred truths. As anyone who know my writing will testify, I am hugely critical of the ways things are run in the education sector, and often of the way specific schools are run. But I hope I do so because I love education, love teaching, and want teachers to be well, and kids to flourish thereby. I do a lot of pro-bono advice for the TES because I remember how much I needed help when I was new. But even I've had a few bricks thrown at me saying, basically, 'YOO TORY SCUM WHY DONT YOO FACKIN DIE LIKE THATCHER' or whatever whenever I point out that all is not well in the secret garden. It perplexes me*. I've also been criticised for being too supportive of teachers, over the child, the parent, the DfE. It's BECAUSE I love education that I want to see it well. Pointing out the wounds doesn't make me the man with the knife.

Wilshaw claims 'All teachers are f*ck*ng b*st*rds' shock

Then, the meat. 

'We need to learn from this and challenge those who have power invested in them to make the difference, but too often make excuses for poor performance – it’s just too hard, the children are too difficult, the families are too unsupportive, this job is far too stressful.

Let me tell you about stress.

 ‘Stress’ is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the 50s and 60s and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family.'

(carries on in a similar 'Never had it so good' vein for some minutes. Like I say, his style will never see him through any stadium torch rallies)

This is the bone of contention, the sticking point, the pivot from which all the friction emerged. Now, I personally think it was a clumsy piece of rhetoric, inelegant and tiresome. But what he didn't say was the widely reported falsehood of 'Teachers don't know what stress is.' What he DID say- to a conference of Head Teachers, I need to add, so this is his audience- was that Heads shouldn't use the stress of the job to excuse accepting low achievement in children.

  • So he's pointing the finger at Head Teachers, not all teachers.

  • He's talking about HT that use 'this job is tough' as an excuse not to care if children succeed, not all HTs


That's as clear as a bell to me, and it was the first, last and everything I connoted or denoted from those words. And I'm pretty damn sure that's what he meant. Or to put it another way, to take from this meagre soil the weed of 'Teachers don't know what stress is,' is just wrong. The fact that he then followed it with 'stress is...' (like some kind of deviant 70s bedroom poster for cynics rather than romantics) was just a way of saying that the stress of trying to turn a tough school around is comparable, and often exceeded by other disastrous stressful consequences when things go wrong in schools.

And as it happens, he also said THIS six months ago:

'Teachers suffer from burnout,' says new Ofsted chief.

THIS version of the Great Satan apparently believes that teachers are under too much pressure, need less paperwork, and should get sabbaticals to unwind and chillax. Hmm, that's odd. I thought he was saying teachers didn't know what stress was? Ah. 

We need to be more than Twitter gadflies, flitting from one outrage to the next, settling on, not just one speech, but one line, one phrase at a time. Surely perspective demands that we adopt a holistic approach to understanding knowledge. Isn't that what we try to teach our kids- knowledge in context? Or is that only for children, never the adults who teach or inform them? 

This was the smallest part of the speech; but it provided, to those who sought it, fuel for a bonfire, because many have decided that Dame Wilshaw, if he be not entirely for us, must be against us. And it's BURN THE WITCH all over again. He seems to be a bit of a hard-ass; he seems to have somewhat of a penchant for tough talk, which doesn't spin well with those who prefer the gentle touch. But I asks ya- how do we propose someone who's remit is reform should speak and act? Do we want a man composed entirely of focus groups, consensus and compromise, like so many politicians today, who more closely resemble holograms of impalpable ingratiation? 

Are we so addicted to the modern news dialectic, where politicians are so afraid to put a word out of place that they employ professional ideology hairdressers to comb every nuance into consistency; where they mow the tall poppies down so that the lawn of political language is even and flat? God, give me a leader who speaks his mind, however spiky and irregular it may be. At least we understand each other. Wilshaw is no career politician, like so many who make me despair that politics will ever be anything other than a ping-pong between the poles in the centre middle. He was a teacher, and a Head Master, and an extremely successful one at that. Mossborne is a small miracle- both sides of the House agreed on that, and sought to show its success as capital for their success- and it doesn't matter how you spin that. Hackney is the poorest borough in England. There aren't enough pockets of affluence in it to stitch together a demographic destined by birth for success, as some opponents claim.

Twitter: 'BURN (-fill in blank-)!'

So he's no consultative hard-on with a lifetime spent learning how to tell people what they want to hear, or a graduate from PPE who went into twenty years of telling people how to do their jobs. He's got school form. And after a decade of seeing schools and teachers creak under the burden of misbehaviour, I'm glad to see an Ofsted Head who thinks it's more important than SEAL. Misbehaviour is the elephant in the classroom. Some of his reforms seem sound. Some, I suspect as flawed. C'est la vie. He's not there to campaign for teacher rights to the exclusion of others. He's there to improve education. Ruffling feathers are practically part of the job description. Teacher feathers. Parent feather. Student feathers. He may be right, or he may be wrong, but let them ruffle.

Most teachers I know are great; some are rubbish; some are fine. Have you seen a profession where this wasn't true? I haven't. Same for schools. Some SLT are Gods; some are monsters. Some teachers should be shaking fries at BK; some should be knighted, made into constellations, and have cocktails names after them. There's a good deal to reform in education. I want to see an end to the obsession with data, FFT, targets and Mickey-Mouse performance measures that currently dog and devil us; that, and ignoring behaviour, is crushing education, believe me. I want to see training reform; I want to see SLT being freed from the fear of micromanagement; I want teachers empowered to teach; I want the balance redressed between the teacher's rights and those of the child. 

I want the moon, just like everyone else does.

Like Rebekah Brooks' masterful LOL-dodge at Leveson, this misinterpretation was seized upon by many as the summary, the distillation of the entire speech. Which is a dreadful shame, because he said a lot in it; some of which I agreed with; some of which I didn't. 

Because, you know, I don't agree with everything he says.

*Also, I will vote Conservative when Hell freezes over.





  1. I'd still like to know what he *said* not what was written in the published version of the speech. He has been known in the past (Newsnight) to say things that were not exactly what he meant, and I don't know if it is common for so many newspapers to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. I worry that someone writes his speeches for him, based on his notes then he accidentally says what he really means when he has to deliver the speech. I may be being unduly cynical here, but even if he doesn't mean some of the harsh things he is reported to have said he is taking a very strange route to motivating teachers. I assumed he didn't even want to attempt to get teachers on his side ever since his appointment speech. He seems to be continuing in that vein

    1. I don't think his job IS to motivate teachers. He's responsible for monitoring and reform, which isn't, can't be painless. Change anything, and someone will feel it.

      Also, I wouldn't want to judge a man on words I haven't heard; even the critical reporters didn't quote him as saying the words in the headlines- they paraphrased to suit.

      He gets a hostile press; as critical observers we need to be discerning, whether he's the devil or a saint. He's said a LOT of things in support of the profession, but that gets breezed over. No Twitter storms erupt when he claims that most teachers feel burnt out because of paperwork. Why doesn't that register with people? Is it because we find it easier, more convivial to demonise?

  2. Critics of Wilshaw likened to witch burners in article which claims that we should not demonise our opponents...

    Here's why I do not have too much sympathy for SMW
    This is the relevant paragraph:
    "We need to learn from this and challenge those who have power invested in them to make the difference, but too often make excuses for poor performance – it’s just too hard, the children are too difficult, the families are too unsupportive, this job is far too stressful."
    These are the people for whom SMW thinks need to know about what stress really means. Who exactly excuses poor performance by saying the job is far too stressful? Is it a straw (or perhaps wicker) man fallacy? In a moment of near Franciscan charity let us give SMW the benefit of doubt and say that there are many people who excuse (rather than explain) poor performance by citing such factors. Then SMW goes on to explain what stress is. Here it might be worthwhile asking what the point of explaining the meaning of stress to people who already know what stress is. It's futile at best. We are left though with the strong impression that these people, according to SMW, do not know the meaning of stress and that what these people need is a bit of SMW's homespun wisdom:
    1) SMW's dad and others worked hard and experienced stress
    2) Stress is experienced by the unemployed millions (unemployed because of a poor experience of school - not because of the macro-economic climate). Note this stress will not excuse rioting because that's another very bad thing according to SMW.
    3)SMW himself experienced stress because of industrial action. All the teachers left him alone to cope with classes at lunchtime - funny that *none* of his colleagues felt a kind of loyalty to him.
    4) Stress can be caused by writing letters three times to the council (tip - perhaps ask for climbing frames rather than brick walls to be built in playgrounds)

    What exactly is the point of these four observations? Does he really think that those who excuse poor performance will be suitably inspired?

    1. He isn't going for inspiration- he isn't MLK. He's going for 'tough inspector' because that's who he is. He's implying that some school leaders justify not having high standards for kids because it's harder to do so than not. I think few people would actually point to stress as their reason not to do so- but they would still in practice avoid making tough calls because of the perceived effort required. I hear this all the time in my advice column- difficult children either being placated by weak-willed senior staff, or low-achieving children fobbed off with low targets. It's only some management out of many. But it does happen. Why NOT point it out, if it's your job to do so?

      You can't INSPIRE the whole profession- it's too diverse. You can't please everyone; but you can set out your stall and stick to it. Whatever he said ('I love you all'/ 'Cower, worms') he would face this criticism. SO I think we need to stop jumping on high horses every time we can find something that we take issue with stylistically. Does anyone know what ELSE he said in the speech? Damn few do, I imagine, because they fell into the whirlpool of indignation. And WE'RE supposed to be the critical thinkers?

      Thanks for the comment.


  3. Oh Yawn! I was expecting something far more entertaining ;-)

  4. Ann Kittenplan13 May 2012 at 09:53

    "Play it again, Sam."

    Isn't one point that whether he said it or not it fits with his stated views. He might not have actually specifically directly said, 'Teaching is not stressful,' (though he seems to have come pretty close) but, even if he didn't, it fits in with what we know about him.

    (Analogue II) Isn't the alleged comment, and its mis/interpretation, in a way comparable to the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone: it's not at all clear that that particular phone was hacked but the story exposed fundamental corruption.

    Ultimately though this is an epiphenomenal imbroglio, the real question is: Is Ofsted a good thing, or a bad thing?


    Good, and important, point about binary, reactionary, thinking: It's more important to pick a fight than understand a position.


    Related: It's more important to make a joke eg #popleveson than it is to address an issue, no matter how serious.

  5. Well if he didn't actually say it, and the papers misrepresented him by paraphrasing, how is it his fault? I can't find him ever saying that teachers don't know what stress is. It's CLOSE to his words but then, so is 'I love you' and 'I don't love you.' In fact, I've read a lot of stuff from him expressing that the profession is too hard for the wrong reasons, and that he wants people to work hard for meaningful enterprises, not paperwork. He's getting blamed a lot for spin that others have thrown up, and I find that sad, whoever or whatever he is. We should be better than that.

    Thanks for all comments; and YES THIS to the binary thing. It's also easier.

    Oh and YES THIS to the third thing; levity and arch commentary far easier than sincerity and confronting reality. Always


  6. Ann Kittenplan13 May 2012 at 11:52

    It is my contention that the paper/s *represented* Mr Wilshaw by misquoting him. How is this possible? Elementary, my dear Watson.

    As for love/do-not-love, the actual quote:

    "Let me tell you about stress. ‘Stress’ is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the 50s and 60s and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family."

    Is not the diametric opposite of the misquote:

    "Headteachers don't know what stress is."

    In fact, in the context of Mr Wilshaw's attitude and behaviour, this seems to be a plausible paraphrasing.

    At the risk of some binary thinking(!) I see him as a Witchfinder General.

    I have very strong views on Ofsted, and maybe this colours my judgement but, given the context of his previous pronouncements, even if he has been misquoted I don't think he can reasonably claim to have been misrepresented in this case.

    But in the end this is all deckchairs on the Titanic. Ofsted is wrong. I want to read articles about how to destroy the Evil Empire.

    Beam me up, Scotty.

  7. You judge a man by his intentions. Wilshaw is only doing everything that he's doing to try and raise standards and improve the future life chances of young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Is this such a crime?

    Teaching unions and academics are always banging on about the attainment gap between rich and poor but what are they actually DOING about it? Not much so far as I can tell. I think Wilshaw knows that without action nothing will change and the scandal of the attainment gap will persist.

    It's like they say - if you keep doing what you've always done then you'll keep getting what you've always gotten.


Post a Comment