Michael Wilshaw is the head of OfSTED and since coming to office has set about alienating and attacking teachers with what can only be described as a sense of twisted relish. He came into office proud of his ‘Dirty Harry’ image and eager to present this aspect of his personality to the media (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-15537037). This was not a chief inspector who was going to make emollient noises towards the teaching profession or offer any crumbs of comfort to struggling schools coming into the sights of his inspection teams.
This week he has popped up in the news again this time with a story about teachers and stress. Wilshaw contends that teachers do not know what stress is, and that they use stress as an unjustifiable excuse for poor performance. Likewise he argued that Head Teachers of today have never had it so good. In his early day of headship (1985) he describes how wildcat industrial action would leave him having to do lunch cover singlehandedly whilst a bunch of lefty teachers marched off the premises because their entitlement to bourbon biscuits at afternoon break had been curtailed. This is all faintly ridiculous, and quite rightly Wilshaw’s comments have been likened to the 4 Yorkshiremen sketch where the protagonists compete to show how hard their childhoods had been. It is clear to anyone who has ever been anywhere near a classroom, let alone taught, that it can be a very stressful business indeed. Of course stress levels are highly dependent on context, but whatever the challenges of a particular class, the fact remains that teaching is a profession which relies on a kind of performance. It is a ritualised presentation of the self (or of a version of the self) to achieve a specified end, and for that reason the teaching itself is pressured as this performance has to be absolute. Even compliant children will seize on a weak performance and exploit it. Yet teachers do many hours of this every day and for weeks on end. If you read that last part and a Pavlovian bell went off in your head ringing ‘what about the holidays?’, then please please stop reading now, this article is not for you. Outside the classroom a relentless pile of paperwork awaits, as endless political meddling in the business of schools has created layers of extra administration which all need completing. Wilshaw said nothing of this in his glib speech, nor paradoxically of the rise of OfSTED as an adversarial agency of educational inspection, replacing the more consensual and developmental ethos of the Local Authority Inspection which proceeded OfSTED (pre 2001). It would be fascinating to have the exact number of teachers days lost to stress as a direct result of OfSTED inspections, and this would be a very high number indeed.
So why is Wilshaw attacking teachers and painting them as a bunch of whingers? His job is to raise educational standards, which suggests that keeping teachers on side rather than alienating might be the wise move, unless of course he is going to return to the heroic exploits of his youth and make it round to every failing school in the land to teach a few lessons whilst the teachers sit around in the staffroom and moan about how difficult everything is.
One explanation is that these kind of stories please his political paymasters back in Whitehall. Characterising teachers as unproductive plays beautifully into one of the dominant narratives of the Conservative party, namely the myth of the unproductive and wasteful public sector. This narrative paints the public sector as a drain on the nation’s finances, with billions being wasted on second rate expensive services which could be delivered so much better by the private sector. It was this flawed logic which provided the flimsiest fig-leaf of justification for the NHS bill (ignoring the fact that the NHS is one of the most efficient health services in the world).
Teachers are a problem for the Conservative party. They are well organised and most belong to unions which offer support and a united front against the worst excesses of political meddling. National pay and conditions have survived to date, as have national standards for teacher training and in the last decade, enhanced pay for exceptional teachers who want to stay in the classroom rather than pursue careers in management. The political answer to this has been the Academies Programme where local pay and conditions can be set, breaking the national framework and weakening the collective bargaining of the profession. With unions fragmented, the opportunity presents itself for the neo-liberal tendency to start picking off parts of education. You can see the promotional literature sent to heads in 4 years time: ‘Maths department failing? Well sack them all, and “Virgin Teaching” can step in and provide a team of teachers to bring it back up to standard’. At the moment this scenario is not a possibility (no doubt much to the frustration of Gove et. al). Despite years of inexorable erosion of their status, teachers are still largely well regarded and too powerful to allow this kind of liberty to be taken. Which is where attacks on teachers, such as those mounted by Wilshaw come into play. They aim to gradually weaken public support for universal education and for teachers as a national professional body. If Wilshaw’s next speech opens with ‘teachers’ holidays are too long’, then I won’t be surprised, as such attacks play brilliantly to the indignant middle England Daily Mail crowd and increase the public perception that teachers have an easy life and the profession is ripe for reform.
It is disappointing that Wilshaw, who holds a position of great responsibility and the chance to be a different kind of OfSTED working in partnership with teachers, is using his position to mount attacks on teachers to further the ends of this government and its neo-liberal agenda of the destruction of public services.
Image courtesy of Ian Boyd under Creative Commons Licence. Available http://www.flickr.com/photos/itsaboyd/5397010770/