Ofsted boss warns on comprehensives

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has spoken out in favour of comprehensive schools

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has spoken out in favour of comprehensive schools

First published in National News © by

Comprehensive education is still associated with "mediocrity, laxity and failure", Sir Michael Wilshaw has warned.

Despite the vast majority of state comprehensive schools making "enormous strides" in recent years, the name is still tarnished, the Ofsted chief inspector suggested.

In a speech, Sir Michael said he wanted to reclaim comprehensive education, arguing that it is the only way to educate all youngsters to a decent standard.

But he also warned that it would be "foolish to believe that all is perfect" in England's education system as nearly a fifth of schools still require improvement.

In some schools bad behaviour is still tolerated, there is a "half-hearted" attempt to gain high standards in the classroom and competitive sport is not encouraged, he said.

Sir Michael told the Festival of Education at Wellington College in Berkshire: " Despite the enormous strides the majority of our comprehensives have made in the past few years, the name is still associated in the minds of many with mediocrity, laxity and failure.

"For many journalists and politicians in particular, comprehensives remain, to use an infamous label, bog-standard."

Sir Michael insisted that today's state schools are a lot better than those he was working in 30 years ago, but warned that nearly one in five are still not good enough, while many others are engaged in a " constant battle to avoid slipping backwards".

"Much of this under-performance, in my opinion, has historical roots," he said. "Even though the ideology that afflicted so many of the early comprehensives has been largely discredited, its damaging effects remain.

"They can be seen in the toleration of poor behaviour, the disdain for competitive sports, the half-hearted pursuit of high academic standards and the meagre respect sometimes given to leadership.

"If we are to reclaim the comprehensive ideal, if more schools are to become good, we have to tackle these baleful legacies."

Schools still need more good leaders who are prepared to challenge the beliefs that have damaged education over the last 40 years.

There are still schools that indulge in practices that are a "throwback to the 60s and 70s", such as "informal learning", the Ofsted chief said, which results in a lack of academic rigour, basic literacy and numeracy is neglected and a resistance to exams and "meaningful" qualifications.

He said: "'There is more to education than tests,' some say. Yes, there is. But they are essential passports to further educational opportunity. And for youngsters who cannot rely on family connections, those four little letters - GCSE - are essential to prevent them being saddled with four less useful letters: NEET, Not in Employment, Education or Training.

"Head teachers need to challenge any attitude that implies that a child's educational potential is limited by their social class. And they must insist that the curriculum is academically robust. It is the key to greater life chances. After all, we are in the possibilities game. And a school that doesn't push a pupil to excel, to do everything possible to succeed academically, simply isn't doing its job."

Sir Michael also called on headteachers to confront parents who do not take responsibility for the education of their children.

Many schools now work closely with mothers and fathers, he said, but some still fail to tell parents how important they are to their child's schooling and while some parents fail to understand what is expected of them.

He said: "This is most commonly seen in the opposition of some parents to strict uniform policies.

"'How dare they send my Oliver home because he has the wrong colour socks!' they complain to the local paper. 'It's not vital to his education!' Oh yes it is.

"Strict uniform rules send a key message: 'We, the teachers, are in charge. This is our school; these are our rules. And if you want your children to attend, you will abide by them'.

"In my view, heads should not balk at telling parents when they fail in their duties to the school or their children."

The chief inspector said he did not deny that comprehensive schools still have their problems, but argued against bringing back grammar schools.

"I appreciate that many grammar schools do a fine job and equip their pupils with an excellent education," Sir Michael said. "But their record of including students from non-middle-class backgrounds is poor. And let's not delude ourselves. 'A grammar school in every town', as some are calling for, would also mean three secondary moderns in every town too, a consequence rarely mentioned.

"What does the country need more of? Schools that educate only the top 20% of pupils, 90% of whom get good GCSEs, or schools that educate 100% of pupils, 80% of whom are capable of getting good GCSEs? I think the answer is pretty obvious."

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