Pitying Wilshaw for his Tuneless Playing?

Posted on September 22, 2012


Today I had my second guitar lesson (with my daughter as my teacher, in an effort to test the maxim that the best way to learn is to teach). I tweeted a few audioboos of my efforts to precious little critical acclaim. Here’s an example so you can see what you think.

Johnny B Goode apparently

At the same time as I was trying to concentrate on my lesson I was keeping up with tweets from the many tweachers I follow about the latest Michael Wilshaw interview. They were near unanimous in their criticisms (I say near-unanimous because I also follow the sometimes contrary Old Andrew) and many were clearly angered and upset by the latest in a long string of media headlines seeming to denigrate the professionalism of teachers.

My initial response to this hoohah (or imbroglio as the wonderful wordsmithery of Will Self might have it) was to try and find out what he had really said behind the Times paywall, and to see how much of it had been wilfully manipulated by the media, how much of it was accurate and how much of it had been misinterpreted by colleagues whose ears have become highly attuned to adverse criticism in recent years. I have myself been caught out jumping in too early in a rush to judgment on previous Wilshavianisms and so wanted to keep any powder needed as dry as possible. This was probably for the best as I see little in this story that we didn’t already know about Wilshaw in the first place and the reality of the story is that those who already believe in performance-related pay will agree, whilst those who don’t (myself included) won’t agree.

Having done this I disappeared for a bit more of the old guitar lesson and a few more audioboos to show everyone how slightly-less-crap I was becoming. But on listening to them back and hearing how stuttering, forgetful and awkward sounding they were I kept coming back to Wilshaw. And the more I thought about it the more I kept hearing the same telltale signs of the novice in the words of our less-than-beloved HMCI as I could in my own musicianship.

Take this quote from Wilshaw:

“In last year’s [annual] report, we said that 40% of lessons overall were not good enough. And yet everyone is getting a pay rise. Hey! Something is wrong with the system.”

Look at the exclamation “Hey!” In the middle of this. You’d never here a Cameron, Gove, Milliband or Twigg using this kind of spontaneous language because they have never been part of the education system they expect to govern. They have the certainty of language that comes from disengagement. Wilshaw still sounds like a Headteacher railing at his leadership team or middle leaders for the failed implementation of a school policy. He sounds frustrated, like a man who cares too much and is now unable to get hands-on with the things he wants to change and knows he cannot. I had much the same frustrations with the alien instrument in my hands. I knew the childish tunes the book was asking me to play were so simple that my botched attempts to play them were laughable.

But it wasn’t just here that Wilshaw’s wetness behind the ears was on show. Take this comment:

“As a head I would make it clear that if you teach well or try to teach well, if you work hard and go the extra mile, you are going to get paid well. You are going to be promoted. Somebody who is out the gate at 3 o’clock in the afternoon is not. Isn’t that fair? Am I being unfair?”

The two rhetorical questions at the wnd
are absolute giveaways aren’t they? The fact that he repeats the word fair in them just ladles on the sense of repressed anxiety he feels at not being able to control the complex instrument of Ofsted (and through it the whole of the wonderfully bloody-minded teaching profession) that he has within his hands. He clearly has that sense of feeling inadequate. I know because my messing up of the frets and strings engendered exactly the same feelings in me. The fact that he begins the quote above with “as a Head” to me shows that he has a longing to return to the security of what he knows he can do. There’s a rule every new school leader should follow when they achieve promotion; never to say “in my old school”. That’s not to say you can’t bring things with you, but that you need to be looking to move forward with improvements, not look backwards to capture past glories. Wilshaw’s rant (and it actually is a rant) has that raw power of a man who can picture the people he is talking about in his head, and who longs to have the ability to micromanage that situation once again.

The final quote that I think gives the game away is this:

“We just have to accept the reality of that. If you are going to go and work in these areas, there has to be a commitment to working beyond the end of the school day.”

Quite apart from the fact that the head of a body to regulate the profession is suggesting that it should function differently in some areas than other (which must be a contradiction in terms, but any organisation prefixed with Of- no longer has the capacity to surprise) the use of the personal pronoun “we” is intriguing. It suggests to me, along with his other linguistic leakage, that he longs to be a part of what he regulates rather than its regulator. Like an accomplished piano player in charge of an unfamiliar ukulele, he seems to long for the feel of the ivories under his fingers and the pedals under his feet.

The thing I learnt today was that I have some empathy with Michael Wilshaw (emphasis on the word ‘some’), and that empathy means I am not angry with him for his latest outburst. Instead I have pity for him: he has to me the demeanour of a man who considered himself to be quite the maestro as a Headteacher, but with the entirely different instrument of Ofsted in his hands he has been found wanting, striking discordant notes and producing a cacophony of noise rather than a symphony. And he clearly can’t bear it, and I know how that feels after this morning’s efforts on the guitar.

But that’s where my sympathy begins and ends for Mr. Wilshaw because whilst he is assaulting our ears with this barrage of noise, he is creating the mood music for a profession already assailed by the sounds of strident disharmony emanating from the heart of government. I have no expectation that he wants to hear my advice on this issue, but for what it’s worth I would suggest that he have a little more patience with himself, not to mention the profession he is learning to transform. If he does so he will be able to demonstrate considerably defter handling skills, a sharper ear for the notes he is producing and maybe – just maybe – some tunes we can appreciate, hum along with and even dance to.

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