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Strictly come learning

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new head of Ofsted, on competition, discipline, and the incredible success

I am 15 minutes late to interview Michael Wilshaw, principal of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, a school famed for its excellent results and strong discipline. This kind of behaviour would get a student in trouble.

“People say that we are strict," Wilshaw says, sitting in his office overlooking Hackney Downs, where children in red sports kits are playing rugby. "We give structure to children who come from unstructured backgrounds. If the boundaries haven't been set by parents or the community, you need to set them in school. We teach the children the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. They know that if they disrupt class or are rude to teachers, there will be consequences."

His methods are working. This year, 82 per cent of students achieved five GCSEs between grades A* and C. The A-level results were similar: 83 per cent gained grades between A* and C, ten students received offers from Cambridge and all but five (out of more than 100) will be going to university.

This is remarkable, given the location in one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Mossbourne replaced Hackney Downs School, which the Tories labelled the "worst school in Britain" and closed in 1995. So, what is the secret of its success? Wilshaw gives a list of simple strategies. One is to keep very long school days: some children stay until seven or eight in the evening in homework clubs or study support groups. If necessary, the school gives them their evening meal. When children join the school, parents authorise same-day and Saturday detentions, so there are instant penalties for bad behaviour.

Mossbourne has high expectations of the children and lets them know it. A disadvantaged background is no excuse - even though those from the most troubled families are given substantial extra study support and pastoral care. Startlingly, the pupils begin each lesson by reciting a mantra: "I aspire to maintain an inquiring mind, a calm disposition and an attentive ear so that, in this class and in all classes, I can fulfil my true potential."

“We show them that they can achieve," Wilshaw explains. "Once they see that they are making progress, their self-esteem and self-confidence goes up." He is critical of calls from politicians for Russell Group universities to make lower offers to students from poorer backgrounds. "It is deeply patronising and reinforces lower standards."

At Mossbourne, all the pupils dress in the uniform of red-trimmed grey blazer and V-neck pullover - they could be sent home for infractions such as wearing the wrong shoes. They walk neatly down the corridors and stop to let adults walk through doors first. Some learn Latin and go rowing, yet Wilshaw dismisses the "traditionalist" tag.

“It's just common sense. Kids can't learn unless there is order in the classroom. Kids can't learn if they don't respect adults or teachers. This is non-negotiable. If you come here, you respect the adults. These people are here at six o'clock in the morning and leave at nine o'clock at night. They work long hours. Respect them."

Whenever a school does well, attention falls on its admissions procedure. Many academies are accused of selecting their students according to ability and excluding the most troublesome. Mossbourne is oversubscribed, with upwards of 1,500 applicants for 180 places. The children are tested before entry and divided into four bands, according to ability. The academy takes 25 per cent from each band. This is by no means the social engineering that goes on at other academies, but it does ensure a solid group of high achievers in each year.

Conversely, 27 per cent of students have spe­cial needs and 43 per cent are on free school meals. (In her book School Wars, the education campaigner Melissa Benn points out that the equivalent figure at Hackney Downs was 77 per cent.)

The school is close to the Pembury Estate, which is blighted by gang wars and was thrown into chaos during the riots in August. Wilshaw is at his most compassionate when talking about the experience of some of the boys at Mossbourne. "They're expected to conform to gang culture when they go home. They're quite open about it and I feel for them. It's hard to show you take your education seriously when the culture is that you can get more money by selling drugs or looting a shop." Strong pastoral care, including one-to-one support from one of five male mentors, helps students cope.

Born in India in 1946 and raised in south London, Wilshaw describes his background as "poor". His father, a former soldier, struggled to find work and eventually became a postman. Wilshaw was "fortunate enough to go to a good school" - a Catholic grammar in south London. "My teachers didn't say: 'Your dad is unemployed, so what can we expect?'" he says. He describes himself as "a typical boy who didn't work very hard", but later trained as a teacher and completed a history degree, part-time, at Birkbeck College, London. He took his first job, at a school in Docklands, east London, in 1968, teaching the children of dockers, who mostly left school at 15 to start work. He has taught in inner-city schools ever since.

While Wilshaw is confident that the successes of Mossbourne can and should be replicated elsewhere, it is difficult to understand how he has managed to implement these structures. Many teachers I have spoken to at other inner-city schools describe the children in their care as lacking basic listening skills and respect for authority, to the point where it is difficult to engage with them at all. "It's an excuse and I've never accepted it," Wilshaw says. Students find it a "shock" when they arrive at Mossbourne from a failing primary school, but after the first term they "get the message".

“When schools do badly, it's a failure of leadership," he says. The head has the power to create a school "culture" - although sceptics might point out that Mossbourne's academy status gives it greater financial resources than schools run by local authorities. As it was built from scratch, with a new intake, the task of creating this culture must also have been easier.

Wilshaw is passionate about the expansion of the state academies programme, which liberates schools from local authority control and allows them to receive funding from personal or corporate sponsors. Is he worried that there are not enough of the so-called super-heads to go around? "We have got a growing number of powerful people like me who know how to run schools. They will be taking and developing a model and a brand for those schools to follow and then mentoring and supporting less experienced head teachers."

The standards watchdog Ofsted has named Wilshaw as its new head. This follows leaks earlier this month about plans for surprise inspections of schools. The role of chief inspector of schools is notoriously political and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has described Wilshaw as his "hero".

His enthusiastic subscription to the doctrine of competition, which underpins the coalition's education programme, would appear to make him the ideal candidate for the Ofsted job. Yet, as Peter Wilby wrote recently in the NS, Wilshaw has a "sturdily independent mind" and is unlikely to act as a political puppet.

Business end

Given his absolute faith that his model of strict discipline and high-expectation is the right one for the inner-city, I wonder whether Wilshaw worries about the huge variety of approaches that such drastic decentralisation will allow. You cannot get much further away from his philosophy than Swedish-style Kunskapskolan schools, which allow students to design their own timetables and uniforms, and plan to open five academies in England. Clearly a well-practiced interviewee, he will not be drawn into making specific criticisms of other schools, instead reiterating his firm commitment to competition and diversity. "Marks and Spencer's has to compete with the retailers down the road, BP has got to compete with Shell. Businesses are competing all the time. It makes them sharper, more productive. Why should education be different?" I suggest that not everyone is comfortable with the role of competition in education, and ask why a more collaborative approach can't be taken. "If a school is failing, it is usually because of poor leadership, and there's no reason why that school should exist." It's an argument which will not convince everyone. Schools are not businesses. When they fail, the children attending them fail too.

Given the direction of travel, the future of schools under the Tory-led government is a series of corporate chains of academies. "Local authorities are not perfect, but it is important to have accountable bodies on things like admissions, funding, special needs and exclusions, and to help schools collaborate, rather than just compete," argues Benn. "[Chains of academies] are unaccountable to anyone and they will probably make profit further down the line." Some "brands", such as Ark (of which Wilshaw is education director), the Harris Federation and the Edutrust Academies Charitable Trust are already establishing multiple academies.

Wilshaw is not worried about this, arguing that those on the "far left" are unduly concerned that businesses are in education only to make a profit. Clive Bourne, the businessman who bought Hackney Downs and funded its transformation into Mossbourne Academy, appears to have acted sincerely out of philanthropy. He was born in the area, and visited the school weekly until he died. It continues to be funded by the Bourne family trusts. Such examples are relatively rare, however. Wilshaw says that, "in principle", he is not opposed to companies making money from schools. "If the old model of so-called local democracy had worked, we'd never have needed academies."

On many points, Wilshaw is unwilling to cede any ground, but it is probably this unwavering confidence in his own beliefs which has allowed him to provide the leadership he espouses so enthusiastically. He explains the difference between children from disadvantaged but loving backgrounds, and those with parents who have drug or alcohol problems. Yet when I ask whether there is a risk that the school's intake will become self-selecting, as these most dysfunctional families may not apply to the school or may be put off by its 'boot camp' reputation, he brushes over it. "It's the reverse. Most parents, even those dysfunctional families, understand how important education is."

He speaks of "warm" support for Gove's education reforms, but is by no means an out-and-out Tory. A signed photograph of Tony Blair hangs in the main reception, and during the hour I spend with him, Wilshaw refers several times to Blair's "education, education, education" mantra. Indeed, he seems fully subscribed to the New Labour emphasis on targets, learning objectives, and testing. Combined with the strict emphasis on discipline, is there a risk of creating a sterile atmosphere that does not foster independent learning? As on admissions, he is unequivocal. "I've never believed that. I believe in testing, I believe in examinations. Testing is part of the accountability structure of every school. But my teachers don't teach for the test. They teach for the knowledge and understanding that we've got to provide to our children."

It would be churlish to sweep aside the achievements of Mossbourne. Yet there is indisputably a political element to the way it is being acclaimed - education campaigners joke that you might think it was the only good state school in Britain.

“There are a lot of high-performing schools in disadvantaged areas and they are not all academies," Benn says. "The emphasis on Mossbourne promotes the vision and structure that goes with it, which is academy status. It has very clear lines of authority, so it fits in with the government's vision."

As I leave the school, Wilshaw notes, with pride, that one of his pupils who is going up to Cambridge this year became a single mother at the age of 14. "I'm totally committed to seeing children from poor and modest backgrounds doing well," he says. "I don't want to live in a more polarised society."

Samira Shackle is a staff writer for the NS

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B