Whisper it – but some of the girls at the strictest school in Britain wear high heels. And they don’t wear ties, like girls at other schools that make a point of old-fashioned discipline, but red blouses with a much more flattering neckline.
The rules at Hackney’s Mossbourne academy are legendary, and widely seen as the secret of the school’s success: no special handshakes, no hugging, no gathering in large groups. Politeness to adults, detentions on Saturdays. Superhead Sir Michael Wilshaw has even taken out restraining orders against badly behaved parents in the past.
“You have to be a bit scary, don’t you think?” he says genially when I ask how often he shouts. But he sounds almost mellow when he talks about teenage boys getting in trouble with the police – “I feel for them” – and agrees when I suggest post-riots criticism of lax parenting was misplaced. “My view is that it’s the gang culture, so it doesn’t matter what parents say, it’s the peer group pressure that is more important.” Wilshaw was in a car on the way back from Scotland when he heard that the Pembury estate next to the school had erupted in violence, but boasts that no Mossbourne pupils were arrested.
Some time next month Wilshaw, who combines his role at Mossbourne with that of education director for the Ark academy chain, hopes to become head of Ofsted. He has yet to receive a job offer, but says, “it’s out in the public domain that the secretary of state is interested. I’m considering all options.”
His pitch for the job could not be clearer or more neatly aligned with government thinking. “It’s easy to identify the really failing schools … and to identify highly successful ones. I think there are a lot of coasting schools out there, particularly outside the urban areas, that are underachieving,” he told me the day before David Cameron launched his attack on “coasting” schools in Oxfordshire.
He thinks too many schools are labelled “good” and “outstanding”, and that Ofsted should toughen up, be “sharper”. “I think you’ve got to say good means you’re hitting the floor targets, and your value-added is good as well. I was shocked to read only 4% of schools are judged outstanding on teaching, and yet something like 20% are outstanding overall. We’ve got to say, ‘you can’t be outstanding unless the teaching is outstanding.'”
Even his critics – “I haven’t got many of them!” he exclaims – agree that Wilshaw’s achievement at Mossbourne is impressive. Last month the school’s first set of A-level results saw seven students win places at Cambridge. Even more deliciously for an academy whose specialism is music, an eighth student turned down the world’s best university in favour of the Royal College of Music.
Almost all the rest will take degrees elsewhere, but while Wilshaw is undoubtedly proud of these teenagers, there is a sense of job done as we walk the Richard Rogers-designed corridors and peer over the balcony at the kids outside. Wilshaw has his sights set on something bigger.
“We’re at a really interesting stage in our country’s history. Our empire is gone, we’re in Europe but we’re not part of the euro, we’ve got the recession, what’s going to happen? We’ve got turmoil on our streets, and large swaths of our country disassociated from social norms. I think policy-makers have got to come together to forge a way forward. It could get worse or it could get better, and schools are part of that,” he says.
Wilshaw subscribes to the view, widely held on the right of the education debate but furiously contested on the left, that standards are slipping. “Has the system made sufficient demands on our young people? Has it been sufficiently rigorous? Has it given up on academic subjects too easily? Have we gone for the soft option too often? Yes we have,” he says, answering his own questions in a manner that makes him sound more like a politician than a teacher. “At 15 we’re two years behind China in maths. We, as a nation, should be alarmed.”
He supports the education secretary, Michael Gove – “he’s right about most things” – and Gove has called him a “hero”, but Wilshaw is not a Tory. “I’m a genuine floating voter,” he says. “I’m a pragmatist. What works, works.” With a coalition government eager to present its policies as an extension of the academies programme championed by Tony Blair, this could well work in his favour.
But while his emphasis on behaviour finds some support among teachers as well as parents, and he seems eager to build consensus, his commitment to competition goes against what many supporters of comprehensive state education passionately believe: that schools must work together to raise levels of attainment, that rivalry between schools is divisive, that a market-based system produces losers as well as winners.
Wilshaw will have none of it. “It’s up to every school to fight for its corner, and that’s what’s happened in Hackney,” he says. “Hackney was the most improved borough last year in terms of GCSE results. Competition does that.” About profits for school providers, recently ruled out by Gove under pressure from the Lib Dems, he says he is ambivalent. “I’m not philosophically against that, and I think it might come in at some stage.”
Governance is Wilshaw’s other theme, and he is scathing about anti-academies campaigners who complain about the schools’ lack of democratic accountability. “If local democracy had worked, if local governing bodies had worked in the most challenging schools and for the most disadvantaged children, we would never have needed academies,” he says. “Often governing bodies are the problem, actually.”
He blames a lack of engagement and expertise, coupled with party-political meddling from local authorities. Letters from Ark to the government leaked to the FT this month catch the flavour of this, deriding the current arrangements as treating schools as “a set of cottage industries” and making the case for a single board of governors overseeing a whole school chain.
But what the doubters about the Mossbourne model, with its old-fashioned insistence on respect for elders, its confidence-building pep-talks and extended school day, find most objectionable is the way the school and others like it – such as Toby Young’s free school – seem to ape the style and ethos of private and grammar schools. Why is rowing better than basketball? Why not study media, when we all agree information technologies are changing the world? Why learn Latin rather than Chinese?
Does Wilshaw, who attended a Catholic grammar school and trained as a teacher before taking a part-time history degree at Birkbeck college in London, wish he had been to Oxbridge? “I’d like to have done, but I wasn’t brainy enough. I was a typical boy in that I didn’t work as hard as I should have done. I scraped through my A-levels, but I was taught well.”
He sent his three children to a south London comprehensive – his daughters, though not his son, went on to university, “but they’re all doing well”.
He says there’s nothing wrong with The X-Factor when I ask why it’s better to write a really thoughtful essay about Jane Austen than about Amy Winehouse, but parrots the familiar line that top universities prefer traditional subjects. And he says it’s not either/or when I question the emphasis on rowing – “I didn’t see it like we’ve got to do this because it’s posh”. As for Latin, he likes it.
Wilshaw has been accused of complacency. “My sort of approach is being replicated across the country,” he says. But he laughs when I ask if he has any weaknesses. “I’ve got loads, where do you want to start? Listening can be a problem. If you’re very firm in your views you tend to discount other people’s points of view from time to time, and I mustn’t do that. Also rushing to judgment. I sometimes think I shouldn’t have done that, shouldn’t have said that.”
Wilshaw was born in India, and is a quarter-Indian via his maternal grandfather. He does not think his ethnic background has shaped his outlook, and prefers to present his commitment to ending the achievement gap between black and white as common sense. But he believes low academic expectation of black boys can be a form of racism, and at Mossbourne a concerted effort has been made to build intellectual confidence, enabling students from poor homes to compete for university places with their white, privately educated peers.
There is an argument that a handful of high-profile, inspiring case studies such as Mossbourne provides useful cover for a government unwilling to tackle the root causes of inequality. I agree with this, but I liked Wilshaw much more than I expected to. He cuts a more modern and less authoritarian figure than his image, and I was reassured by his commitment to comprehensive admissions. And as a parent of primary-age children anxious to know there are London comprehensives to which I would enthusiastically send them, I liked the look of his school.
I had to remind myself that Mossbourne has its flagship status and signed photograph of Tony Blair in the foyer for good reason. When the clean, light, modern building seems such a crucial part of the package here, it seems unfair that other schools had their hopes of new premises snuffed out by a government determined to make cuts.
And I can’t understand how the school can afford to pay teachers £50,000 within “a very short period of time”, as he told me it does. If the financial incentives are so generous, then no wonder Mossbourne attracts the best and outperforms other schools.
I have reservations, too, about Wilshaw’s commitment to “non-negotiable” respect for those in charge. Isn’t that what they had in the church-run schools in Ireland, where priests abused children for decades?
Nor do I share his faith in competition. Why can’t more successful heads be encouraged to help less successful ones? Why can’t local authorities take a more activist stance in relation to failure? If school governors aren’t good enough, why aren’t they offered training?
I think he is wrong not to have made more of a stand on behalf of the education maintenance allowance paid to 16- and 17-year olds until Gove abolished it. And I find his idea that university fees won’t deter Mossbourne students from higher education hard to credit – unless they have all been brainwashed.
I know what he means about standards, and about promoting a culture of effort and hard work. I went to a London comprehensive, and I gave up science subjects at 16 largely because humanities came more easily to me. I’d like to have a science A-level, or speak German, or have learned the trombone. Then again, I had fun in the sixth form, spending time with my friends.
Despite all these caveats, I feel bound to end by agreeing that, with a disproportionate amount of support from a political establishment keen to prove a point, Wilshaw has built an excellent school. He has vastly improved the life chances of about 1,500 kids so far, with the prospect of thousands more to come. It seems stupid as well as churlish not to admit it. Only time will tell if he can repeat the trick nationwide.
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