Ofsted, Recruitment and WhatsApp With Gavin Williamson?

Education tends to split people in a number of ways. Are you a trad or a prog? Do you believe in no exclusions, or do you think that way lies chaos? Are you in favour of strikes, or do you think there are less drastic ways to negotiate?

And, most significantly: who is the worst education secretary of all time, Michael Gove or Gavin Williamson?

Until now, the Goveites’ argument could be roughly summarised as followed: “Yes, Williamson was dreadful. But he was mostly just inept. Gove was evil.”

But now it looks like “Sir” Gav’s own evilness credentials have just been burnished. That skull-bedecked throne in the Department for Education’s chamber of horrors may be his, after all.

This week, the Daily Telegraph revealed a series of exchanges between politics’ very own Waldorf and Statler (can Muppets sue for defamation?), Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson.

In a WhatsApp exchange in October 2020, after Williamson had belatedly decided to delay the 2021 A levels, Hancock wrote (and let’s agree not to think about where his texting hand had just been, shall we?): “Cracking announcement. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are.”

To which “Sir” Gav replied; “I know they really do just hate work.”

Daily Telegraph – 1 March 2023 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/01/gavin-williamson-whatsapp-message-teachers-work-pandemic/

Earlier that year, Williamson had also messaged Hancock to ask for personal protective equipment for schools, so teachers could not use a lack of PPE “as a reason not to open”. He added: “All of them will but some will just want to say they can’t so they have an excuse to avoid having to teach, what joys!!!”

There are two key points to note here. Firstly: good grief. You do your best to break the mental association between Matt Hancock and arses, and then he goes and sends a message like that.

Secondly: say what you like about Gove (no, really: do), but the man would pass one of his own Year 6 spelling, punctuation and grammar tests. Whereas Williamson’s style is more Kerouac-meets-a-Year-1-pupil-who-hasn’t-quite-learnt-how-to-hold-a-pen-properly-yet. Game, set and match to the Williamson-is-worst brigade, then.

In fact, it’s been a bad week all round for bêtes noires of education. After Gove and Gav, Ofsted surely comes in at number three on the collective teachers’ list of Things We Love To Hate.

And, this week, the Confederation of School Trusts – the body representing multi-academy trusts – called for a review of the inspectorate’s notorious four-tier grading system.

A paper seen by Tes said that Ofsted’s use of the grades ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ should be reviewed. Instead, it called for a straightforward pass or fail system, identifying whether or not there was cause for concern.

Meanwhile, a separate research paper argued that Ofsted inspections are not particularly useful to parents when they are choosing schools. The study, by Dr Sam Sims, Professor Christian Bokhove and Professor John Jerrim, pointed out that a school’s Ofsted grade can be years out of date. The academics added that the grade does not serve as an effective indicator of the future academic performance of any pupils who might attend a school.

What with the revelations that Gavin Williamson doesn’t like teachers and that Ofsted grades aren’t necessarily an indication of how good a school is, it’s been a bit of a week for stating the bleeding obvious.

And so to the revelation – which will shock precisely no-one – that reforms to the provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities may not necessarily provide the help and support that pupils need.

This week, the government published its SEND improvement plan, three years after the SEND review was launched, in September 2019.

Key among the reforms is the implementation of national standards of SEND provision, with the aim of eliminating the current postcode lottery that pupils face. The standards will lay out what should be provided to meet pupils’ needs, which organisation is responsible for providing it and where the funding should come from.

Obviously, this sounds like a good idea, in principle. But there are a number of catches. Firstly, the new national standards are going to be piloted for two or three years before any legislation is decided upon. So the actual standards – or “a significant proportion” of them, according to the government – won’t be published until the end of 2025. By which point the Tories may no longer be in power, anyway.

The children’s commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza, said: “The DfE identify in the plan a vicious cycle of late intervention, low confidence and inefficient resource allocation that drives the challenges plaguing the system… We have two more years of children being fed into this cycle, with the commensurate poor outcomes that has necessitated this review in the first place.”

Secondly, there is a risk that the burden of responsibility for meeting the new standards will be shunted on to – guess who? – schools. For example, if there was an expectation that certain pupils should be able to access speech therapy, then schools would need the resources to access speech therapists.

James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders’ union, said: “This creates the potential for making the system more adversarial, because parents will be able to rightly point to a set of standards, and schools could be left…without funding or support to be able to meet them.”

And so the compass needle of education swings back here again: to the true north of education in 2023. Or, to phrase it slightly differently: let’s state the bleeding obvious once more, shall we?

Headteachers are left feeling “emotionally crushed”, because budget pressures and staff shortages mean that they are unable to meet the needs of all the pupils in their care, according to the charity Headrest.

In its annual report, Headrest also argues that school leaders are being asked to do an “impossible job”, causing “moral injury” to those who keep trying to achieve the unachievable.

Meanwhile, applications to initial teacher training courses have fallen by up to 37 per cent year on year, according to new figures. There were 10,346 ITT applicants given a place in February this year, compared with 11,108 in February 2022.

Jack Worth, education economist at the National Foundation for Educational research, summed it up succinctly: “Underlying interest in entering teaching appears to be haemorrhaging.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the figures were “catastrophic…for a system already suffering a severe shortage of teachers”.

Or, as Gavin Williamson might put it, reserving all his punctuation for where it really matters: what joys!!!


Read more of Adi Bloom’s articles here.


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