Ofsted’s Chief Inspector had positive words for primary schools in his first monthly address – but was it as genuine as it seemed?

It’s difficult to judge whether Sir Michael Wilshaw’s first written monthly commentary is in praise of primary schools, as he claims, or really an attack on secondary schools. Those of us in primary education are not used to unqualified praise from Ofsted chief inspectors. Let’s welcome it as far as it goes – but that may not be very far.

Wilshaw claims to be giving some “reflections on the state of England’s primary schools in 2015”. But the first part of his commentary focuses almost entirely on improvements in test results in literacy and mathematics.  These are impressive but come at what cost? Have there been any improvements in children’s attainments in the nine-elevenths of the primary curriculum not subject to the tests? No mention. Have those tests results been accompanied by better or worse attitudes to literacy, mathematics or school as a whole? Silence.  Are teachers he claims to speak with well-motivated and happy with the system? Not a word. Presumably some are, but many are not.  Those “many” play a prominent part in the “state of England’s primary schools in 2015” but don’t feature in these myopic reflections.

 

Wilshaw claims a large increase in the number of so-called “outstanding” and “good” schools. How far is that a tribute to a schools’ ability to “teach to the inspection”, though? Gaming as a black art is not confined to the secondary sector.

 

He also contends that the improvement is all down to “a greater emphasis on the structure of language”, especially “high-quality effective synthetic phonics teaching” and on “understanding and using correct grammar”. He knows this because, as he says, “his” inspectors have reported it.  Don’t his inspectors also report that many schools use a variety of methods in addition to synthetic phonics to get children hooked on reading? Why no mention in this commentary?  Why no hint that bodies with great expertise in literacy do not share his unbridled, exclusive support for just one narrow approach to early literacy or the uncritical emphasis he places on “correct grammar” as the way to improve English language proficiency.

 

But the sting in the tail is directed at secondary schools where “the rigour …at primary stage is not often developed sufficiently at secondary” – the first time ever that such “rigorous” praise has been levelled at the primary sector. Is this perhaps because the chief inspector has key stage 3 reform, including the possible re-introduction of testing, in his sights?

 

This looks like a myopic, narrow-minded commentary. Those of us involved in primary education should beware of “Greeks bearing gifts” – especially bearing in mind Wilshaw’s lack of primary expertise and lack of sympathy for a genuinely broad and balanced primary education.