Confusion and contradictions


From the Ashes to Ofsted, from school holidays to behaviour – it has been a contradictory few months in education. Professor Mick Waters explains why schooling is getting confusing...

It has been a confusing few months, school-wise. There was much media and political interest around the case of some parents from Shropshire who were fined a considerable sum for taking their children on holiday during the school term. 

Two weeks later, we were treated to news items on Lewis Clarke who became the youngest person to reach the South Pole. This was a considerable achievement, not least because he got there during the school term without his parents being fined.

Last summer, as the English cricket team was winning the Ashes, we were constantly told that the backbone of the team had been educated at private schools, which apparently explained the success. 

Through the winter, with tables turned and the Australians trouncing our team, there was little mention of the involvement of the private school contingent and their adding character to the team. Capitulation, plummeting confidence, low morale and in-fighting are not mentioned as part of the private school repertoire. It’s just not cricket.

Michael Gove seems to have puzzled many because he has chosen not to re-appoint Sally Morgan as head of Ofsted when her current contract ends. Most people thought someone called Sir Michael Wilshaw was in charge of the inspection service, so that was a puzzle in itself.

Mr Gove explained, though, that Baroness Morgan, who is the chair, and has been extremely successful in leading the organisation. He intends to bring fresh eyes and someone not necessarily with previous history in the arena in question and so he is changing the leadership. This is good business practice he explains; a bit like the Co-operative bank appointing someone without any experience.

Further confusion arises when we are told that Ofsted believes nearly 80 per cent of our schools to be “good or better”. According to politicians, our schools have been sliding down the international league tables for years at the same rate that Ofsted reckons they have been improving. This conflicting data and the uncertainty over leadership capacity surely places Ofsted in the “requiring improvement” category or worse.

To deflect renewed criticism from the Liberal Democrats, Mr Gove “announced” some new proposals and appears on Sunday television. His idea to test four-year-olds as they start school will gain much support. It is odd though because children do not have to begin school until the term after their fifth birthday.

Mr Gove now wants state schools to learn from the private sector. More confusion as schools are currently implored to copy China, Finland and Singapore where, he claims, they teach things like fractions.

Many will recall Mr Gove arguing that we need to leave it to headteachers because “they know best”. The phrase “headteachers know best” has been in speeches to conferences, in interviews and published papers.

Again, apparently, Mr Gove knows better as he gives guidance to headteachers on discipline policy. He wants to see a return to pupils writing lines and coming to school for detention an hour early so they learn that poor behaviour has consequences; no bad manners, swearing, lateness or anti-social behaviour. 

This must now be a serious matter, despite the fact that Ofsted reckons that 90 per cent of schools exhibit good pupil behaviour. The fact that 40 per cent of schools are “not yet good enough” at PSHE and 75 per cent do not fulfil their duty on careers education does not appear to be an area of concern.

Matters of school behaviour are always popular with politicians. Typically they are adamant that they want children to know the difference between right and wrong. Right and wrong are black and white; there is no grey. Until MPs expenses are looked at and found to be fiddled – then there are grey areas.

Mr Gove’s new plan is for there to be “community service” where pupils scrub off graffiti or pick up litter as a punishment for constant misdemeanour. Most schools work hard to ensure that litter and graffiti are not present and work hard to teach pupils not to abuse property in the first place.

You can envisage the chain of events though; the teenager is caught misbehaving and ordered to remove graffiti as a punishment. On failing to turn up he is ordered to stay behind and pick weeds from the flower bed. Because he swears when he does it, he has to write lines. After writing 50 times, “I have to pull up weeds”, he is awarded a vocational qualification.

Schooling is getting confusing.

  • Professor Mick Waters is a member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance. His latest book, Thinking Allowed on Schooling, was published recently.

Further information

The 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum with representation from practitioners and industry that debates difficult issues to help stimulate improvement and change. Visit or follow on Twitter @Learning_21C


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