Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted is in the news this week after a speech at Brighton College’s Education Conference in which he claimed today’s teachers do not know what stress is.

Wilshaw knows what stress is.  He measures it by his father’s experiences:

“Let me tell you about stress. Stress is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the Fifties and Sixties and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family.

So, in emphasising his ordinary roots, Wilshaw reveals a belief in a hierarchy of stress.  A stress hierarchy is an appealing concept, particularly to those who want to trivialise the stressful experiences of others.  Stress is however, relative, and dependent on a context.  I wonder if  Wilshaw’s father’s generation were told by their elders that as they had not experienced the horrors of the Great War, they could not possibly know the meaning of stress.

Wilshaw concedes that his father does not have a monopoly on stress, as he himself has experienced it:

“Stress is what I was under when I started as a head in 1985 in the context of widespread industrial action. Teachers walking out of class at a moment’s notice, doing lunch duty on my own every day for three years because of colleagues who worked to rule…”

So Wilshaw does recognise that stress is relative.  However, his understanding of the context in which stress can occur is clearly limited.  The “context of widespread industrial action” can only be understood with reference to the context in which this “industrial action” was taking place[1].

Wilshaw claims his stress was caused because colleagues did what they were contractually obliged to do, and, unlike him, no more.  This does not fit with his claim of “[t]eachers walking out of class at a moment’s notice”.  If those teachers were not contractually obliged to cover lunch ‘duties’ any reasonably intelligent head teacher would be able to envisage the possibility of no cover.

Of course, what Wilshaw is highlighting in this anecdote is goodwill, hence his call for teachers to “roll up their sleeves and get on with improving their schools, even in the most difficult circumstances”.  Yes, the pupil premium may be plugging school budgets, buildings are not being repaired, and school transport budgets may be slashed, but this is the twenty-first century, so lets make do and mend!    Wilshaw felt able to say all this at Brighton College, this says something about his tolerance for injustice.

It is worth reading his speech in full from the Ofsted website.

1.  To be fair to Wilshaw, he does acknowledge this wider context with his reference to the “awful decades of the 70s and 80s” which were brought to an end by the “great reforming” Kenneth Baker.

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