Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, seems to like to lob a banger into the fire every now and then. A few sparks have arisen this past few days after he made remarks that have been taken to suggest that neighbours should pry on and police the parenting of fellow-residents.
To be fair to Wilshaw – there’s a phrase I never would have thought I would write – I think it’s nothing of the sort: it was just an eccentric offering of his own, pre-considered and ill-considered.
I reach this view because I have watched a good deal of the select committee meeting where the remark was made. Committee chair Graham Stuart MP (at 10.00.49) was asking, somewhat optimistically I felt, for some guidance on how as a society we might go about compensating for the (perceived) ‘hollowing out’ of family and community.
The Chief Inspector’s remarks were contextualised with reference to the idea of the ‘big society’, first by a member of the committee (at 10.02.46) and then by Wilshaw himself (at 10.06.01). He deliberately prepares the ground for his remarks, even saying that it’s a point he intends to return to later in the discussion.
He talks of addressing ‘social taboos’ (such as fathers not accepting their parental responsibilities and parents not engaging with their children’s schools) that he believes are diminishing. (Wait: though this be method, yet there is madness in it). He says that this creates a vacuum and that ‘there will be people who can step into that vacuum.’ Then follows the now widely-quoted challenge to policy:
‘How do you incentivise good citizens, good people, good family members to engage with the worst, the most difficult members of society? That’s a policy issue for government. How do you financially incentivise those people to get up in the morning and knock on the neighbour's door and say 'your children are not up yet, they've not had their breakfast yet, why aren't you taking them to school?'’
To their credit, it seems like the committee, unlike some journalists and many others (e.g. in the comments here) were ready to dismiss this as random silliness and move on; and so should the rest of us. It’s not a sensible suggestion and it’s unlikely to have been fed cynically into the system by Tory Central, despite their fondness for blunt and polarising moral over-simplification.
But it was articulated in public and was clearly pre-considered. So not for the first time there are questions about how someone who thinks so carelessly at times can have so much power and influence in the educational and child care sectors.
And how can we have a head of Ofsted who talks so irresponsibly about responsibility, flinging around arbitrary judgemental phrases like ‘good people’ and ‘the worst, most difficult members of society’ when giving evidence to a parliamentary committee? We can only wonder, as these questions have since been overtaken in the news by the subsequent rumoured spat between the minister and the chief inspector. What entertainment.