Speech: A nation divided

Thank you for coming to this, my fourth Annual Report I have delivered as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

It’s the job of every Chief Inspector, on occasions such as this, to address 2 fundamental questions based on a year of inspection evidence. Firstly, is our English education system improving? And, if so, is this improvement likely to raise our standing internationally?

In answer to the first question, inspection evidence over the last academic year demonstrates that improvement is only partial. England’s primary schools continue to improve, but secondary schools still remain a problem in large parts of our country. As a consequence, the answer to the second question must be that our national system is still some way from being considered world class.

Indeed, there should be some anxiety that, when next year’s PISA tables are published, our rankings won’t show much improvement.

Yes, over the last 5 years, we have seen nearly 1.4 million more children in good and outstanding schools, but mainly in the primary phase. The number of primary schools with a ‘requires improvement’ grade is less than half of what it was when we called these schools ‘satisfactory’.

Primary schools are getting the basics right. Literacy and numeracy are much improved. There has been a steady rise in the performance at key stage 2 – the results this year are the highest on record. And although much work needs to be done, primary schools have succeeded in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers.

When all is said and done, we have a far better education system now than was the case 20 years ago. The problem is that, as we have improved, so have other countries. Despite our achievements, serious areas of weaknesses remain.

Last year, I told you of my concerns that secondary school performance lagged behind that of primaries. There has been some improvement. The proportion of good secondaries has increased slightly, but so has the percentage of primaries. So the gap between the 2 has stayed the same.

This worrying discrepancy, however, conceals an even more alarming fact. Educational success and failure aren’t spread evenly across the country. Improvement in secondary schools has been driven by schools in the South of England. If you draw a line roughly from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, 79% of the secondary schools below it will be good or outstanding compared with 68% of those above it.

In the North and Midlands, 410,000 children attend a secondary school that isn’t good enough. We are, in effect, a nation divided at the age of 11. We are witnessing an educational division of the country, with schools performing well overall in the South but struggling to improve in the North and the Midlands. If schools north of this line were performing as well as those south of it, 160,000 more pupils would be in a good or outstanding secondary school.

The facts are stark. Compared with secondary children in the South, those in the North and Midlands, on average, make less progress in English and maths, perform worse at GCSE and attain fewer top grades at A level. We are witnessing, as one Midlands politician said to me, “a sea of mediocrity in our secondary schools. I can’t find a decent secondary school for my child anywhere near where I live.”

If left unaddressed, the consequences will be profound. Our society and our future prosperity and development rely on the better education of our children.

As things stand, too many secondary schools, particularly in the North and Midlands, are failing to equip young people with the skills and knowledge that our country needs. What’s worse is that the great work that is being done in our nation’s primary schools is being wasted in too many of our secondary schools. The recent Sutton Trust figures tell a bleak story. Over a third of ‘highly able’ boys eligible for free school meals in England who scored in the top 10% at key stage 2 fail to achieve a good set of GCSEs 5 years later. The situation for bright girls from disadvantaged backgrounds is not much better.

There has been much talk about a ‘northern powerhouse’. To succeed, it will require astute leadership, complex regional alliances and billions of pounds spent on infrastructure. And what of education?

All that money, all that commitment and optimism, will be wasted if the next generation is not educated sufficiently to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this initiative. A northern powerhouse without homegrown intellectual fuel to sustain it will be forced to seek it elsewhere. A regional powerhouse that cannot harness the energy and dynamism of its people risks running on empty, switched on but unable to benefit those who have been switched off.

We cannot continue to deny, as we currently deny, a good education to so many children of secondary age in the North and Midlands. They have the same capabilities and the same dreams and ambitions as youngsters in the South. They surely deserve an education that gives them the same chance of pursuing them.

Poverty is not destiny

Critics will say that we shouldn’t be surprised by the gap between the 2 regions. The South is relatively prosperous and the North and Midlands are disproportionately poor. The discrepancy in educational performance isn’t therefore surprising, is what they would say. Or they will point to the disproportionate boost given to the South by the success of London’s schools, which rely on factors that aren’t replicable anywhere else.

It is true that London has its advantages. But it is equally true that it is home to some of the poorest people in the country and it still has the best performing secondary schools. It’s also true that it has unique problems. Try tempting maths teachers to inner London, where house prices are mind-boggling multiples of their annual salaries. Believe me, they can do the sums.

I’m conscious that we do not have to travel to London to witness children receiving a good education. There are secondary schools in the North and Midlands that provide an excellent education for their students, just as there are, regrettably, secondary schools in the South that are still failing their pupils. There are exceptions to the north/south divide – some of which I’ll talk about later on in my speech.

Nevertheless, it is inescapable that proportionally more secondary schools north of the Wash are providing a worse education for their children than those south of it. Nowhere is it written that this has to be so. The North and Midlands have terrible areas of deprivation, but nowhere is it ordained that because these children are poor the education they receive is bound to be less than good.

If anyone doubts this, they should turn their attention to the regions’ primary schools. 84% of primary schools in the North and Midlands are good or outstanding, virtually the same proportion as in the South. There is no meaningful national division in education before the age of 11. The North and Midlands perform just as well as the South.

The problem is the divide after the age of 11 and the North East illustrates the problem better than any other region. 91% of primary schools in the North East have been judged good or better. Nine of the region’s 12 local authorities boast higher than average proportions of pupils gaining Level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2.

Indeed, one authority, Redcar and Cleveland, scarred by unemployment and the recent loss of its steel works, nevertheless increased its SATs scores by 10 percentage points from 2012, transforming it from a mid-ranking local authority to one of the top performing local authorities in the country in 2015.

Yet a third of the North East’s secondary school students – some 40,000 youngsters in all – attend schools that are less than good. This is despite the fact that a few places in the region, such as North and South Tyneside, have secondaries that are doing an excellent job. Unfortunately, many others are not. As many as half of all secondary schools in some local authority areas are less than good. What a dreadful waste of human potential that is.

The sad fact is that during the course of their secondary careers, the gains made by many children at primary school in the North and the Midlands are lost – usually for good. The question is, what can be done about it?

Political will and local action

I know from personal experience as a headteacher in London that there is nothing inevitable about school improvement. It requires leadership. It requires a relentless focus on raising standards and an equal refusal to tolerate poor behaviour. But how do you raise standards across an entire region?

The key is collective action and political will. What sparked the education revolution in London was a collective decision by heads, local politicians, chief executives and MPs that they would refuse to accept underperformance and insist on high expectations for all.

The same now needs to happen in the North and the Midlands. They are home to three-quarters of the secondary schools in England judged inadequate for behaviour. Of the 49 schools in the most disadvantaged areas that have inadequate leadership, 41 are in the North and Midlands.

There are 16 local authority areas in England where less than 60% of pupils attend secondary schools that are good or better and that have lower than average attainment and progress at GCSE. All but 3 of these are in the North and Midlands: Barnsley; Blackpool; Bradford; Derbyshire; Doncaster; Hartlepool; Knowsley; Liverpool; Middlesbrough; Oldham; Salford; St Helens; and Stoke-on-Trent.

Let’s take one of those areas – Bradford. Unlike the rest of the North, both its primary and secondary schools underperform, making it in the bottom 10 authorities in the country for both phases. Its secondaries are particularly poor – the proportion that are good or better is 34 percentage points adrift of the national average – 34 percentage points!

Unsurprisingly, the city’s results at key stages 2 and 4 leave it languishing in the bottom 10% of all local authorities. Historically, my inspectors tell me that the local authority has been slow to drive improvement, with the result that in the past few years Bradford has fallen even further behind the rest of the country.

Bradford’s schools have tried various initiatives to try and improve, but improvements have not been sustained. Their efforts lacked coordination and, more importantly, the political support that would have made them effective. The city’s schools, like too many in the North, remain mired in mediocrity, failing generation after generation with depressing regularity.

Bradford’s social composition and challenges aren’t that different to London’s East End, which in the main performs very well.

Bradford is a large local authority. It is responsible for more than 200 schools educating almost 100,000 children, of whom almost 40,000 are in schools that are less than good. More than 8,000 of these children are in inadequate schools. What on earth have the political leaders been doing over the years in this major city?

I believe the situation is so bad that a commission of enquiry should be set up to investigate the problem. Bradford needs its own commissioner. Let’s not forget what is at stake. If children are poorly educated, they don’t go to university, they don’t get apprenticeships, they don’t get jobs. Educational underperformance leads directly to social alienation. And the dangers of being alienated from British society are very great indeed.

Local politicians must be as determined to encourage schools to do better as they are to lobby for fast trains or new motorways. Children in their regions deserve as good an education as children in the South. Without one, many will remain trapped in a cycle of deprivation that no amount of extra roads and railways will ever help them to escape.

Apprenticeship ambitions aren’t being met

One of the biggest policy shifts in recent years has been the renewed focus on apprenticeships. They rightly command support across the political spectrum. They are a vital component in the drive to train and upskill the next generation.

But I regret to say that enthusiasm isn’t a substitute for quality. Of the apprenticeship programmes inspected this year, almost half were judged less than good. This represents 73,000 apprentices enrolled on courses of dubious worth in a single year alone.

Despite all the investment, the number of 16- to 18-year-old apprentices is almost as low today as it was a decade ago. Much of the increase has been among the over 25s. Many of them are enrolled on apprenticeships barely worthy of the name.

There are good quality apprenticeships out there – especially in construction and engineering. But if we are to have more of them – and more youngsters enrolled on them – employers have to ensure that standards are kept high and schools and colleges must improve their career advice.

The increased awareness of apprenticeships in recent years is an excellent development. But if they are to have real value – if they are to be a valid career path – then their quality has to rise.

The challenges are not structural

Much of the education debate in recent years has revolved around school structure. Of the 3,300 secondary schools in England, more than 2,000 are now academies. They have undoubtedly injected vigour and competition into the system. But as academies have become the norm, success or failure hasn’t automatically followed. The same can be said of those schools that have remained with local authorities.

Take the 13 underperforming northern towns and cities I’ve just listed. The complexion of provision ranges from Doncaster, where all 18 of its secondary schools are academies, to St Helens, where only 2 are. In Bradford, just over half of all secondaries are academies. In Knowsley, the worst-performing local authority post-11, half of secondaries are academies and half are local authority schools. Not one of them is good.

If we are serious about tackling underperformance in our schools, we have to move on from what has become a rather sterile debate. The argument over school autonomy, it seems to me, is over. Indeed, the argument was won 25 years ago when schools received their own, delegated budgets.

As a headteacher at the time, I became master of my own destiny from the moment I didn’t have to defer to the local authority for every brass farthing spent. The academy movement has built on that major structural reform in the early 90s. It would be a distraction to seek to turn the clock back.

The only question remaining over school autonomy is not whether it’s a good or bad idea but whether the independence it confers is being used well. Do we have sufficient leaders who can use their freedoms effectively? Are there enough fail-safe mechanisms in place for schools that fall through the net? Is oversight sufficiently robust?

The government has made it clear it wants all schools to become academies. If this is the political direction of travel, we should not waste time in tendentious arguments about the relative merits of academies but rather on how we can make them work.

Academies, like all schools, work if they have good leaders and good teaching. If they lack them, they do not.

It is now the case that 53% of secondary sponsor-led academies, many of which were previously failing schools, are good or outstanding. That is 3 percentage points higher than last year.

Many converter academies, most of which were already good or outstanding schools, continue to perform well and are increasingly working with weaker schools in their local areas. However, this year, there were 99 converter academies that declined from good or outstanding to less than good.

It’s clear that becoming an academy can lead to improvement, but it does not insulate schools from decline. If oversight is poor, if leadership is complacent and teaching indifferent, standards will inevitably drop. This is true whatever type of institution the nameplate on the door proclaims the school to be.

A lack of capacity in the system

The debate over structure often forgets that ultimately it is people who make the difference – people who make the structures work; people who can exploit the freedoms given to them. But if good people are absent, it’s hard for a system to improve. If too many schools and colleges can’t find the leaders, can’t hire the teachers and can’t enlist the governors they need, then whatever structures are in place our education system will struggle.

All of our evidence shows that it is good leadership that makes the biggest difference to school standards. Yet many areas of the country clearly do not have the calibre of leadership necessary for their schools to improve. It is not just a question of raw numbers; it’s also about identifying talented individuals and incentivising them to move to the schools that need them most.

Vacancy data can only provide a partial picture – they cannot shine a light on the quality of applicants. Re-advertising rates, however, can indicate when schools are struggling to find the right candidates.

More than a third of schools report that they are struggling to fill leadership posts, according to the National Governors’ Association. This chimes with figures from the Times Educational Supplement – according to whom the re-advertisement rate for secondary head roles stands at 25%. Obviously, if the situation is difficult across the board in any particular region, it will be acute for some schools in the most difficult circumstances.

Some steps have been taken to address the problem. The Future Leaders programme is coaching and placing hundreds of leaders in challenging schools, with impressive results. The government’s Talented Leaders initiative is encouraging outstanding heads to work in deprived areas and is also a step in the right direction.

But these initiatives can only be partial answers. No other profession – and certainly no organisation in the private sector – would have such an un-coordinated approach to nurturing its next generation of leaders. The most recent NCTL (National College for Teaching and Leadership) survey, for example, showed a trend of declining interest in leadership among middle leaders.

There is no systematic attempt to identify suitable candidates at an early age. There are only haphazard attempts to assess and train them. There is no coordinated national programme to ensure that enough heads will be trained. There is little to ensure that those we have trained go to the places that need them most. We don’t even have informative data on future leadership supply and demand.

I’m so concerned about where the next generation of school leaders will come from that I have commissioned a survey into the problem, which will report early next year.

Weak governance is also an area of concern. It remains a persistent contributory factor in underperforming schools. Last year, there were nearly 500 schools where inspectors were so concerned about the performance of governing boards that they called for outside experts to be drafted in to carry out an urgent external review.

My inspectors tell me that the best governing bodies are increasingly professional, with members who have the knowledge and background to effectively challenge senior leaders. My concern is whether there are sufficient people of this calibre becoming governors and whether the expertise is available where it is needed most.

That is why, last year, I recommended to government that it should give serious consideration to mandatory training for all governors and trustees. I am deeply disappointed that there has been such little progress on this recommendation.

If leadership capacity is a problem in secondary schools, it is even worse in general further education (FE) colleges. Ofsted found just 44% of leadership in general FE colleges to be good or outstanding this year – less than in 2014. There was no clear divide across the country. In fact, leadership in colleges in London was slightly worse than in other areas.

What differentiates outstanding colleges from those in decline is the calibre of those in charge. Leaders in colleges such as Gateshead, and Strode in Somerset, ensure that teaching is consistently good, work well with local businesses and tailor the curriculum to meet employer needs.

According to our inspectors, less effective leaders tend to over-estimate the quality of teaching and learning in their colleges, fail to align the curriculum to local employment needs and cannot count on robust and effective governance.

I appreciate that the pressures on general FE colleges are immense. They lost more than a quarter of a million students in a single year and just under half are in deficit. The government is conducting area reviews to assess colleges’ capacity for the challenges ahead and I await the results with interest.

Teacher recruitment

One of our undoubted successes in recent years has been the calibre of recruits attracted into teaching. That continues to be the case – teachers are better qualified now than they have ever been. Unfortunately, good recruits are not being attracted in sufficient numbers and too few go to the areas that need them most.

The latest figures on new entrants into postgraduate training are not encouraging. Most subjects in secondary education are below target, with the sciences, languages, computing and design and technology particularly badly hit.

It has always been the case that a certain proportion who qualify never become teachers. There are more than 100,000 qualified teachers under 60 who have never taught. But teacher shortages in the state system are being exacerbated by the increasing numbers who opt to teach abroad.

Teacher recruitment difficulties are having a significant impact on schools across the country.

Ofsted surveyed almost 100 schools across the East, South East and North West of England about recruitment. Half the schools in more affluent areas said they had problems recruiting good staff, with the proportion rising to more than three-quarters in the most deprived areas. Three-quarters in more affluent areas said teacher-training provision was insufficient, which increased to 9 in 10 in the most challenging areas. Six in 10 of the latter group also said that the situation in maths and science was so bad that they had to rely on temporary supply staff.

I appreciate that teacher recruitment in an improving economy is always going to be a big challenge, but the overriding message from headteachers is that recruitment is a real problem and likely to get worse.

What really concerns me, however, is not only the insufficient numbers joining the profession but the growing division between those schools in disadvantaged areas that struggle to recruit and the rest. In our ‘Unseen children’ report 2 years ago, we warned that challenging schools in deprived or isolated communities were having difficulty recruiting. Since then, the situation has not improved.

Challenging schools report that they have trouble attracting good candidates because the best usually opt to stay in the schools where they trained, which are much more likely to be good or outstanding institutions. Moreover, initial secondary teacher training is heavily concentrated in the major conurbations, which means more isolated areas lose out.

In a tight recruitment market, trainees can pick and choose where to work. Unsurprisingly, they prefer well-performing schools in sought-after areas with good transport links. Even when they work in struggling schools, good teachers often take older classes rather than the younger ones who would benefit most.

Challenging schools are trapped in a vicious cycle. They cannot recruit because they are struggling but they cannot improve because they cannot recruit. We are in danger of allowing a two-tier system to develop by default simply because we lack the strategies to prevent it.

And this has to change. National data of vacancy rates are clearly not showing the true picture. We must develop more comprehensive figures that give an accurate portrayal of the recruitment situation locally. We must align teaching need with trainee supply. We must actively encourage training providers to give priority to those schools that need help the most. We should incentivise teachers to remain in the system and encourage them to work where they are most needed.

The National College has got to ensure that school-based training is well organised, and that the process of application to initial teacher training is clearer and easier to navigate.

The government has taken some steps to alleviate the recruitment problems in challenging areas with its National Teaching Service. I would like to see it expanded.

For its part, Ofsted will insist that training providers must equip trainees with some experience in challenging schools. Indeed, they will only be found good if they do this.

The long tail of underachievement

The most troubling weakness in our education system remains the performance of children from lower income backgrounds. They suffer disproportionately when leadership is weak, oversight is poor and recruitment of good teachers difficult. Sadly, the ‘long tail of underachievement’ that prevents too many of our poorest children realising their potential shows few signs of being eradicated.

It is deeply troubling that the gap in acceptable performance between pupils eligible for free school meals and their better-off peers rises sharply from 18 percentage points at key stage 2 to 27 percentage points at key stage 4. What is worse is that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers at age 16 has remained virtually unchanged.

Let me put a human face to those numbers. Imagine a bright girl from a poor background in a northern town. She leaves her outstanding primary school with good grades and an enthusiasm for learning. She finds herself in a less than good secondary with indifferent teaching and weak leadership. She ends up repeating what she’s learnt before. She isn’t stretched because the best teachers take the older classes and her school has trouble recruiting subject specialists. She is left to drift.

She is able to scrape a C in a few subjects at GCSE and decides to leave at 16. The career guidance she receives is shockingly poor. The word ‘apprenticeship’ is never mentioned. She ends up at a mediocre FE college on a low-level course that isn’t rated by local employers. Those same employers are crying out for skilled engineers, but so few are trained locally they have to look elsewhere.


So, in a nutshell, this is the sorry experience of too many of our children, particularly in the Midlands and the North of England after the age of 11. It is the tale of too many of our secondary schools. It is the story too many of our employers are tired of hearing.

It cannot be acceptable for so many children in the North and Midlands to receive a disproportionately sub-standard education. It cannot be right that children after the age of 11 have to attend so many schools that aren’t good enough. It is totally unjustifiable that the prospects of so many disadvantaged young people have barely improved in a decade.

I hope in my final report as Chief Inspector next year to report an improvement. The undoubted achievements of primary schools across the country, including in the North and Midlands, demonstrate what can be done. There are leaders who are bucking the trend and transforming secondary schools across the north. Take Kelvin Hall School or the Boulevard Academy in Hull, or Ellesmere Port High School in Cheshire or St Augustine of Canterbury in St Helens – all schools in challenging areas that were turned around by inspired and determined leadership. Yes, it can be done.

But I fear that if the recruitment issues remain unaddressed, if training provision in much of the country continues to be patchy, and if schools that are desperate for good teachers struggle to find them, we are destined to remain a nation divided.

Thank you very much.

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