Speech: Lancashire Secondary Heads conference

I would like to start by thanking you for inviting me to speak today. Also, it was a joy and privilege to visit Millfield Science and Performing Arts College yesterday, where the children were delightful.

I look back with great fondness and nostalgia on my time as a secondary school head. I still think, as I’m sure you do, it’s the best job in the world. There is nothing more important than being a leader of a community which is shaping the lives of young people and through them, the society in which we live.

Of course, headship can be a tough, lonely and daunting job. There are going to be bad days that stay with you for a long time. Tough at the moment in the current financial climate and, as we await the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement next week, we can expect budgets over the next few years to be even tighter than they are now.

But let’s not allow ourselves to get too downcast. After all, when it comes to schools, the power resides with you in a way that I could never have envisaged when I first became a head 30 years ago. Successive governments have given you more autonomy, more freedom and more control over resources than ever before.

Whether you are in a local authority school, a free school or an academy, you’re the ones firmly in the driving seat, leading change and influencing education policy in a way I never could have envisaged 30 years ago.

In less than 2 weeks from now, I will publish Ofsted’s Annual Report – my fourth since being appointed Chief Inspector. Without giving too much away before the report is laid before Parliament, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on where we are as a nation in terms of educational standards.

It is fair to say that our schools are generally far better places than they were 30, 20 or just 10 years ago.

Children and young people are getting a significantly better deal than they were. The results of this summer’s GCSE and A Level examinations underline the transformation taking place in much of our education system across England. Greater autonomy matched by robust accountability have led to a steady overall improvement in standards over the past few years.

As well as improved outcomes at key stage 4 and 5, we have:

  • a million more children in good or outstanding schools
  • a larger percentage of schools moving to ‘good’ from ‘requires improvement’ and ‘special measures’ than ever before
  • more youngsters reading by the age of 7, with record numbers reaching the required levels of reading, writing and maths at the end of key stage 2
  • many more young people from poor backgrounds going to university than ever before

As a nation, our ability to sustain this progress and avoid slipping backwards depends on whether we can recruit and retain the best leaders in our schools.

Leaders who understand the importance of getting the right culture in the school and high enough expectations.

Leaders who understand that their chief purpose and mission is to lead the teaching in their school, to continually monitor what is happening in the classroom and to professionally develop staff to improve their performance.

As I have said on so many occasions, leadership is absolutely critical. Without good leadership, change gives way to stagnation.

Here in Lancashire you appear to have the right leaders in place to build on the achievements of recent years. However, in many parts of the country, I worry that a shortage of high-quality leaders coming through the system could jeopardise the chances of future success. I will be saying more about this in my report to Parliament in a couple of weeks.

Unless we address the capacity issues facing our system, we have little hope of overcoming the 3 fundamental issues that are preventing us from competing with the top educational performers in the OECD group of nations.

What are these 3 big issues? Firstly the unacceptably wide variations in performance both across and within the regions of England – a situation that consigns some children to substandard schools while affording other children with similar abilities and from similar backgrounds the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Secondly, as I first highlighted in my Annual Report this time last year, a gap has emerged nationally between primary and secondary school performance – and the indications are this is not closing by very much. While primaries in the main are continuing to forge ahead right across the country, we have far too many secondaries that are not building on progress made at primary school, that are paying insufficient attention to transition from key stage 2 to 3 and that are ignoring the needs of the most able children. In the worst cases, they are too accepting of an anti-learning culture that tolerates poor behaviour and, particularly, low level disruption.

Thirdly, as a nation we are still blighted by the long tail of underachievement by the poorest children, especially in our secondary schools and among our White British communities from low income backgrounds. So let’s take a closer look at how much progress Lancashire is making in overcoming these over-lapping challenges.

By a number of key measures, you are doing well when comparing performance at both a regional and a national level.

The county’s primary schools are certainly doing well – with 89% of schools judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding compared with 88% for the North West as a whole and 85% nationally.

In this year’s SATs at key stage 2, 81% of Lancashire pupils attained level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths. This is in line with the North West region also at 81% and just above the national figure of 80%.

But what about secondary schools? Well I’m pleased to say you are doing pretty well here too. 78% of secondary schools in Lancashire were judged good or better at their last inspection – well above the North West average of 70% and the England-wide figure of 74%.

The county certainly seems to be bucking the emerging north-south divide in GCSE attainment that was highlighted last week by the educational data firm School Dash and this is an issue I will be expanding upon in a couple of weeks.

This year 58% of pupils achieved 5 A* to C grades including maths and English. This was higher than the regional figure of 55% and the national figure of 56%.

Lancashire also outperformed many of what Ofsted calls its ‘statistical neighbours’ which share a similar demographic profile. A higher proportion of pupils here achieved 5 good GCSEs than their counterparts in local authority areas like Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Staffordshire.  

You deserve a great deal of the credit for the strong performance of the county’s secondary schools. Your hard work and leadership means that more than 55,000 Lancashire schoolchildren are benefitting from a good or better education from the age of 11.

However, as you are well aware, thousands of secondary school-age children in other parts of this region aren’t getting such a good deal and as a result, their life chances are being harmed.

Secondary school standards in places like Salford, Knowsley and down the M55 from here in Blackpool are, to put it bluntly, dire. Two-thirds of secondary schools in Blackpool are inadequate or require improvement, with only 42% of 16-year-olds achieving 5 A* to C grades in the key subjects this year.

So why is Lancashire doing so much better than some of its neighbours, and what on earth can be done to raise up standards in under-performing authorities in close proximity to you?

I would be very interested to hear your plans to do this.

The quality of support provided by the local authority is a factor. HMI based in this region tell me that Lancashire County Council takes a proactive approach to school improvement, certainly when compared to some other local authorities. They appear to have robust arrangements for monitoring schools that are causing concern and are challenging primary and secondary schools to ensure effective transition between key stages.

My inspectors also report that a growing number of secondary school leaders in Lancashire are offering effective professional support to other struggling schools in the county.

I have no doubt that school to school support – whether done within formal federation structures or on a more informal one-to-one basis – is absolutely key to driving improvement.

That is why as Chief Inspector, I am determined to recognise those leaders who are taking ownership of school improvement. The leaders who are committed to not only improving the prospects of children in their own schools but also to transforming the life chances of youngsters beyond the school gates.

Since September, when inspectors identify a leader who has played a key role in helping to turn round another school, Ofsted has started sending a letter to that headteacher to inform them that their leadership has been acknowledged as exceptional. That letter gets copied to the Secretary of State and those individuals will be mentioned in Annual Reports from here on.

For those exceptional leaders in Lancashire including people in this room, my question to you would be this: What could persuade or enable you to extend this support to schools outside the county boundaries – in places like Blackpool?

This is not to suggest that secondary schools in Lancashire are getting everything right. Far from it. I have already spoken about the third major challenge – probably the biggest challenge of all – facing our education system in this country. How can we do better by our poorest and most disadvantaged children?

When we look at outcomes for children eligible for free school meals in Lancashire, it is clear there is no room whatsoever for complacency.

In 2014 only 28% of free school meal pupils in Lancashire achieved five A* to C GCSE grades, including maths and English – a proportion which is below both the regional and national average.

The gap between free school meal and non-free school meal pupils in Lancashire is a massive 32% which again is above both the North West average of 30% and the national figure of 27%.

I am aware that there are some secondary schools which are putting in place effective strategies to narrow the attainment gap, including Ripley St Thomas Academy in Lancaster, Our Lady’s RC High School in Preston and the school I visited yesterday, Millfield, in Thornton, which earned the National Pupil Premium Secondary School of the Year Award in 2014.

However, it’s clear from the data that much more needs to be done to tackle the endemic under-achievement of poorer pupils in Lancashire and elsewhere. Nationwide, GCSE attainment has hardly narrowed in the last 8 years: in 2007 it was 28 percentage points; last year it was 27 percentage points.

Let’s remember that almost two thirds of children on free school meals are from white, low income, British homes. This group, both boys and girls, are the worst performing ethnic and cultural group in the country. Their lack of progress, especially at secondary school, is a scar on our system and must surely be the issue that troubles us more and more.

As an ex-secondary head who has spent a lifetime working in the poorest communities, I find this depressing. Quite frankly, too many of our secondary schools are not delivering the social mobility our country desperately needs.

It is certainly no longer the case that material poverty is an automatic predictor of failure. The impressive outcomes for free school meal children in London gives the lie to that idea. Poorer children of recent immigrants to the country – both from the Commonwealth and Eastern Europe – are also doing well across the country.

It is not only a moral imperative that we should do better for our poorest youngsters but also crucial if we are going to become a more productive nation and a more socially cohesive one.

So the question for you and for your colleagues across the country becomes ever more urgent. What can be done to raise ambitions and improve outcomes, particularly in secondary schools, to end the depressing cycle of under-achievement for our poorest youngsters?

What makes the difference for these children and others, and you know this already, is the culture and expectations of the school – a culture that is always determined by the quality of its leadership.

All my experience has taught me that when school culture is poor – where it’s disorganised and chaotic, it is the poor and the vulnerable who suffer most.

The best heads understand this and recognise the importance of developing an orderly and positive culture. Indeed, I would go further. Many of the best headteachers that I have met pursue a policy that is overtly counter-cultural because they believe that much in our society isn’t good for young people and not conducive to learning. They refuse to accept corrosive cultural norms and, indeed, often fight against them.

That is why the people in this room today are so important. We need leaders whose approach is always optimistic and always ambitious for every pupil in the school, regardless of the challenges and one brave enough to counter those cultural norms that I’ve just mentioned.

We also need leaders who understand the importance of getting the transition between primary and secondary school right. We have seen too many examples of pupils, especially the more able ones, leaving primary to encounter a secondary school culture that demotivates them.

You may have seen the report Ofsted published a couple of months ago on key stage 3 which reinforced my concerns about the early years of secondary education.

My inspectors found that in too many secondary schools, this stage was not being given the priority it deserved. Its status as the poor relation to other key stages is exemplified in the way many schools monitor and assess pupils’ progress and in the way they allocate resources and timetable teachers. Too often, inspectors found that the best and most experienced teachers were heavily weighted towards key stages 4 and 5.

I am also concerned that further up the age scale, too many secondary schools are failing to prepare young people for the world of work. We have found that the careers advice is often not encouraging enough youngsters into vocational routes and apprenticeships that would serve them best.

As another report we brought out last month on apprenticeships made clear, schools – especially those with sixth-forms – have a duty to provide impartial careers guidance to all students. Young people at 16 need to understand the options before them. They should have been exposed to the world of work so that they can make informed choices. Not every bright youngster needs to go to university to have a successful career. And schools have to realise this.

As well as the right leadership, it is of course the quality of teaching that makes such a crucial difference to pupils’ learning and achievement. Studies show that the effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why teacher recruitment and retention is so vitally important and I am sure it is an issue on your agendas as I talk to you this morning.

In Lancashire, the most recently published workforce survey data from the Department for Education suggested just 0.1% of full-time posts were vacant. I will be very interested to learn from you afterwards whether this tiny figure matches your experience on the ground.

It does seem that teacher training provision in the county is strong and you have a good supply of new entrants coming through the various pipelines. This includes, at the last count, 5 accredited SCITT partnerships, 15 teaching schools, 2 of the region’s Higher Education Institutes and a number of Teach First recruits working in Lancashire’s schools.

The freedom that good and outstanding schools now have to take more control of teacher training, for example through School Direct, has been a positive step. But it is vital that training partnerships ensure that good teachers go where they are needed most and aren’t just cherry-picked by the same small group of high performing schools. We also need to make sure these partnerships are evenly distributed so they adequately serve all parts of the country, including the more disadvantaged and geographically isolated parts of this county.

Market forces alone won’t achieve this so I will continue to press the government to develop a clearer and more centrally driven strategy to make this happen.

It is also important that we get the governance arrangements right in our schools. You may have seen the commentary I published earlier this week in which I repeated my call for a more professional approach to the issue, especially in our most challenging schools serving the most deprived communities.

In the last academic year alone, there were nearly 500 schools where inspectors were so concerned about the performance of the governing board that they called for outside experts to be drafted in to carry out an urgent external review of governance.

Being a governor is far more demanding than it has ever been in the past and it carries huge levels of responsibility. For this reason, I believe we need to call time on the age of the well-intentioned amateur, especially when it comes to the key positions of chair and vice-chair.

I have commissioned inspectors to carry out an in-depth and far-reaching survey into the effectiveness of governance in our schools. We will publish this report next year.

Finally, I am determined to ensure that Ofsted is part of the solution to the challenges I have spoken about today. The solution and not the problem.

Now we know that Ofsted is never going to win any popularity contest but I have always been a firm believer in the power and influence of inspection to improve young people’s lives. It is the reason I took this job in the first place.

I want good and ambitious headteachers to recognise Ofsted as an ally in helping them to improve their schools and tackle deep-seated problems. Certainly that’s how I saw the inspectorate when I was a head. I would have found it much more difficult to raise standards in the schools I led if Ofsted had not been around to support me.

Since I took on this role in January 2012, I have overseen significant changes to the way Ofsted is organised and the way it inspects. We have substantially revised and streamlined all of our inspection frameworks and, perhaps most importantly of all, replaced the old ‘satisfactory’ grade with ‘requires improvement’. As a result, mediocre schools now know that only a good standard of education is good enough.

We have also established a regional structure to gather intelligence on standards across all areas of the country. We now have teams of knowledgeable HMI and Senior HMI, led by a Regional Director, in 8 regions of the country. They are well placed to shine a much sharper spotlight on strengths and weaknesses in each region and to both challenge and support individual institutions, multi-academy trusts and local authorities to improve.

I recognise that the inspection stakes are far higher than they’ve ever been before. That is why the pressure on Ofsted to get it right is also much higher. I genuinely believe we do get it right most of the time and providers continue to report high levels of satisfaction with the inspection process and the outcomes.

However, we know we need to continue driving up the quality and the consistency of all our inspections. That is why, 2 months ago, we made a number of landmark changes.

First, we introduced a new overarching inspection framework that focuses on the key issues across early years, schools and further education. This ‘common inspection framework’ will provide greater coherence across our inspection of the different remits and make it easier for parents and learners to compare standards when making choices between education providers.

Second, we introduced significant changes to the way we inspect good schools and colleges. Since September, HMI have been carrying out shorter, more flexible inspections, with a much stronger focus on professional dialogue with senior leaders. The starting assumption of HMI is that the school remains a good school. This should engender an atmosphere in which honest, challenging, professional dialogue can take place.

Thirdly, we brought the contracting of school and further education inspections in-house. This one measure will bring much greater assurance over the selection, training and monitoring of inspectors. Under these new arrangements, more than 70% of Ofsted Inspectors are serving leaders from good or outstanding schools.

Finally, we are setting up scrutiny committees in each of Ofsted’s regions, made up of HMI and senior education practitioners, mostly heads, not involved in carrying out inspections for Ofsted. They will assess and rule on the internal reviews of complaints about inspection. Their decision will be binding on Ofsted.

So I hope you will agree that as an organisation, we do listen and take notice of what the profession is telling us. We have acted on your concerns about no-notice inspections, about the drawbacks of outsourcing inspections and the need to avoid making every inspection the same ‘cliff-edge’ experience.

And we will continue – through our ‘mythbusting’ document and other means – to try to curb unnecessary workload pressures on teachers by dispelling some of the common misconceptions about what Ofsted requires when it inspects. Leadership teams need to justify their practices around marking, pupil feedback and lesson planning, observation and grading on their own merits rather than erroneously citing Ofsted as the reason for doing these things and putting pressure on staff.

I have covered a lot of ground this morning and touched on some weighty topics. I hope you will reflect on the challenges I’ve laid down at your door and accept them in the spirit that they’re intended.

Whilst we still have a long distance to travel, we should never lose sight of just how far we have come over recent years. I am really pleased that secondary schools in Lancashire are in many ways setting the benchmark for other areas of the country, particularly in the North of England.

Before hearing your thoughts and taking your questions, I would like to end by wishing you well, thanking you again for inviting me and by expressing my appreciation for everything that you are doing.

Thank you for listening.

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