Speech: Ofsted south west regional conference on most able students

Good morning everybody, and thank you for the opportunity to open your regional conference today.

I am very pleased to be here in the heart of the south west, especially as I spent a large portion of my school years in this region as a pupil in Christchurch in Dorset. And in the company of so many headteachers and senior education and improvement leaders, from schools, academies, local authorities and other bodies who, like us, are committed to delivering better standards in education.

There is nothing more important than being part of a community that is shaping the lives of young people and, through them, the society in which we live. It is a real pleasure to see so many members of that important community here this morning.

The most able report

Some of you may have seen that, yesterday, I launched our latest report into the progress being made by the most able pupils.

This is the second report on this subject that we have produced, the first being in 2013.

It brings together evidence from 40 non-selective secondaries and 10 primaries we visited to assess the teaching, curriculum and guidance they provided to their most able students. Data from a further 130 routine inspections, evidence from university admissions tutors and more than 600 online survey responses from learners were also part of the evidence base.

The breadth of this survey work should leave you in no doubt as to the importance we place on this issue. It is absolutely imperative that schools – and, in particular, non-selective secondaries, where the overwhelming majority of children are educated – support their most able pupils and challenge them to achieve the highest levels of scholarship.

Our 2013 report made it clear that many of the most able students were failing to achieve their potential in non-selective secondaries, compared with students who attended selective and independent schools.

Nationally, around a quarter of those who achieved Level 5 in English and mathematics at the end of Year 6 were failing to attain at least a grade B at GCSE in those subjects. We found that poor transition arrangements between some primary and secondary schools were resulting in students not being sufficiently challenged by Key Stage 3 work.

It is therefore with regret that I tell you that the majority of schools we visited in our latest report – including several in this region – have been slow in taking forward our original recommendations. In fact, some had barely made any progress at all. They were simply not doing enough to ensure that their most able pupils were fulfilling their potential.

It wasn’t all bad news though – inspectors saw some pockets of good and even excellent practice.

In those cases, the most able students thrived because school leaders were making sure that the curriculum was challenging. They were tenacious in making sure teaching was of a consistently high standard throughout the key stages. And they were using the information they had from primary schools to make sure that students were doing work that stretched them.

It is easy to project this forward and see that this approach would give children the best opportunities to be strong candidates for the top universities, training providers and employers.

But the good examples were very much the exception, not the rule.

Our findings indicated that there were three key areas of underperformance for the most able students.

These were the gaps between the attainments of:

  • the most able students who made up a very small proportion of a school’s population, and those schools where proportions were higher
  • the most able girls and the most able boys
  • the disadvantaged most able students, and their better-off peers

This third point is particularly worrying to me – that students known to be eligible for free school meals were continuing to lag well behind those from more affluent backgrounds.

In other words, the most able children – and, in many cases, those from poorer backgrounds – were still getting a raw deal.

A little later this morning my colleague Joan Hewitt HMI will be discussing the recommendations from the report in more detail.

One of the reasons I felt it important to speak about this issue in the south west – and at an early opportunity after releasing the report – is that, in the majority of the local authority areas here, education leaders are still not stretching their most able.

And I am also sorry to say that this region is among the weakest in the country when it comes to the attainment of children on free school meals, compared to less disadvantaged children. This remains the key issue in the south west.

Nine months ago, Bradley Simmons sent a clarion call to headteachers, chairs of governing bodies and local authorities across the region, drawing attention to the unacceptable attainment gap between those on free school meals and others, and inviting you to feed back on the actions you were taking to address this issue. I am told that he received many – and, shall we say, mixed – responses to that letter.

On the whole though, your responses, alongside the feedback from our inspectors on the ground, gave us confidence that these issues were being treated with the seriousness they deserved.

Bradley, as our regional director for the south west, and his senior HMIs also addressed a meeting of assistant directors of children’s services and heads of school improvement, as well as meeting all of the chairs of the secondary headteachers’ groups from each local authority, on the same theme.

And a number of you have also told us that Ofsted’s focus in key local areas, whether it be via a local authority school improvement inspection or a focused inspection, has helped you to make tangible progress.

Of course, the real litmus test will always be whether these improved arrangements translate into better outcomes for the region’s poorer children. And it is encouraging to see that some local authority areas have translated this commitment into decisive action.

For example, if I focus on key stage two for a moment, 12 out of the 15 local authority areas in this region have seen improvements in the attainment of children eligible for free school meals, over the past 12 months. Bournemouth has performed strongly. It has exceeded the national average and closed the gap considerably between the attainment of free school meal and non-free school meal pupils.

But, although we are seeing some green shoots, a number of problem areas stubbornly remain:

  • Gloucestershire – below the national average for all key stages in 2014 and with yawning attainment gaps, particularly at KS4
  • Bath and North East Somerset – below the national average for all key stages in 2014
  • South Gloucestershire – best in the region for Early Years Foundation Stage but worst in the region for Key Stage 4

This inconsistency in the same locale is particularly frustrating – in some cases we see solid performance and poor performance literally across the road from each other.

This is not about in naming and shaming, and I certainly haven’t come here today to rebuke or patronise. Because, as Bradley said, you are the system leaders.

And I am sure that no-one here came into education with the intention of allowing poor outcomes for children to persist. On the contrary, I know that there is a considerable amount of ambition in this room. You’re the ones firmly in the driving seat, with the opportunity to lead change and challenge the status quo in a way that’s never happened before.

So I know that you will be as uncomfortable as I am with the stark fact that a child aged between 7 and 11, who is eligible for free school meals, currently has a poorer chance in nearly every local authority in the south west of achieving the key stage two benchmark compared to the country as a whole.

And, with one solitary exception, attainment among 16-year-olds eligible for free school meals at the key stage four benchmark is lower in every local authority in the south west than in England as a whole.

Given everything I’ve spoken about so far, I doubt it will come as a surprise to you to learn that the proportion of young people from the south west progressing to higher education is the lowest of any region. And the figures are even more worrying when it comes to those leaving the care of local authorities.

Those who read Ofsted’s south west annual report just a few months ago will know that we described the south west as a region of inconsistencies.

Although inspection outcomes and overall attainment for the region are in line with national levels, there is wide variation in the quality of provision across local authority areas.

Across both primary and secondary ages, 120,000 children in this region – not far off 20% of the total – attend schools that are not yet good.

It is also the case that relatively few good schools here go on to become outstanding. Indeed, an increasing proportion are declining. Yes, Ofsted wants to see good standards maintained, but we would clearly rather see continuous progress and rising achievement. On the basis of the facts I’ve just given you, some would need convincing that a misplaced culture of complacency hadn’t crept in.

Of course, I’m not denying that the south west has its challenges. At times, schools in this region have had a reputation for being dislocated from the mainstream. We know that coastal and rural isolation can present a barrier to innovation and raising aspiration, particularly when the small size of some schools limits their capacity to drive or sustain improvement. In many ways, the challenges here bear a striking similarity to those in the East of England, where I was Ofsted’s regional director until just a few months ago.

But we also know, from inspection after inspection, that good teaching lies at the heart of all school improvement.

I know that a number of schools, including some represented here today, are concerned about their ability to recruit the best teachers.

It is therefore very encouraging that Teach First, which has made such a difference in London, is now developing a presence in some of the coastal and rural areas in the country – including my old home county of Dorset, in this region.

But you know as well as I that Teach First can only ever be one part of the solution. You may also know that Ofsted has repeatedly called for the National College to step up to the plate and come up with a clear and convincing strategy for redistributing teaching talent much more evenly across the country.

But there can be no doubt that, for the greater part, the solution lies in this room. So let me ask you this.

How far have you travelled to fill that long-standing teaching vacancy?

Have you personally picked up the phone to the university here in Exeter, Plymouth, or Bristol, for example, to see how they can help meet your recruitment needs?

And what steps are you taking to grow your own teaching talent?

In the summer term we will be releasing a report that explores some of the issues around teacher recruitment in more depth – particularly relating to those new to the profession.

Now – what about the importance of leadership?

Where we have seen improvements stall or decline set in, weak leadership of teaching is almost always a factor. And, in an analysis of the reasons behind significant decline in 114 schools across this region, leadership was the single most influential factor in more than two-thirds of cases.

Unsurprisingly, in those schools that improved from requires improvement to good – and there have been a number inspected in the past year that have made rapid progress – effective leadership was the single most important factor. This was especially pronounced in two schools that went from requires improvement to good in just 12 months, which is a very strong achievement.

Leadership doesn’t just mean the heads and deputies of today, but also those of tomorrow. The goals we all share for England’s education system – that all children have the chance to achieve their full potential at good or better schools – cannot be achieved without good middle leadership. Weaknesses at this level were an impediment in many south west schools that had not improved their grade on re-inspection, over the past year.

High quality middle leadership is about more than managing a subject or an aspect of school life. Of course, middle leaders are enthusiasts for their subject, good managers and administrators. But to be truly effective, they must also embrace the more challenging characteristics of leadership – which are to do with vision, strategy, and a drive towards improvement.

Middle leaders need to be enabled by you to make the very best use of the skills they have to address the challenges schools face and the issues raised in inspection reports. That’s why, just a few weeks ago, senior HMIs met with assistant directors of children’s services and heads of school improvement from across the region, to discuss the development and improvement of middle leaders.

Now – what about school-to-school support?

The very best schools and local authority school improvement services we have seen are those where leadership is encouraged to reach beyond the school gates. Better outcomes for children depend upon the whole system working together – grammar schools sharing their expertise with local authorities, the most successful maintained schools and academies sharing their expertise with the least successful, and all for the good of our young people.

Many school leaders have said that they want peer review, rather than inspection. My answer to that is simple – show us first that you can challenge and support each other to improve, and come forward to participate as Ofsted inspector serving practitioners. This region is not short of outstanding expertise, much of which is here this morning. So, if you take just one thing away from today, I would ask you to reflect upon what more you can do, to really drive school-to-school improvement.

I don’t want you to leave today with an impression that the achievements being made in this region are going unnoticed. The picture in the south west, overall, is of a region that stands up well, nationally, on inspection outcomes and pupil attainment.

This doesn’t just happen by chance. It is a mark of the hard work and determination of teachers and leaders in many schools across the region.

But the challenges before you are clear:

Ofsted remains concerned about the quality of education in the south west for so many pupils from low-income families when they are palpably underachieving. This group is not consistently served well anywhere in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire or Gloucestershire, whether at primary or secondary level.

Too many 11-year-olds from low income families will not gain the expected level in reading, writing and maths. This group is also less likely to achieve five good GCSEs.

A child in care will fare even less well – fewer than one in ten gained five good GCSEs with English and maths last year, the lowest proportion in the whole country.

So, what is being done to respond to these challenges? How can you improve education for your most able pupils?

First of all, ask yourself: what do you need to do, to develop a culture of high expectations for students and teachers in secondary school?

Ask yourself: how can we make sure that secondary teachers use information provided by primary schools about the most able pupils, to help manage their transition to secondary school?

I would also encourage you to identify staff and governors with specific responsibilities for championing the needs of the most able pupils from poorer backgrounds.

Also, involve universities in training school staff to provide advice to the most able.

And last, but absolutely not least, I implore you to make sure that the teaching you lead and the curriculum you provide challenges the most able pupils.

The changes we are making at Ofsted over the coming months will support you in responding to these challenges.

Frequent but shorter inspections of good schools and introducing a common inspection framework to standardise the approach to all education inspections, will play a key role in driving up education standards across the country. There will be a much greater emphasis on professional dialogue between inspectors and education leaders.

In this region specifically, inspectors have met with headteachers to address the poor achievement of the brightest disadvantaged children.

And inspectors are developing a most able evaluation toolkit for schools, aligned to that which is in place for free school meals.

So, to close, when inspectors arrive at your school, they will be paying particular attention to the attainment gap between those on free school meals and those who are not.

They will focus on the achievement and aspiration of disadvantaged children, including those looked-after.

They will focus on the brightest, to make sure they are being challenged and stimulated to achieve their full potential. And we will be doing this through some targeted, one-day inspections throughout the summer term across the country.

The future of children in the south west is in your hands. And Ofsted will support and challenge you, every step of the way.

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