Speech: SCHOOLS NorthEast Summit 2015

Good morning everyone. It’s great to be here at this famous footballing citadel and in the company of so many school leaders from across the north east region.

As a football fan, I will resist any temptation to dwell on the current fortunes of the 2 Premier League teams in the north east. At least they can take consolation from having some of the best supporters in the world. Their pride and passion are characteristics shared by people right across this region, something I will touch on in a few moments.

It might interest you to know that London East End lad Jermain Defoe, currently turning out in the red and white stripes of the team down the road from here, is a former pupil of mine. As you can imagine, I taught him everything he knows and I’ve always kept a close eye on his career. Indeed, he dropped by to see me at Ofsted headquarters last week and ended up offering me a job as his personal assistant.

While I ponder over a career switch, I’d like to say how pleased I was to be invited to speak at your conference and I’d like to start by paying heartfelt tribute to you as leaders of our education system. Whether you are running 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 that’s never happened before.

And it is people like you who are improving the life chances of young people up and down the country. Our schools, for the most part, are far better places than they were 30, 20, even 10 years ago.

The results of this summer’s exams underline the transformation that is taking place. As I said in a speech last month to mark the start of the new academic year, better leadership combined with political focus, greater autonomy and robust accountability are having a positive impact and raising overall standards to way beyond where they were when I started headship back in 1985.

However, I also cautioned against getting too carried away, citing 3 key issues that need to be addressed before we can start to compete with the top educational performers in the OECD group.

Firstly, there remain unacceptably wide variations in performance both across and within the regions of England – a postcode lottery 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 last December, a gap has emerged between primary and secondary school performance – and the indications are this is getting wider.

Primaries in the main are continuing to forge ahead because of better leadership from headteachers and governing bodies. This quality of teaching has been steadily improving and outcomes at key stage 1 and key stage 2 are now the best we have seen.

By contrast, progress at secondary level has stalled. We still 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, that are ignoring the needs of the most able. And, in the worst cases, are accepting of a culture that tolerates poor behaviour and low-level disruption.

And 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.

It’s probably fair to say the North East epitomises these over-lapping challenges more than any other region.

Let me read out some statistics to explain what I mean.

  • 91% of the North East’s primary schools were judged good or outstanding by Ofsted at their last inspection – well above the national level of 85%.

Let me give you a really good example of how good your primary schools are.

The Times newspaper ran an article last Saturday which showed how the success of primary schools in Redcar and Cleveland is countering the effects of economic depression and poverty, exemplified by the recent closure of the steel plant.

Here’s what the paper said.

“Only a tiny number of the most affluent London boroughs did better than Redcar and Cleveland in this year’s SATs. It rose from 73rd in the country 3 years ago, to 26th in 2013 and 18th last year.

“Some of its wards are steeped in poverty, low aspiration and generations of unemployment. But its schools have a culture of no excuses, demanding high standards from all children, no matter what their background. Results have vastly improved since all headteachers began working together in clusters, poring over results, sharing expertise, having frank discussions about each other’s strengths and weaknesses and taking responsibility for all children in the borough.”

All I can do this morning is add to this praise and commendation. However, this level of progress in the primary sector is by no means unique to Redcar and Cleveland.

  • Nine of the 12 local authority areas in this region can this year boast higher than average proportions of pupils gaining level 4 or above at key stage 2 in reading, writing and mathematics combined.

By marked contrast:

  • A third of the region’s secondary school pupils (around 40,000 in total) attend schools that are less than good. In some local authorities the figure is as high as two thirds.

  • Barely 1 in 5 state school pupils in this region achieved the Ebacc in 2014. In some local authorities, only 13% did so.

Poor children in this region don’t do particularly well across any of the different phases, but the attainment gap is particularly stark in secondary schools.

  • The proportion of free school meal children in the North East who in 2014 achieved 5 or more good GCSEs was exactly half that of non-free school meal children. In 5 local authorities – Gateshead, Newcastle Northumberland, Stockton-on-Tees and Sunderland – the attainment gap was more than 30 percentage points.

Yet, educational under-achievement should not be seen as inevitable. It’s important to continually ask why so many children – especially poorer children and those of secondary school age – are being let down in this part of the world.

It would be defeatist to think they are somehow pre-destined to do less well than their peers in other parts of the country.

Of course, in the wake of bad news like Redcar, it would be foolish to deny that economic factors and the decline of traditional industries present more difficult challenges for this region than other parts of the country.

But neither should these challenges be offered up as an excuse for poor performance.

I’ve never yet met a youngster – and I’m sure you haven’t – who said ‘I come from a post-industrial community. Please have low expectations of me.’ I’ve never met a youngster who said ‘I am a child of the rural poor. Please have low expectations of me.’ I’ve never met a youngster who said ‘I live in a coastal town. Please have low expectations of me.’

All my experience has taught me that children, no matter where they live, turn up on their first day of school full of hope and optimism for the future. After all, children are children are children, whether they come from Newcastle or London. The children I taught in Bermondsey nearly 50 years ago were very much the same as the children I taught in Hackney 4 years ago.

What makes the difference for children is the culture and expectations of the school – a culture that is always determined by the quality of its leadership.

That is why the people here today are so important – leaders of our schools whose approach to school management has got to be always optimistic, always confident, always ambitious, even though times may be tough.

Never resign yourself to an attitude of ‘this is the way it is and always will be.’ If you have that mentality, then your staff will too. And that, inevitably, will affect the progress of the children in your charge.

My experience of London schools spanning over half a century has taught me how things can change and improve. Negative attitudes were all too rife for much of that period. As a teacher and headteacher, I well remember the politics of despair and fatalism – London was just too complex, London was just too diverse, London was just too poor for anything to be done.

Well just look at London now. The remarkable transformation in school standards and pupil outcomes that we’ve witnessed in our capital city – where levels of deprivation and the proportion of children entitled to free school meals are broadly on a par with this region – demonstrates what can be achieved when there is a collective will and determination to bring about change.

And it’s not as though the picture here in the north east is unremittingly gloomy. This is a region that has a lot going for it. It has a uniquely strong collective regional identity and ties that bind communities together in a way you just don’t see in more fragmented places like London. Most important of all are its people who are rightly held up as the north east’s most precious asset.

The pride and passion that we see every weekend on your football terraces can also be found in your corridors and classrooms. I certainly remember visiting schools in this part of the world during my time as an additional inspector and being struck by how beguiling and spirited the children generally were.

I’m hardly alone in recognising this. It’s surely no accident that multi-nationals like Nissan and Hitachi have chosen to invest millions in this area. The Chancellor, meanwhile, talks about this region’s place at the heart of his much trumpeted vision for a Northern Powerhouse.

It goes without saying that you have a huge part to play in ensuring this region’s young people have the qualifications, skills and attitudes to take advantage of this economic and political vision.

You don’t have to look to London for good examples – just learn from the plenty of good practice here, in this room and elsewhere. There are schools dotted across this region that are managing to buck the trend on all those indicators I’ve already mentioned.

Last year Ofsted identified a group of 12 primary schools in the north east which had consistently closed the gap between disadvantaged pupils and others. Her Majesty’s Inspectors worked with these schools to pinpoint the key actions they had taken to ensure all pupils were reaching their potential. Four common themes emerged that accounted for their success:

  • highly ambitious leadership that accepted no excuses
  • accurate assessment which informed good teaching
  • high quality teaching from all adults, including teaching assistants
  • strong engagement with parents and families to create stability around each child

These original 12 schools have since been working in partnership with other primary schools where the attainment gap has remained stubbornly wide. The early results of this school-to-school support are encouraging and there are plans to roll the programme out to the secondary sector.

It has to be said, however, that my inspectors currently find it more difficult to identify examples of secondary schools that are doing well by their more disadvantaged pupils.

There are undoubtedly pockets of good practice such as Cardinal Hume Catholic School, All Saints Academy and Outwood Academy Aklam, which have all put in place effective strategies to ensure the attainment gaps between free school meal students and their peers is minimal.

But these are relatively rare exceptions that rather seem to prove the rule.

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

Certainly political backing at both a national and local level is an important ingredient in driving up standards. Elected leaders like Jules Pipe, the Mayor of Hackney, have been instrumental in raising school standards across London by holding the feet of officers and headteachers to the fire and maintaining a clear focus on the achievement of the most disadvantaged pupils.

So I welcome efforts to get the North East Schools Challenge off the ground, although I know there are frustrations about the pace of progress. I’d certainly echo the plea of the impatient Newcastle head who I saw in the local press was imploring less talk and more action to deliver the change that’s required.

Teacher supply is another issue that I know is exercising many of you in this room today. As I highlighted in my last annual report, well publicised shortages in many key subjects are being exacerbated because new recruits are not necessarily going where they are needed most.

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 school-based training partnerships are evenly distributed so they adequately serve all parts of the country, including the more disadvantaged and geographically isolated parts of this region.

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 it happen.

I also want Ofsted to be part of the solution.

As Chief Inspector, I have always believed in the power and influence of inspection to improve standards. It’s what lay behind my decision 3 years ago to move the organisation to a regional structure.

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.

This is having a galvanising effect. Take Northumberland, whose school improvement support came in for some stinging criticism when we carried out a series of focused inspections 2 years ago. This proved to be a watershed moment. Since then, the local authority has overhauled its approach. It has issued a series of warning notices and is placing a much stronger emphasis on leadership and teaching. It is also brokering more school-to-school support across the county.

As a result, green shoots of recovery are beginning to emerge with a 4% increase in GCSE attainment this year and some impressive results at key stage 2.

We’ve seen something similar in Middlesbrough, whose school improvement support is now making solid progress after inspectors found it to be ineffective in January of last year.

HMI are now staying with under-performing schools and monitoring their performance more closely than ever before. This is undoubtedly having a positive impact. In the last 3 years, 63% of schools in this region judged to require improvement have gone on to achieve a good or outstanding rating on re-inspection.

At the end of the day, however, the politicians, the town hall officers and yes, even Ofsted, can only do so much.

As I’ve already said, the key to unlocking the potential of children and young people across this region ultimately lies with you as school leaders.

So allow me to ask you some pertinent questions, starting with this one.

Why have so few of the high performing and well respected academy chains gained a foothold in this region?

Now I’m not one of those who regards academisation as a panacea. It takes far more than a new nameplate on the gates to transform standards. But I do subscribe to the view that greater competition and diversity encourages system-wide improvement. It’s also hard to deny that well-established sponsored academies have made particularly impressive progress in many deprived parts of the country.

Have you perhaps been resistant to change and slow to embrace challenge from beyond the regional education establishment?

Whilst you ponder that one, here are a few more questions for you to consider.

As a leader, are you standing firm against the insidious anti-learning, low aspiration culture that often pervades non-immigrant communities in this country?

Are you the type of leader who refuses to accept the status quo or cultural norms and, indeed, fights against them? The type of leader who doesn’t worry that confiscating mobile phones or banning chewing gum could infringe human rights? The type of leader who is not afraid to challenge those parents who refuse to support the school?

Or are you what I call a cultural appeaser, more inclined to concede than challenge accepted norms? The type of leader, for example, who won’t allow children to take textbooks home because you don’t trust them to bring them back the next day? The type of leader who walks into a classroom and nothing much changes, even when the youngsters are misbehaving? The type of leader who uses the phrase ‘behaviour management’ rather than ‘school discipline’ because you believe a child’s conduct is something that always has to be negotiated?

Finally, are you doing enough to equip your pupils with the skills, the character and the attitudes that make them well prepared for the world of work and capable of meeting the needs of local employers?

It was telling that a recent survey of firms here in the north east warned that engineering, construction and manufacturing companies were desperate to fill vacancies but couldn’t find the right people.

As the CBI regional director was quoted as saying: “We must make sure our education and skills system is truly responsive to the needs of business and that young people receive much better careers advice if we are to propel the north east economy forward in the years ahead.”

Wise words indeed and ones that all schools must urgently heed.

I hope you will reflect on the questions I’ve posed and accept the challenge that lies behind them in the spirit that it’s intended.

As Chief Inspector, it’s my lot in life to deliver difficult messages and to focus on where things need to improve. But as I said at the outset of this speech, there is an awful lot to be positive about. And the credit for what’s been achieved so far lies mainly with you.

What’s more, I know from my encounters with many of you individually just how passionate and dedicated you are about improving the life chances of the young people entrusted to your care.

As long as the right backing is there for you from the politicians and from the world of business and commerce, I believe you are well placed to overcome the challenges that I’ve laid out today.

I’d like to end by wishing you well and making a promise that you can count on my continued support.

Thank you for listening.

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