Speech: The National Conference on School Improvement

Good morning everyone. I’m really pleased to have the opportunity to take part in your conference today and would like to thank Haringey Council for the invitation. I was in a Haringey school the other day and I was very impressed by it.

Although I’ve said it many, many times, I’m going to say it again. Schools are better places than they were 20 years ago when Ofsted came into being and they are certainly better places than when I started headship in 1985.

Children and young people are getting a better deal. The results of this summer’s exams underline the transformation taking place in much of our education system across England. Political focus, greater autonomy and diversity matched by robust accountability are making a difference, particularly here in London but also in other cities.

Nevertheless, let’s not get carried away – we still face 3 major problems. Firstly, regional differences in performance are unacceptably wide and show few signs of narrowing. Secondly, the divergence in standards between primary and secondary schools highlighted in my last annual report remains a worry. Thirdly, the long tail of underachievement of the poorest children in our secondary schools shows little signs of improving.

This morning I want to spend time on the last 2 issues – secondary schools and the performance of our poorest children – because if we can improve the outcomes of both, regional variation will almost certainly narrow.

Let me give you a few facts that illustrate my concerns:

  • the attainment gap between free school meals and non-free school meal pupils in secondary schools a decade ago was 27 points. In 2014, it was still 27 points, yet the gap has narrowed considerably in primary schools, particularly in the last few years
  • the recent Sutton Trust report on the performance of the most able poor pupils between primary and secondary schools was I think a real shocker. It showed that 15% of highly able pupils who score in the top 10% nationally at age 11 fail to achieve in the top 25% of GCSE grades. Boys, particularly the poorest, are most likely to be in this missing talent group
  • last year’s annual report highlighted 13 local authorities in which less than 50% of secondary schools were judged to be good. Moreover, in two-thirds of local authorities, pupils had a significantly higher chance of attending a good or outstanding primary than a secondary school
  • there were 70,000 more pupils attending secondary schools rated inadequate last year than in 2012 and a 7% point fall in the proportion of schools where behaviour and safety were judged good or outstanding. That means over 400,000 pupils attend a secondary school where behaviour is so poor that it prevents pupils from learning and teachers from teaching

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

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. Why is this so important? Because inspectors know that schools which don’t apply clear strategies for poor children are invariably not applying the right strategies for other groups, particularly the most able. Crack the attainment gap and we crack underachievement in our secondary schools.

So what can be done? There are lots of things that we can do, but let me highlight 3 of the most important as I see them.

Firstly, we have got to make sure that schools in the most isolated communities are well served by good teachers. Her Majesty’s Inspectors have been looking into this issue in 3 parts of the country – the South East, the North West and East Anglia. Their initial findings are worrying. The most isolated and poorest areas are finding it very difficult if not impossible to get staff. I will provide more details of the findings in my Annual Report in a few months’ time.

We must develop a clear strategy to deal with this. The National College for Teaching and Leadership can make a start by collecting data on vacancies regionally as well as nationally – not once per year but every term. It could also make clear how many posts are being covered by temporary staff or supply teachers.

It is absolutely vital that school-based training, of which I am a great supporter, is evenly distributed and successfully serves all parts of the country, including those parts which contain the poorest communities. It is also crucial that training partnerships ensure that good teachers go where they are needed most and are not cherry-picked by a narrow group of schools. Ofsted’s inspections of initial teacher education (ITE) will very much focus on this issue this academic year.

Teacher retention is as important, if not more important, than teacher recruitment. What drives teachers from the classroom is not workload, or – dare I suggest? – Ofsted. Most teachers in my experience enjoy teaching, marking and assessment if it means that children do well because of it. They don’t mind being accountable for what they do. What they won’t put up with, however, is working in an institution where daily life is a battle with unruly children, uncooperative parents and unsupportive managers. I will say more about this issue in a moment.

Secondly, transition between primary schools and secondary schools must improve. The survey on key stage 3 we are publishing today entitled ‘The wasted years?’ reinforces my concerns about the first 3 years of secondary education expressed in last year’s annual report.

My inspectors found that in too many secondary schools key stage 3 was not 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.

While the more successful schools are setting the right culture for purposeful learning from the outset, in too many other cases the transition from primary to secondary school is poorly handled. The quality of teaching and the rate of pupils’ progress and achievement in years 7 to 9 is often not good enough to prepare youngsters for the next stage of their education. Modern foreign languages, history and geography, in particular, are being taught in a way that is failing to engage or enthuse pupils in a number of schools. I am particularly worried about inspectors’ comments on poor attitudes to learning and poor behaviour in many of the modern foreign language lessons observed in our survey.

It is no surprise, therefore, that there is a low take-up of these subjects at GCSE. This is a serious concern given the government’s clear ambition for all pupils who are starting secondary school this month to enter the EBacc subjects in 5 years’ time.

Thirdly, we have got to do much more to improve the culture of many of our secondary schools. Last month’s Children’s Society report found that too many of our youngsters were deeply unhappy and living in fear of bullying. This and the report last week which raised anxieties about sexual violence and intimidation both inside and outside schools should act as a wake-up call to all of us.

All my experience has taught me that when schools are chaotic it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most. The lack of structure at home is replicated at school and, unlike their peers from middle class backgrounds, poor parents often lack the capacity to compensate for deficiencies in the school and in the classroom.

The best headteachers understand this and recognise the importance of developing an orderly culture. Indeed, I would go further. Many of the best headteachers that I have met, particularly in the inner city, 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, fight against them. They fight against the instant gratification of the ‘me now’, press-button culture.

They refuse to accept that the rights of the individual are always more important than the rights of the collective. They know that rights without responsibilities are not worth having. They don’t negotiate with children on the importance of school rules. They don’t worry that confiscating mobile phones or banning chewing gum or prohibiting extreme haircuts could infringe human rights. They reinforce behaviour through routines and rituals that act as a touchstone for children who lack them.

I appreciate that these sentiments are not universally popular, particularly with some parents. I accept that they can seem draconian or risible to those who have never had to worry about structure because it has always been implicit in their comfortable, well-ordered lives.

But many of our poorest children lack that luxury. They need to be shown what a calm, orderly environment looks like. They need to be taught that all adults, by virtue of being older and in authority, deserve respect – be they teaching staff, teaching assistants, dinner ladies or visiting Chinese teachers.

The best school leaders understand this. They know that improving behaviour is easier than improving teaching but recognise that unless behaviour is good throughout the school, teaching rarely improves. They don’t patronise poor children but expect as much of them as any other group of children in the school.

Above all else, they understand that authority emanates from their position as leader of the school community. They set an example to the rest of the staff on how authority should be manifested. Children notice when they enter the classroom.

Thank goodness we have more of these sorts of people leading our schools. What we don’t want are leaders who are cultural appeasers more inclined to concede than challenge accepted norms. These leaders, for example, won’t allow children to take textbooks home because they don’t trust them to bring them back the next day. They are likely to view themselves more as a child’s friend than someone who is in a position of authority. They use the phrase ‘behaviour management’ rather than ‘school discipline’ because they believe a child’s conduct is something that always has to be negotiated.

The cultural appeaser will walk into the classroom and nothing much changes, even when children are misbehaving. Their schools, instead of being oases of hope, become deserts of despair. They imprison children, particularly poorer children, in chains of low expectations.

Ofsted will be focusing even more sharply on the quality of leadership this coming academic year, including during our new short inspections of good schools. In particular, we will be assessing whether secondary headteachers understand the power that comes with their role in leading complex institutions – the importance of embedding a culture capable of transforming the lives of all children.

I have also pledged to recognise those leaders who have the courage to not only improve the prospects of children in their own schools but also to transform the life chances of youngsters in underperforming institutions elsewhere, especially in the most difficult areas.

So starting this month, when inspectors identify a leader who has played a key role in turning around other institutions, Ofsted will send a letter to that headteacher or college principal to inform them that their leadership has been acknowledged as exceptional. A copy of this letter will go to the Secretary of State and Ofsted’s Annual Report will also feature those leaders who have been recognised in this way.

As Chief Inspector, I am determined that Ofsted should play a key role in making sure the major advances that have been made at key stage 2 are carried through to key stage 3 and beyond.

Unless we all focus attention on improving secondary school performance, I fear we will continue to see progress stalled. Social mobility will remain a distant pipedream and the voices clamouring for a return to selection at 11 will grow louder. The nation will struggle to match its global competitors or climb up the educational league tables.

Employers will continue to bemoan a lack of home-grown skills to meet their needs and look overseas to fill vacant posts.

None of this, however, is inevitable. The example of London has taught us that nothing is beyond reach as long as the collective will and commitment is there to deliver the changes needed.

As ever, I remain optimistic that this can be achieved.

Thank you very much for listening.

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