Press release

A nation divided

In his fourth annual report for Ofsted, HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw finds a "deeply troubling" divide in the performance of secondary schools.

England is “a nation divided at the age of 11” Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw said today, launching his fourth Annual Report on schools and further education.

Sir Michael said there is much to celebrate about England’s schools. More children are currently in good and outstanding schools than ever before. Primary schools in particular are excelling, with 85% now rated good or outstanding, up from 82% last year.

However, the report notes that while secondary schools have improved slightly, the gap between primaries and secondaries has not narrowed. More worryingly it reveals that underperforming secondary schools are concentrated in the North and Midlands, where 410,000 children attend a secondary school that isn’t good enough.

While the proportion of good and outstanding secondary schools increased overall this year, from 71% in 2014 to 74%, there has been greater improvement in the South, where 79% of schools are now good or outstanding. In the North and Midlands just 68% of secondary schools are good or better.

Follow the launch of the Annual Report on Twitter at #OfstedAR15.

Launching the report, Sir Michael said:

We are witnessing an educational division of the country after age 11, with secondary schools performing well overall in the South but struggling to improve in the North and Midlands.

The facts are stark. Compared to secondary school 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.

If left unaddressed the consequences will be profound. Our society, our future prosperity and development rely on the better education of our children. As things stand, too many secondary schools in the North and Midlands are failing to equip young people with the skills and knowledge they and the country need.

I fear that unless we resolve these divisions our country’s educational progress will be seriously impeded and we will not be able to compete as well with our international competitors.

The report identifies 16 local authority areas where less than 60% of children attend good or outstanding secondary schools and which have lower than average attainment and progress at GCSE. Thirteen of these local authorities are in the North and Midlands.

Bradford is identified as a city where standards have been low for many years across both primary and secondary schools. From a total of more than 200 schools with around 95,000 pupils, just 67% of primary pupils and only 42% of secondary pupils attend schools in the city that are good or outstanding. This means there are almost 40,000 children in Bradford who attend schools that are less than good.

Sir Michael said that the key to raising standards in these regions and cities is “collective action and political will”:

We have to ask whether this level of failure is being effectively challenged by local politicians and school leaders, and whether the relatively successful big cities in the North and Midlands are playing their part in supporting their neighbouring towns.

If Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle are to be engine rooms of a Northern powerhouse, one of their priorities must be working with the towns on their borders to raise attainment and close skills gaps across a wider area.

The report also finds that the achievement of pupils from low-income backgrounds remains an ongoing weakness in our education system.

Primary schools have had some success in narrowing the gap between the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals and their better-off peers achieving the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics at key stage 2. However, in secondary schools the gap between these groups of children in attaining 5 or more GCSEs at A*-C, including English and mathematics, is 27 percentage points, and it is considerably wider in many parts of the country.

Sir Michael said that the challenges facing the education system are not structural, arguing that a lack of capacity in leadership, teaching and governance, and an insufficient focus on the disadvantaged must be urgently addressed at a national level.

The report also highlights recruitment as a serious problem, particularly for schools in challenging areas, which are facing severe difficulties securing the good teachers and leaders they need.

Sir Michael concluded:

All of our evidence shows that it is good leadership that makes the biggest difference to school standards. Yet in many areas of the country there is a shortage of good leaders, with, as so often, disadvantaged areas suffering the most.

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

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.

In the further education (FE) and skills sector, the annual report finds that improvements among providers have slowed, and performance has declined in general FE colleges (GFE). Only 35% of GFE colleges inspected this year were good or outstanding.

The quality of apprenticeships is another serious concern with almost half of the programmes inspected this year judged less than good. Schools are not promoting apprenticeships widely as an option for all pupils, but this will not change until their quality improves.

The report also finds:

  • early education has never been stronger, but 113,000 disadvantaged 2 year olds are not taking up their government-funded places. The focus in early education must be on ensuring more disadvantaged children begin primary school with a good level of development
  • prison education is not being prioritised by many prison governors and standards that were previously low have declined even further
  • the majority of schools are successfully promoting British values, but inspectors have identified risks to pupils in a number of schools this year

Notes to editors

  1. Today’s Annual Report is informed by the findings of more than 5,000 inspections of schools, colleges and further education and skills providers carried out during 2014/15
  2. Follow the Annual Report on Twitter @ofstednews or #OfstedAR15
  3. The 13 local authority areas in the North and Midlands where less than 60% of children attend good or outstanding secondary schools and which have lower than average attainment and progress at GCSE are: Barnsley; Blackpool; Bradford; Derbyshire; Doncaster; Hartlepool; Knowsley; Liverpool; Middlesbrough; Oldham; Salford; St Helens and Stoke-on-Trent
  4. Data View enables users to compare the performance of providers for the past years, by region, local authority, and constituency area. From 1 December 2015, users can also compare the performance of individual providers in an area. To provide feedback on Data View or to ask any questions please email: dataview@ofsted.gov.uk

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