I want to start by thanking you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
I also want to commend Joy, Nigel and James and everyone else who has been involved in establishing the Foundation for Education Leadership. In an education system that is increasingly diverse, the importance of establishing strong support networks for school leaders cannot be understated.
When it comes to that diversity, I hope it goes without saying that Ofsted takes an ecumenical approach. We see schools in all shapes and sizes providing an outstanding education. While the ethos of a school undoubtedly matters – more on that in a moment – there is no one-size-fits-all approach. At Ofsted, we are interested in what works for children, what improves their life chances and what sets them up for future success.
And viewed from that perspective, system diversity should enable schools to learn from each other’s successes and challenges. Indeed, I think it is only through that combination of innovation, experimentation and collaboration that we will realise a self-improving school system.
That means schools cannot exist as islands. If we are to unlock the potential of our great teachers and leaders, we need to ensure that they have strong support networks that let them learn, grow and innovate. To me, a move towards an academy system should not mean fragmentation, but instead the creation of a more dynamic school system, underpinned by strong support networks. For that reason, I have deliberately moved away from talking about educational improvement as the work of a handful of hero heads. The truth is, long-lasting improvement is the work of teams within schools and collaboration between schools. That is what we see in our best schools and academy chains, some of whom have learned, through painful experience, the limitations of the ‘hero head’ model.
Of course, church schools by their nature have an advantage in this regard. They have a unique inbuilt network in the church and its mission. But you will know, all too well I expect, that doesn’t mean they always make the most of it. An outsider might assume that church schools are a homogenous group, ably controlled by Nigel and his team from the centre. But anyone with experience of faith education will know that it can be difficult to get two schools in the same town to speak to one another, let alone getting into the politics of cross-diocesan collaboration.
The Foundation has set itself the worthy task of breaking down some of these silos, and in doing so has the potential to enable the accelerated spread of excellence among your schools. Reading your first year impact report, it is clear that your peer-support networks and professional qualifications are already filling crucial gaps while at the same time nurturing a new generation of talented but also connected school leaders.
This commitment from the church to really thinking about how to get the best from school leaders is hugely welcome. Not least because you have such a significant footprint within the educational landscape. Since its foundation, the Anglican Church has taken seriously its mission of transmitting knowledge, understanding and enlightenment to the next generation. While much has changed – largely for the better – in the intervening half millennia, I know that mission still burns as brightly as ever. My hope is that the lessons of the Foundation will resonate not just within Anglican schools, but also beyond, supporting improvement right across the system.
One of those lessons, that I certainly hope echoes in schools of all faiths and none, is the Foundation’s affirmation that there should not, indeed cannot, be a trade-off between school ethos and school outcomes. To me, and I’m sure many of you in this room, that should be obvious. Sadly, I am afraid that it does not match with the reality in all of our schools today.
What do I mean by that? First, I am not saying that schools are deliberately neglecting either ethos or outcomes. It is rare that I visit a school that isn’t at least striving towards securing excellent outcomes. At the same time, all but the weakest schools are taking steps to make sure their pupils can take their place in the world as active, engaged citizens. In faith schools in particular, that focus on the spiritual, moral dimension of young people’s education tends to be exemplary. But the discontinuity emerges when schools fail to link those 2 goals. School leaders often feel that in the pursuit of excellent outcomes they have to betray the very ethos they are attempting to impart on young people.
The early findings of Ofsted’s curriculum project brought some of these tensions into stark relief. The preliminary report shows that the hunt for prizes and stickers for a school has, perhaps inadvertently, taken on greater importance than the substance of education itself. For a group of school leaders, ensuring that young people have the body of knowledge they need to succeed is playing second fiddle to a focus on maximising league table positions. I mentioned some examples of particularly poor practice in our recent Annual Report, including:
- primary schools giving up teaching most other subjects in Year 6 to focus intensively on SATs prep, rather than meaningful work to improve reading and mathematics or a broader curriculum
- the widespread shortening of key stage 3 to 2 years, when this means that many pupils lose a whole year of study of the humanities, of languages and of the arts
- at key stage 4, we saw too many schools pushing lower-attaining pupils away from studying EBacc subjects: these are core academic subjects that should be the norm for all but a small minority of pupils
Some have taken my comments on the curriculum to be an attack on the exam system. Nothing could be further from the truth. The new SATs, GCSEs and A levels are a marked improvement on their predecessors. And Progress 8 does a good job in mitigating some of the worst perverse incentives in the accountability system. My point instead is this, and I cannot reiterate it enough: exam performance and league tables should be a reflection of what children have learned. Tests exist in service of the curriculum. Curriculum should be designed to give children the best pathway to the future, not to make the school look good.
And for the nay-sayers who say it is impossible to do what’s right and at the same time please the Department for Education or Ofsted, I say that simply isn’t the case. As well as the more disheartening cases, our inspectors also visit schools in challenging circumstances that enter the majority of their pupils for EBacc subjects even though they know their Progress 8 scores would be higher if they opted for BTECs instead. They do this because they want every child who is able to study a strong academic core to do so. At the same time, we see many primary schools that get excellent SATs results by doing things the right way: ensuring that children read often and are read to often, instead of sitting endless past SATs papers.
The duty of school leaders – and duty, as you will be aware, is not a neutral word – is to make sure that young people receive a rich and deep education. Good leaders make sure the focus of their schools is, in the words of Psalm 119, to ‘teach knowledge and good judgment’. To me, that is real ethical leadership and it is why I am delighted, along with Nigel, to sit on ASCL’s council on ethical leadership, which is exploring many of these issues.
I don’t think it is a cliché to say that making sure your pupils’ education has an ethical underpinning matters more than ever in these turbulent times. In an era of ‘fake news’ and tweeting presidents, we need young people to develop the moral fibre they need to flourish in a unstable world and – dare I say it – to correct some of the mistakes of the generation that has come before them. The starting point for that is that school leaders, the people who children look to day to day, must embody the values we want young people to inherit. Young people need to see that real leadership isn’t about bullying your staff to game results or pursuing external validation at any cost. Instead, leadership first and foremost is about acting with integrity. As I have said before, formal education is one of the few rites of passage that almost every young person passes through. It is therefore incumbent on us to ensure that the time is well used to instil deep knowledge and the right values.
One of those values as articulated in the definition of British values is ‘mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith’. It is a happy fact that almost every Church of England school we visit takes that value seriously. Many of our faith schools are exemplars in promoting tolerance, not just of different faiths, but also lifestyles and cultures as well. This stands in stark contrast to the way many faith schools operate in other countries and is something that we should be rightly proud of.
But tolerance and respect does not mean that we should privilege all belief above criticism. Ofsted inspectors are increasingly brought into contact with those who want to actively pervert the purpose of education. Under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology. Freedom of belief in the private sphere is paramount, but in our schools it is our responsibility to tackle those who actively undermine fundamental British values or equalities law.
That doesn’t just mean Ofsted, but everyone involved in education. Rather than adopting a passive liberalism that says ‘anything goes’ for fear of causing offence, schools leaders should be promoting a muscular liberalism. That sort of liberalism holds no truck for ideologies that want to close minds or narrow opportunity. Occasionally, that will mean taking uncomfortable decisions or having tough conversations. It means not assuming that the most conservative voices in a particular faith speak for everyone – imagine if people thought the Christian Institute was the sole voice of Anglicanism. And it means schools must not be afraid to call out practices, whatever their justification, that limit young people’s experiences and learning in school.
Church schools must not, in their entirely correct goal of promoting tolerance, shy away from challenging fundamentalist practice when it appears in their schools or communities. The experience in Sir John Cass School a couple of years ago should serve as a warning for what happens when they do not. Similarly, schools must not allow pressure from certain elements of school communities to dictate school policy, nor should we allow vocal parental minorities to pressure other parents and children to act or dress against their wishes. Giving way to the loudest voices is the opposite of tolerance.
On that note I want to put on the record my full support for Neena Lall, the Headteacher of St Stephen’s school in Newham, and her leadership team. Schools must have the right to set school uniform policies as they see fit, in order to promote cohesion. It is a matter of deep regret that this outstanding school has been subject to a campaign of abuse by those who want to undermine the school’s position. Yesterday my inspectors visited this school and spoke to the head, staff and pupils as well as parents. We will of course publish our findings from that visit in due course. But in the meantime, I do want to be clear, Ofsted will always back heads who take tough decisions in the interests of their pupils. On that, I hope we are not alone, and that others in local and national government, and the Church of England or other religious authorities where relevant, take steps to ensure schools have the support they need in these difficult situations.
It should go without saying that the concerns I am raising here are not about mainstream Anglican practice in our schools, nor for that matter most mainstream Jewish or Muslim practice. But it is undoubtedly true – and books we’ve found displayed in schools encouraging husbands to beat their wives are a sorry testament to this – that there are segments of particular faiths who are determined to use our schools to promote beliefs and practices that are an anathema to British values.
If we are to tackle this practice effectively, we will require changes to legislation to give us better powers. In both state and independent schools, we are supported by the Equality Act and ‘Independent school standards’. But, one of our greatest areas of concern is what is happening under the radar in so-called out-of-school provision. Out-of-school provision is a mainstay of the work of the church; indeed it is hard to think of a more British institution than a Sunday school. Similar positive activity groups exist in other faiths, providing extra-curricular activities, language training and spiritual instruction. I have no doubt they provide an enriching experience to the young people who attend them. But some other out-of-school settings operate less benignly. These institutions, some of which operate as illegal schools, use the opportunity to – in the words of the former Prime Minister – put ‘poison in the minds, hatred in hearts’ of young people. They need to be tackled.
That is why I am afraid to say it is a matter of regret that the Church has resisted changes in the law to allow Ofsted to inspect these settings. This is not about infringing religious freedom: no one is proposing a troop of inspectors turning up at Sunday schools. Instead, it is about ensuring that the small minority of settings that promote extremism are not able to evade scrutiny. If we are to protect many of the tenets that the Church holds dear, we need the power to tackle those trying to use education to undermine them.
None of that should detract from what I started this speech by recognising, and that is the major and very positive contribution that church schools play in our educational landscape. A contribution that looks set to continue through your investment in creating the next generation of empowered leaders through the Leadership Foundation. I very much look forward to seeing how it evolves in the years to come, and perhaps seeing a future occupant of my office who has passed through your leadership training schemes.
All that remains for me to say is to keep it up and to wish you well for a successful conference.