Charlie Taylor's keynote speech to the North of England education conference
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Charlie Taylor's keynote speech at the North of England education conference today.
Towards a school-led education system
For those of you who don’t know, this week it was announced that the Teaching Agency and the National College for School Leadership are to merge, with me as the new chief executive.
I feel - and I hope you’ll agree - that this merger makes good sense. The work of the College and the Teaching Agency is so closely linked that uniting them will only strengthen our work to build a self-improving, school-led education system.
We are taking views on a name for this new organisation and we will make a decision by 1 March . I want to use this speech today to lay out the main priorities that I see for the new organisation. There are, I think, three main areas of work that the merged Teaching Agency and the National College for School Leadership will work on: Teacher training, school improvement and leadership. I’d like to discuss in this speech our direction of travel in each of them.
Too often, even now, schools have got a blind spot when it comes to teacher training. It is something that is done somewhere else, by someone else - remotely, without schools’ input. Ask many head teachers about teacher training and they won’t have a lot to say about it. They don’t know what goes on or how it is done.
In the past teachers were often parachuted into schools from on high without any direct school involvement in the content or the focus of their training course. Imagine this situation with any other profession. Imagine doctors having no input into the training of doctors. Imagine law schools where solicitors or barristers were not fundamentally involved in designing the courses. Yet this is the situation we have had with teachers.
As a head you may have had no input in the training. But when that teacher has started with you, and Ofsted comes calling the second week of September, it is you who will be held to account. Some schools even refuse to take trainees - because they are worried that parents will complain, that their results will suffer, or that Ofsted will criticise them. I can understand this in schools under pressure where results are not good, but this happens even in schools that are rated outstanding by Ofsted. If outstanding schools refuse to get involved in training the next generation of teachers, I think there’s something very wrong with that. Now this situation is not universally the case, there are many examples of excellent partnerships between schools and providers of teacher training. However, I think things can get better and the introduction of School Direct last summer will change things significantly.
School Direct is the new way of training teachers which puts schools, the employers, the customers, at the heart of the process. With School Direct, schools can bid directly for training places. Schools select the provider of teacher training they want to work with whether it is a university or a school based SCITT. They agree the content and focus of the course depending on their needs and they can negotiate directly with the provider on how the money for training should be divided. Most importantly they can choose and recruit the candidate they want - the candidate their school needs.
School Direct brings an expectation of employment, a covenant with the trainee that says the school will find them work. I know that some heads have been concerned about this expectation so I will explain it in a little more detail.
Of course, it is difficult for individual schools to predict the turnover of staff, particularly small primary schools - so this employment expectation has made many understandably cautious about becoming involved in School Direct. The ideal solution is for schools to work together in partnerships. This is the way that School Direct will work for small schools and in areas where there is a low turnover of staff. These are the best sorts of partnerships, they are not artificially engineered by the government, or chasing pots of money. They are set up in the interest of schools to ensure they can continue to recruit the best graduates as trainees. These partnerships coalesce round a lead school that can negotiate collectively with the provider and organise the training. Larger partnerships of school mean that turnover of staff can be more accurately predicted and there is enough scale to ensure that trainees can be found work when they qualify. The expectation of employment does not need to sit with an individual school it can be shared collectively.
When this arrangement is in place then there is no problem with school direct, even for the smallest school. The training can take place in any school in the partnership and if may be that different schools specialise in different parts of the training. For example, the local PRU or BES Special School may take on the behaviour component of the training.
In the future I would like to see local areas deciding on the numbers of teachers they will need each year rather than a fairly arbitrary figure passed down from the Department for Education. I have asked my officials at the TA to work with schools, academy chains and local authorities to help them to devise their own local teacher supply model. I don’t think Whitehall should be deciding that nationally we need 843 geography teachers, when a more accurate figure can be worked out locally.
I am under no illusions, School Direct is new and the changes will provide new challenges for schools, trainees and providers. There is uncertainty for providers because, unless they are rated outstanding by Ofsted, they no longer have a guarantee of places. Some providers have found this challenging but others, such as Sheffield Hallam, Cumbria or Newcastle University, have seen School Direct as an opportunity to build even better partnerships with schools and for some to increase the amount of student teachers on their courses. Many schools have already successfully taken part in School Direct, such as Tollbar Academy near Grimsby which has 12 teachers being trained this year at Sheffield Hallam; Cheadle Hume which has 25 places with Manchester University; and Prestolee primary school in Bolton which has 15 school direct places in conjunction with Hawthornes, its local teaching school.
These are schools that see the benefit of training their own teachers - and were among the first to ask to get involved. They realise that rather than reduce standards, trainees improve school performance, and they see it as the responsibility of every great school to help to train the next generation of teachers. At the moment, heads go through that nerve-wracking process around May each year where they have to wait to see who is leaving, then spend money on expensive advertising and if that doesn’t work then they get on the phone to supply teacher agencies with their fingers crossed that they will get someone good. Through School Direct, heads can actually plan for staff turnover - and help to train their new recruits themselves.
I think School Direct also provides a useful programme for Local Authorities to work with schools to ensure a supply of the best teachers. Bolton has hosted a conference for their schools on the changing face of teacher training. In London, Enfield local authority was able to reassure schools that if they bid for SD places, the candidates would be able to be employed elsewhere in the borough if the schools found that their needs had changed. This helped schools, especially small primaries, to overcome any worries and get involved.
I believe School Direct also provides opportunities for nimble, forward thinking universities. There has in some cases been an artificial wall between universities and schools. The universities do the training, but after that the school takes over. This is changing, the wall is coming down and there is movement in both directions. Schools are more involved in the training of teachers and universities are finding more opportunities to do work with schools. Here in Sheffield, Hallam is doing the NQT training for schools. Other universities such as Christ Church Canterbury and Edge Hill provide opportunities for teachers to do a masters on the job that is allied with school improvement. There is a fantastic symbiosis here, the teacher gets a chance to develop their practice and earn a qualification and the school has first class, bespoke work going on to improve a pre-agreed area of its work. Providing such opportunities for staff will surely help with staff retention and get teachers through that three year itch that often leads to them leaving the profession.
To headteachers who say they don’t have the time or the inclination to do School Direct I say simply: 90 per cent of the success of any organisation is in the quality of the staff and schools are no different. Therefore time spent by head teachers on training and improving staff is the most important work that they do. Yet how many of us dedicate the time we should to this, I know I should have done more. I have no evidence for this but I would bet a substantial sum of money that heads who dedicate the most time to training and developing their staff have the best schools.
In 1988 Kenneth Baker decreed that schools should have five training days a year, that means since then there have been more than 700,000 training days. Add to that the number of staff meetings and that is an enormous amount of training. Yet how good has the quality of CPD been, how effective is it? What difference has it made?
For the best schools, CPD is a planned and integral part of their work. We must make the best the norm. CPD should be directly linked to improving teaching, school performance and pupil progress. It should be evidence based and the impact should be clear and measurable. It is an essential part of the self-assessment and planning loop for every school.
Gone are the days where CPD comes down from central government in a national sheep dip. The best CPD is locally generated and bespoke to the needs of individual schools in the right manner, at the right time.
Take subject knowledge, in some interesting work done by Professor David Burghes primary teachers in Japan and England were given the same maths test. Guess who came out better - the Japanese, guess whose pupils achieve better in maths - Japanese children. There is no doubt that the better the subject knowledge of a teacher, the better the teaching. Primary colleagues present today or secondary teachers who have done cover lessons know that when you are not on top of your subject you want to stay in your comfort zone - meaning that your teaching tends to become boring and risk-averse.
Education is about so much more than a simple utilitarian function, but never-the-less we must produce children with the skills and knowledge to complete successfully in an ever more competitive world. That means continually working to improve our own skills and knowledge.
I also want to see increased school-to-school support. I am in no doubt that Ofsted has done a huge amount to raise standards of education in this country. When I first started teaching there was no real accountability for schools or teachers. As Sir Michael Wilshaw has said, Ofsted, with fairly infrequent inspections, is a somewhat blunt instrument. It takes a snapshot in time of a school and looks at the data, but in between inspections schools need to be held to account. I think schools should develop partnerships, often the same partnerships as they have for school direct to take on this work. This has begun to develop amongst groups of heads. For example my school was part of a network of BES special schools who undertook inspections of each other. The questions we asked of each other were often far harder than those posed by Ofsted and crucially part of the process was planning improvements not merely pointing out difficulties.
School to school support needs two things to work well. It needs trust and it needs honesty. Schools have to be able to put their hands up and say “we are struggling” and schools have to be prepared, when necessary, to have difficult conversations with colleagues who are falling behind. At the moment school-to-school support is often good or outstanding schools trying to get even better. The best schools have the confidence to say, “We are doing fine, but our science department could be better, or we haven’t quite got assessment right.”
Some schools find this much harder - in particular, those in an Ofsted category or hovering just above feel unable to ask for help, or the organisation to be able to act on it. When I worked for a local authority Behaviour Support Team, I was called into see a pupil, and as I arrived I bumped into the EP who was there for the same reason. It turned out that the school had asked for help from every one, but was not effective enough to put any of our recommendations into practise. Heads can at times feel beleaguered by advice from everyone to the extent that they fail to take it on board.
And sometimes in schools we look outside for experts, forgetting the expertise of our colleagues and ourselves. But who better to ask than fellow professionals? It is early days, but I believe that the NLE and LLE programmes introduced by the National College will help schools to get better at asking for help. Soon, I would like it to seem completely natural to see head teachers and other leaders in and out of each other’s schools giving, listening to and acting on advice and support. With the reduction in many local authority or central government programmes, schools need to develop their own support networks.
I have talked ambitiously about how I want to see education develop as we head towards a self-improving school-led system. Where will the drive come from for this change? Where it always does, from the best heads.
We have to ensure that the quality of leaders is good enough. Nothing happens without good leaders. In education we have to follow the practise of successful businesses that spot and grow talent and make sure that people get the right training to flourish as leaders in our schools. NPQH is no longer compulsory for head teachers - so that means the programme is better than ever in order that governors and academy chains continue to see the value in the qualification when they are recruiting.
Whenever you feel it can’t be done, that it all feels too difficult, that the problems of underachievement, the low performance of some groups of children, poor behaviour will never get solved then I would recommend a visit to a teaching school or a conversations with a great head teacher. This elite group of schools are able to solve problems that seem intractable, they know exactly what they want to do, they plan their work and nothing is left to chance. They never use their children or their catchment areas as an excuse and they expect the best from every pupil. Teaching schools and the best academy chains show us what is possible. What we can achieve when we get the best heads, leading the best teachers. The best schools are the antidote to cynicism and tiredness, the antidote to central control, the antidote to top down imposition. They have the freedom to do things differently and individually.
These are the schools that will blaze a trail towards a school-led system. They are the ones who will make school direct a success, transform CPD, create robust systems of school to school support and grow the best leaders. It is in these schools and their leaders that I have faith to change fundamentally, forever.
Teaching schools are about what is possible. Whenever you get depressed about the future of education, whenever the difficulties become too much, whenever you have those black moments when you feel education can’t get better, that under achievement, bad behaviour, poor performance , the failure of some groups, the barriers of poverty, gender or social class. Visit a teaching school or talk to a teaching school head.
The next three years are going to be some of the most exciting in the history of education. A genuine movement towards a school led system in which the best schools are in control of the future. The antidote to cynicism, and tiredness, the antidote to central control, the antidote to top down imposition. Freedom to do things differently and individually.