Last year, the Annual Report I presented to Parliament described a school system that was improving overall, despite the obvious challenges that it faced. Although too many children were unlucky enough to be saddled with indifferent schools, weak leadership and poor teaching, far fewer of them were in mediocre schools than in the past. Serious areas of concern remained, but on the whole, England’s schools and colleges were on an upward trajectory.
This year, I have to report that the outlook is less promising. Primaries continue to improve. Eighty-two per cent of them are now good or better – an increase of 13 percentage points since 2012. But the improvement in secondary schools has stalled. And while the FE [further education] sector has made modest gains, too many of its courses are failing to equip youngsters with the skills employers want and that the economy needs.
The nation should be worried about a growing divide between primary and secondary schools. In too many cases, pupils are leaving their primary schools with good literacy and numeracy skills, confident and eager to learn. But the culture they encounter at too many secondary schools often demotivates and discourages them.
Many secondaries, of course, are equipping their students with an excellent education. But overall, too many are not and are not building on the progress that children have made in primary schools. Indeed, nearly a third of our secondary schools are not yet good. Whereas almost four out of five primary school pupils achieve the expected standards at 11, more than four in 10 leave school at 16 without five good GCSEs. This means that nearly a quarter of a million young people at 16 leave secondary school without the benchmark grades in English and maths.
The performance of White British pupils on free school meals in secondary schools is particularly troubling. Not only are they the lowest performing ethnic group, they are also improving at the slowest rate. I’m sad to say that there is no sign of the gap between them and other ethnic groups narrowing. And until it does, the potential of far too many young people will remain unrealised.
We have to raise the aspirations of all of our children, regardless of where their talents lie. This entails ensuring that youngsters have the option of credible vocational courses as well as rigorous academic ones. This government has rightly scrapped sub-standard vocational courses but we still tolerate too much threadbare careers advice and shunt too many students into inappropriate college courses that do little to prepare them for work.
Rarely has there been a greater political consensus than today on the importance of vocational education, including apprenticeships. But if we are to get it right, employers must be involved more closely in course design and the schools and colleges delivering those courses have to make them more relevant. Ultimately, vocational education cannot be seen – cannot be seen as it too often is today, as a second-rate alternative for other people’s children. It is a significant and legitimate educational option for many youngsters and it should be valued as such.
I remain optimistic that, even in our most challenging schools and colleges, teachers and leaders will learn the lessons from the best. We do not have to invent good practice or travel halfway round the world to find it. Some institutions are delivering a world-class education. A few are helping others to excel. But not enough of them are. And far too many struggling schools are left unsupported, deprived of the expertise and advice they desperately need.
As a result, good teaching and excellent leadership are not percolating easily through our education system. Improvement in too many schools is grinding to a halt. I fear that if we do not maintain the momentum we have seen in the past few years, if we allow progress to plateau, improvement in our schools and colleges won’t merely stall – it’ll go into reverse.
Two years ago, the proportion of secondary schools that were good or outstanding lagged that of primaries by three percentage points. The gap has now grown to 11 percentage points. This year, less than half of secondaries that were required to improve advanced to good or better compared to more than two thirds of primary schools. The number improving roughly matched the number declining and consequently the percentage of all secondary schools that are good or better remains the same as last year at 71%.
These are national figures. They mask wide regional variations. In the North East, for instance, 90% of primaries are good or better, but only 67% of secondaries are. In a third of local authorities, less than 70% of all schools are good or outstanding. And in a handful of areas the situation is even worse.
In 13 local authority areas, containing all types of school, children have less than a 50% chance of attending a secondary that is good or better. All but two of these areas are in the north of England: Tameside, Middlesbrough, Barnsley, East Riding of Yorkshire, Stockton-on-Tees, Bradford, Blackpool, Doncaster, Oldham, St Helens, Hartlepool, Derbyshire and the Isle of Wight. Parents in these areas will rightly worry about their shocking lack of choice. More than half of the children in these areas are having their life chances unnecessarily narrowed.
Throughout the country, some 170,000 pupils are now in secondary schools rated inadequate. Two years ago, there were only 100,000.
As I said earlier, there are many secondary schools that are doing a superb job, where leadership is excellent, teaching is inspirational and the ethos fosters a learning culture. Indeed, proportionately, there are more outstanding secondaries than primaries. And there are many primaries that need to do far more for their pupils. But overall the picture is clear: primaries continue to progress while secondaries have stalled. The question is: why?
It isn’t about structures
The last few years in this country have been dominated by arguments about school structures, about whether schools should be academies or remain under local authority control. In many ways it’s yesterday’s argument. Most people recognise that school autonomy is a good thing. Almost all schools, regardless of status, now enjoy far more freedom than they did in the past. No mainstream party is proposing to turn the clock back and deprive schools of their autonomy. It is here to stay.
But autonomy in itself is not sufficient. An autonomous school is not necessarily a good one. It takes more than a new nameplate on the gates or a portentous motto to make a school outstanding. It takes leadership. It takes a refusal to accept mediocrity. It takes a commitment to learn from the best. It takes an acceptance that schools should strive each and every day for the benefit of their students and an awareness that, if they do not, then they are not doing their job.
Schools are failing not because they are local authority schools or academies, or because they are part of a chain or because they stand alone. They are failing because they haven’t got the essentials right: governance and oversight is weak, leadership is poor, misbehaviour goes unchallenged and teaching is indifferent. If our education system is to continue to progress, we need to concentrate on the basics of why schools and colleges fail and why they succeed.
The main reason primary schools have continued to improve is because they have attended to the basics. For instance, two years ago, our inspectors found that leadership in primaries was on average not as good as that in secondaries. Today, the reverse is true.
Good primary headteachers, according to our inspectors, are concentrating on fostering the things that matter most: excellent teaching, significant pupil progress and a culture that refuses to tolerate bad behaviour. Teaching is closely monitored and good practice is shared. Governors, too, are playing their part. They are becoming more aware of how the pupil premium is spent and are increasingly prepared to challenge management if performance is sliding.
Just as importantly, primary schools are making great efforts to get learning right and to get it right early on. The introduction of phonics screening has helped. But so too is the number of primary schools – nearly 7,000 at the last count – that offer nursery provision. Primary headteachers understand that the sooner they can start shaping a child’s education, particularly when the child is from a disadvantaged background, the greater the chances of later school success.
Two years ago, 1.3 million children were in primaries that were less than good. Today, it is 820,000. That is still too high and there are still far too many primaries that are letting their pupils down. But thanks to the hard work of teachers and leaders in the majority of primary schools, there are hundreds of thousands more children now attending a good or outstanding school than was the case in 2012.
Why are secondary schools stalling?
Why, then, do we not see the same progress in secondaries? As I said earlier, it’s important to emphasise that many secondary schools are doing a fantastic job. They are developing their students’ full potential because they are attending to the essential elements that underpin an excellent education. But despite the many excellent secondaries, the evidence clearly shows that overall improvement has stalled.
It’s tempting to conclude that, because secondaries are more complex than primaries, embedding improvement is more difficult. But this is balanced by the access they have to more resources. In any case, complexity cannot explain why some schools with similar intakes and similar challenges succeed while others fail.
The fact is, in weaker secondaries, poor behaviour is more prevalent, progress made by children in literacy and numeracy at primary is not being sustained, able children are not being stretched, while the disadvantaged are not closing the gap in attainment with their better-off peers. Improvements in leadership, too, have stalled or gone into reverse, while middle management and governance is often weak.
Let me unpack some of those findings for you.
Low-level disruption and pupil attainment
In the secondary schools inspected in 2013/14, there was a seven percentage point fall in the proportion of schools where behaviour was judged good or outstanding. There are far too many instances of pupils gossiping, calling out without permission, using mobiles and being slow to start work or follow instructions. In themselves, these are minor infractions. But taken together, they create interference that makes learning and teaching difficult if not impossible.
According to teachers recently surveyed by Ofsted, pupils in England are potentially losing up to an hour of learning each day because of low-level disruption. That equates to 38 days of teaching lost every year. Some 400,000 children now attend a secondary school where behaviour is poor and that is clearly unacceptable.
If some secondary schools are failing to embed a culture that is calm, ordered and designed to foster learning, it isn’t surprising that so many pupils have difficulty in progressing.
The transition between primary and secondary has long been recognised as a difficult step for many children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier for many of them to take. I am increasingly concerned that the early years of secondary school are failing to build on the improvements witnessed in primaries. The most successful secondaries work closely with their feeder schools. But not enough of secondaries do that.
The problem is also acute for the most able children. Primaries have made steady progress in helping this group. The proportion of pupils at Key Stage 2 gaining a Level 5 or above rose from 21% in 2013 to 24% this year. Attainment at Level 6 has also risen, particularly in mathematics, where the proportion reaching the top grade has increased from 3% to 9% in two years.
Contrast that with the situation in secondary schools. In 2013, nearly a quarter of pupils who achieved highly at primary school failed to gain even a B grade at GCSE. A third of our inspections of secondary schools this year pinpointed specific problems with teaching the most able – a third of inspections this year.
We cannot allow this lack of progress to persist. Imagine how dispiriting it must be for a child to arrive at a secondary school bursting with enthusiasm and keen to learn, only to be forced to repeat lessons already learnt and endure teaching that fails to stimulate them. To help tackle this problem, I have commissioned a report into progress at Key Stage 3 and it will report next year.
It is a similar story for disadvantaged students. In 2007, the gap in primary schools between pupils from deprived backgrounds and their better-off peers was 24 percentage points. In 2013, it was 19 percentage points. Sadly, the gap in secondary schools at GCSE has hardly narrowed at all: in 2007 it was 28 percentage points; last year it was 27%.
I am happy to report that the pupil premium is making a difference in many schools. But you only have to cast an eye over the variable performance of pupils on free school meals in different areas to realise that some schools are using it more effectively than others. From 2007 to 2013, schools in 10 local authority areas managed to increase the proportion of their poorest pupils achieving five good GCSEs by 25 percentage points or more. Yet for schools in five areas, that proportion was only three percentage points or fewer.
The contrast in pupil behaviour and attainment at secondary and primary, however, is only a symptom of the bigger problem: inconsistent and poor leadership. In a quarter of all secondaries, leadership and management remain outstanding, a higher proportion in fact than in primary schools. However, whereas the proportion of primaries where leadership and management are good or better is increasing, the portents in secondaries are worrying.
Our evidence shows that the quality of leadership is a problem in more than 700 secondary schools, around a quarter of the total. And the proportion judged inadequate has more than doubled in the past two years.
Study the inspection reports and you will understand why. In too many inadequate schools, headteachers simply do not understand their schools or how to manage their colleagues. They tend to have overly optimistic views of teaching because monitoring isn’t robust or is non-existent. Consequently, they fail to tackle underperformance or to act quickly enough when decline sets in. In fact, the leadership of teaching was more than twice as likely to be the cause of problems as the quality of teaching itself.
Unsurprisingly, in most of these schools, middle management was weak and unsupported. Given the size of most secondaries, headteachers delegate many of their responsibilities to middle leaders. If they aren’t working well, neither is the school.
There is an additional reason, however, why so many secondary schools are failing to progress. It’s not only because they haven’t got the basics right but also because they lack meaningful support and necessary challenge. And they lack these because too many of them are isolated.
These schools are deprived of effective support when times are bad. They are left unchallenged when they flirt with complacency. In many cases, they are totally insulated from effective governance. They are bereft of good leadership and good teaching practice. They remain apart from schools that could partner them. They are denied easy access to good teaching recruits and, as a result, find it difficult to promote to senior appointments.
Our education system has the potential in its diversity to liberate schools. Never before have teaching professionals had such freedom and autonomy to find their own solutions to our most intractable educational problems. But the system as a whole will only progress if, as the Education Select Committee pointed out earlier this year, schools and teachers work with and learn from each other.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Imagine you are a newly appointed head in a struggling secondary school in a deprived coastal town. The local authority that appointed you won’t trouble you unless you find yourself in special measures. But unless the school becomes a pressing problem they won’t offer you any support either.
Your governors are well intentioned but are accustomed to agreeing wholeheartedly with the head. You have too many vacancies in key subjects. Your colleagues are decent but a little rusty and think an NLE [National Leader of Education] is something to do with American football. Your pupils’ parents are supportive but undemanding. Your students aren’t badly behaved, but sadly no one expects many of them to do particularly well.
So what do you do? Who are you supposed to go to for meaningful advice? How do you attract good recruits? You’re not part of a teaching school alliance and your seaside town has limited appeal for sharp young graduates. How do you broaden your pupils’ horizons and raise their aspirations? How can you get the basics right if you lack the tools to do the job effectively?
Of course, being in a partnership is no guarantee to success either if the trust or network a school belongs to is indifferent to its needs.
Let’s take another example. Imagine this time you are a head in a secondary school that is part of a large multi-academy trust.
The school joined the multi-academy trust a couple of years ago, but apart from a new name and a breathless new motto, nothing much has changed. In fact, the neglect you suffered at the hands of your old local authority is indistinguishable from the neglect you endure from your new trust. Even the excuses are the same: ‘It’s really difficult getting good people to apply’; ‘We can’t afford to move them on…’; and the old perennial of course, ‘What can you do with children like these?’
Too little support and advice is provided to you, a struggling head. You are left to fend for yourself with predictable consequences. The issues are the same for you as they are for an isolated head in a weak local authority: who do you go to for advice? How do you develop your staff? How do you raise the attainment for all of your students?
Schools marooned in partnerships without effective networks find it hard to improve and just as hard to sustain improvement. It doesn’t matter if they belong to a local authority or to a multi-academy trust. If oversight is poor and expectations low, the problems are uniformly similar and depressingly predictable: a lack of strategy to help the weakest schools and an absence of challenge to the best.
Those schools that stand apart from any kind of federation or partnership are vulnerable. For instance, of the 89 converter academies that Ofsted judged to have declined to less than good last year, 66 were not in a multi-academy trust. Of the 21 that declined and that were formerly outstanding, 15 were not in a multi-academy trust. Isolation, it seems, isn’t always so splendid.
The problems caused by isolation are especially apparent when we consider teacher supply and recruitment. The calibre of people entering the teaching profession is better now than it has been for many years. Scholarships and bursaries, tougher literacy and numeracy tests and initiatives such as Teach First have helped to ensure that 73% of trainees now have a first or 2:1 degree, 12 percentage points higher than in 2009/10. Teaching as a career can no longer be dismissed as the last choice of the second best.
But while it is encouraging that the quality of recruits has risen, I am becoming increasingly concerned at the declining numbers joining and their uneven distribution. Overall, the number of entrants into teacher training has fallen by 17% since 2009/10, with particular shortfalls in key secondary school subjects. There are 8,000 fewer trainee teachers in secondaries than in 2009/10.
This is a pressing issue. There will be nearly 900,000 more children attending school in the next 10 years and we will need many thousands of additional teachers to teach them.
What’s more, shortages are being exacerbated because new recruits aren’t necessarily going where they are needed most. The freedom good and outstanding schools now have to take more control of teacher training, for example through School Direct, is a positive step. But it’s important that weaker schools in disadvantaged areas do not miss out as good schools cherry-pick the strongest candidates. The country must avoid a polarised education system in which good schools improve at the expense of weaker ones.
As things stand, deprived areas of the country outside the main urban areas have limited access to teaching schools or National Leaders of Education. Almost a third of schools in coastal towns, for instance among the most economically deprived and isolated areas of the country told Ofsted they struggled to attract applicants in every subject of the curriculum. If these schools cannot recruit good teachers to teach, it will be much harder for them to make significant progress.
The limits of school reform
Over the past few years, there has been an expectation that schools should do more for themselves. As I said earlier, this is a wholly positive development. Schools and the profession ultimately benefit from having more freedom and more autonomy.
But there are also limits to what schools can and should do. The extension of excellent early years provision in good schools, for instance, allows children to learn and play well at a young age, which pays dividends for their education in later life. The learning culture fostered by good primary and secondary schools helps enormously to give structure and support to children who, for whatever reason, lack it at home.
Yet it would be wrong to suppose that for all its benefits this support is a total substitution for good parenting. It is not. It is easy for politicians and the press to blame schools for youngsters’ ill-discipline or lack of ambition and achievement. But as we all know, a child who has a supportive family, regardless of income, is far likelier to succeed in school than one who hasn’t.
Good schools anchor vulnerable children in ways their own homes do not. But they can only do so much. Society has to recognise that. Moreover, when schools try to make a difference, they should be supported. It is completely hypocritical, for instance, to attack schools for tolerating misconduct and then berate them when they try to create a structure that instils discipline and respect.
The recent furore over uniform policy is a case in point. When a Bradford headteacher sent home 150 students for what the press dubbed ‘minor infringements’ of uniform policy, she was lambasted. But all she was doing was reminding children, and just as importantly their parents, that there were rules and that if youngsters wanted to study at her school they had to abide by them. Isn’t that what every well-run organisation expects of its members? Isn’t that an essential lesson for children who one day hope to be employed?
The country needs brave headteachers who are prepared to take a stand and fight for what is right. I think it’s hard for those of you who haven’t been in that position to know how isolating those decisions can be. Taking difficult decisions can make a lonely job even lonelier. Heads who are battling an anti-learning culture and taking a stand against those who are too ready to defend the indefensible deserve support, and not opprobrium.
Unfortunately, as things stand, too many children are leaving school and college without the skills and attitudes that would make them employable. A quarter of a million leave school without good literacy and numeracy skills and a tiny proportion of these – one in six – manages to make good their deficiencies by the age of 19.
The introduction of 16 to 19 study programmes last year should help, because courses have to be set at a higher level than learners have already achieved. Too many providers in further education, however, continue to offer insufficiently robust courses in English and maths.
The lamentable quality of much careers guidance is an additional obstacle. Surveys conducted last year found few schools provided youngsters with the advice they needed to make informed choices. Apprenticeships, for instance, enjoy cross-party support, but their status among youngsters remains poor and information about them in schools is meagre, according to our inspectors.
Excellent initiatives are in danger of failing because the people they are designed to help aren’t getting the information about the courses they need. Many young people, according to those surveys, felt that poor careers advice had led them to make a ‘false start’ after being ushered onto inappropriate courses for which they were ill prepared or which taught them little that was useful or relevant.
It’s a charge echoed by employers, 30% of whom say they cannot fill vacancies because candidates lack the requisite skills and qualifications. Too many further education colleges, for instance, still put on classroom-based vocational courses that do not incorporate direct experience of work and do not inspire the youngsters within them.
As a result, our inspectors report that young people leave college with insufficient practical skills, minimal technical knowledge or the attitudes and abilities that employers expect of employees. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that youth unemployment in this country is more than double that of countries that have excellent vocational provision, such as Switzerland and Germany.
The government’s intention to give employers purchasing power to commission courses is a welcome development. It should help align post-16 provision to economic need more closely. However, if we are to have a truly effective vocational education system, employers must become more involved in its delivery. I appreciate this isn’t always easy, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses, but employers and their representative groups must play a fuller part in the education of our children if we are to emulate the successes of our international competitors.
So I remain optimistic, as I said earlier, that our schools and colleges are up to tackling the challenges that the country expects of them. They have made significant advances, particularly at primary.
The essential ingredients of success are no secret: strong leadership, a positive learning culture, good teaching, robust accountability and a determination to improve the lot of every child, regardless of background or ability.
When schools and colleges ignore these essentials, they fail to improve. And I fear that where they are isolated from effective partnerships, improvement becomes that much harder.
The debate over structures has, frankly, become sterile. What’s important is what happens in a school or college to make it successful or what doesn’t happen to prevent it being so. That progress has stalled in secondaries is a cause of concern. And I know that’s a tough message for the sector to hear.
But there are many excellent and inspiring secondary schools that are demonstrating exactly what needs to be done. We need to learn from them and replicate their success. If we do that, then I remain confident that we will have an education system that the country expects and our children deserve.
Thank you very much.