This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools speaks to the NGA about the principles that underpin the government's approach to school improvement.
Improving all our schools
Thank you so much for having me back.
A lot has happened since I last spoke at your conference in November.
Since then, we’ve published our white paper, The Importance of Teaching, and introduced our Education Bill into Parliament. Both have something to say about the importance of governors. Both reflected a number of the arguments made to me by Emma and Clare on your behalf. And both set out our plans for improving all our schools.
As I hope you know, I am very grateful for the work the NGA does on behalf of governors - and to governors for the work you do on behalf of schools.
As the white paper made clear, we believe that governing bodies should be the key strategic body in schools, responsible for the overall direction that a school takes. In that respect, governors are also therefore the key body for school improvement.
One of the most important parts of my job is to make sure that you have the time, the space and the tools you need to do yours.
I know that good governing bodies can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with members drawn from many different walks of life. So we want to give schools more flexibility to decide for themselves on the structure and composition of governing bodies that will best meet their school’s particular needs.
I am especially keen that governing bodies are able to appoint members with the mix of skills they think they need, rather than because they have to be appointed from a particular category or group. So I am pleased that we’re making it possible for schools to adopt more flexible models, with the only requirement being that they appoint a minimum of two parent governors to sit alongside the headteacher on the governing body.
Schools will of course still be able to appoint members of staff or local authority governors if that’s what they believe is right for them. Voluntary-aided schools can still also retain foundation governors to allow them to preserve their religious character.
But it will be a decision for schools to exercise themselves - or not - not something that is imposed. And it is very much in line with points made to me by the NGA about moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach.
I also agree with the NGA that trained clerks who can offer expert advice and guidance to governing bodies can be a real help and I would like to see more schools considering appointing them.
And I agree too that governing bodies sometimes don’t have the information or training they need to challenge and support their headteacher, which is why I want to make it easier for governors to ask challenging questions by giving them access to more data about how their school is doing and to work with the National College to offer high-quality training for chairs of governors.
These measures are all deliberately designed to help governors perform their vital school leadership role, because there is no more important part of your jobs than helping your schools to improve.
Let me set out the broad context for school improvement by explaining the principles that underpin our approach.
First, at the heart of our approach is a belief that greater autonomy should be extended to schools and greater trust to front-line professionals.
The evidence of the past decade in our own country, as well as from the jurisdictions around the world with the best-performing education systems, shows that the fastest improvement takes place where schools have the most freedom.
One way to give schools greater autonomy is through our Academies programme, and I’m delighted that so many schools have decided to take us up on our offer to become academies. Since the start of the school year in September, more than two new academies have opened every working day, bringing the overall total of academies to around 450. By the beginning of this year, more than one in 10 secondary schools was an academy - since then the pace has been accelerating.
Of course, some schools don’t yet want to become academies. My job is to support those schools just as much as in those that do convert. So as well as the freedom for governing bodies I described earlier, we’re keen to reduce the bureaucratic burden faced by all schools by cutting away unnecessary duties, reducing prescription in the curriculum, clarifying and shrinking guidance, simplifying school inspection and scrapping as many unnecessary processes as we can.
The best-performing education systems all combine greater autonomy for schools with intelligent accountability that makes schools accountable, allows fair comparisons to be made between schools by parents, and drives improvement.
So our second principle is to strengthen the accountability framework. We want to publish much more information and data so that governors, headteachers and parents can all see how their schools are doing but also learn from those schools that are performing well.
And it’s because it’s so important that the public can make fair comparisons between schools that we are also revamping performance tables to place more emphasis on the real value schools add, as well as the raw attainment results they secure.
Pupils need good qualifications to succeed - but I know that it has been a bugbear of many governors for a while now that we don’t always recognise the successes by those schools that take children from the most challenging and difficult backgrounds and help them gain good qualifications.
The third principle of our approach to school improvement is to strive for higher expectations for all pupils.
Other nations have an expectation that more and more young people leave school with better and better qualifications. Our current expectation that only English and maths be considered a minimum benchmark at 16 marks us out from them.
It is because we want to raise our expectations to match the highest standards around the world that we are introducing a new measure - the English Baccalaureate - which will show how many students in each school secured five good passes in English, maths, science, languages and one of the humanities.
More generally, minimum standards at GCSE have also risen in recent years, in line with the increased aspirations of parents and communities. All those headteachers, teachers and governors who have helped drive improvement deserve special credit.
But given the quickening pace of school improvement around the world, we have also raised the floor standards and, importantly, made them fairer by adding a new progression measure.
A secondary school will now be below the floor if fewer than 35 per cent of pupils achieve the standard of five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths - up from 30 per cent - and fewer pupils than the national average make the expected levels of progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 in English and maths.
A primary school will be below the floor if fewer than 60 per cent of pupils achieve the standard of Level 4 in both English and maths at Key Stage 2 - up from 55 per cent - and fewer pupils than the national average make the expected levels of progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 in English and maths.
But I am clear that this is only a guideline, and any school where attainment and pupil progression are low and where schools lack the capacity to improve themselves will be eligible for the additional support they need.
And that’s why proportional support is the fourth principle that guides our approach to school improvement. Many of those schools that need to improve the most serve the most disadvantaged communities of the country and face the greatest challenges.
Our pupil premium will ensure those schools receive additional money - starting at £430 per pupil but rising in total from £625 million this year to £2.5 billion per year by 2015 - to support the education of the most disadvantaged pupils.
On top of this, we have created a new education endowment fund worth £110 million, which provides a further incentive for schools and local authorities to work together to bring forward innovative projects that will raise attainment of disadvantaged children in underperforming schools.
And because nothing matters more than giving more of the poorest children access to the best teaching, we are more than doubling the size of Teach First so more of the best young graduates are able to teach in more of our most challenging schools, including primaries.
But this won’t be enough for all of the lowest-performing schools.
You’ve already heard today from Dr Liz Sidwell, herself an inspirational head, who I’m delighted to say is now working with us as the Schools Commissioner. Liz’s job will be to use her experience and knowledge to work with local authorities to identify those schools most in need of support and then to help them develop plans for their improvement.
I’m sure Liz will also be interested to hear your thoughts - through the NGA - on how the expertise of local authorities in school improvement can be retained and used most effectively.
And I do want to stress that local authorities remain our essential partners in school improvement. Many local authorities will already have plans to improve schools below the floor standards in hand. And Michael Gove wrote to local authorities yesterday asking them to share those plans, which will also cover primaries for the first time, with us.
Where it’s essential, additional financial support will be made available, but many will not require extra money and will involve extending the influence of high-quality academy sponsors and harnessing the talents of great headteachers to help those schools that are underperforming.
School-to-school collaboration is the fifth and final principle. Whether it’s a strong school supporting a weaker school or good schools collaborating together, partnership working goes with the grain of the culture that already exists within many schools.
One of the most exciting developments - if not the most exciting development - coming out of the academies programme is that powerful combination of autonomy and partnership that is seeing a growing number of schools wanting to become academies in chains or clusters.
And it’s just as encouraging to see groups of primaries clustering around a secondary school or federations of good schools where opportunities for pupils and staff are being increased, standards are going up and costs are going down - including in rural areas.
One of the great school improvement success stories in recent years have been national and local leaders in education.
Because we are committed to more of that system-led leadership that we know works, we’ve doubled the number of NLEs and LLEs and we’re also establishing a new national network of 500 teaching schools by 2015. Based on our teaching hospitals, they will act as real centres of excellence and ensure teachers can access excellent continued professional development throughout their careers.
In many ways, education is a continual quest for improvement. It is a quest to reach the ever higher standards that will allow more of our young people to be educated to ever higher levels.
I know it is that quest that led to you to giving up your valuable time to volunteer as school governors. You are the unsung heroes of our education system.
That’s why it’s always such a privilege to speak at an NGA conference.
And why I will do what I can to champion the role of governors.