Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, spoke at the 2016 FASNA Autumn Conference in central London.
Thank you so much for inviting me again to your conference and I am absolutely delighted to be here as I approach the end of my tenure as Chief Inspector.
When I addressed you last, in March 2013, I said that Freedom and Autonomy for Schools - National Association (FASNA) had clearly set out its stall to promote freedom and autonomy for all schools as a means of raising standards.
This is your noble mission and it was certainly mine as an academy principal before joining Ofsted. That missionary zeal was palpable when there were only a few academies in the land. The big question now is whether that missionary zeal is as strong and as powerful and as effective when academy status is more the norm than the exception, certainly in the secondary sector.
And I say this in relation to what I said to the Education Select Committee at my last appearance a few months ago. I didn’t beat about the bush but said that we still had a mediocre education system. It’s an observation that did not go down well in certain quarters. But I stand by it.
Compared to the international competitors we want to emulate, we still trail the best.
Interestingly, given the controversies around Brexit and immigration, one of the few measures where England leaves its rivals trailing is in the proportion of students with a degree who come from immigrant backgrounds. In this respect, we are way ahead of most countries – a point I’ll return to later.
But for the most part, England’s education system is a bit like its football team – better than many, but hardly top-notch. We comfort ourselves with past success, illusory as that might be, dream of future glory then collapse into despair when we come across superior play.
This familiar tale of disappointment, however, is misleading in 2 important respects.
Firstly, it fails to recognize that our education system has come from a long way back. Twenty years ago, standards were truly dire across the phases and generations of children were being let down year after year. Since the dark days of the 70s, 80s and much of the 90s, schools have got a lot better.
Secondly, it can tempt us to adopt fanciful and nostalgic solutions while our very real structural problems are ignored.
So let me be clear, for all their faults, our schools have improved immeasurably. Greater autonomy, matched with greater accountability, is making a significant difference to standards.
The proportion of good and outstanding schools has never been higher. As a result, according to our latest management information, some 1.8 million additional children are now in good or better schools than was the case 6 years ago.
Primary schools have been particularly successful, with a great majority now judged good or outstanding. What is even more remarkable is that primaries are doing well across the country in all regions. As a result, literacy and numeracy levels have improved across the board.
Secondary performance is not as stellar but nearly 6 in 10 youngsters now achieve the benchmark GCSE grades even though examinations are that much tougher. Twenty years ago, with easier examinations, less than 1 in 5 achieved these grades.
The percentage of disadvantaged youngsters going into higher education is at an all-time high. Astonishingly, such has been the improvement among secondary schools in London that its disadvantaged pupils were more likely to go on to university last year than their more affluent peers. And despite the well-known problems with teacher recruitment, the calibre of recruits entering the profession is higher than it has ever been.
And there is another successful aspect to our school system that has largely gone unnoticed. We regularly castigate ourselves – rightly – for the poor performance of white British pupils. Children of immigrants, conversely, have in recent years done remarkably well.
This trend is now so ingrained that it is assumed that children of immigrants always outperform. But in most of Europe that just isn’t the case. In many countries they do worse than the children of non-immigrants. In Germany, France, Finland, Italy and Switzerland, for instance, children of immigrants do far worse in school than their native peers.
Not so in England. Our schools are remarkable escalators of opportunity. Whatever cultural tensions exist outside of school, race and religion are not treated as handicaps inside them. All children are taught equally. And contrary to tabloid claims, non-immigrant children do not suffer, rather the reverse.
Schools, it turns out, are great forces for social cohesion. Yet nobody talks about it. We are so used to picking over problems that we forget to notice what an incredible achievement this is. Most other countries aren’t as fortunate.
Schools are the place where different communities integrate. Schools provide the glue that helps hold our society together. How short sighted would it be if we carelessly did anything to dissolve it through a needless return to selection and segregation?
So, we have concrete achievements to celebrate. And headteachers like you are responsible for much of it.
At the individual school level, the transformation has been remarkable. When I began teaching in Inner London, embarrassing numbers of children left school with pitifully low grades. How different it is today. Exceptional headteachers have transformed schools that not so long ago were in desperate straits.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Holland Park School in Kensington and Chelsea used to be a byword for all that was wrong with the comprehensive system. Ten years ago, only 1 in 3 students achieved good GCSEs. Today 8 in 10 do. And at Woodside High School in Wood Green, London, only 1 in 10 students scraped 5 good GCSEs a decade ago. This year, three-quarters did.
You can find success stories similar to these up and down the country. Professionals, often working in extremely challenging circumstances, have achieved incredible results. Outstanding, well-led comprehensive schools are delivering for children of all abilities. It is no surprise, therefore, that the present Secretary of State and many more MPs have been educated at comprehensive schools and that, in this year’s Olympic Games, two thirds of British medal winners came from the state sector.
The trajectory of improvement in our state education system is palpable. We should therefore be optimistic for the future and above all else, not do anything which jeopardizes this upward trend.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Although some of our achievements may be unsung, our shortcomings are still serious.
The attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM secondary students hasn’t budged in a decade. It was 28 percentage points 10 years ago and it is still 28 percentage points today. Thousands of poor children who are in the top 10% nationally at age 11 do not make it into the top 25% five years later.
In my last year’s Annual Report, I said that there was a growing geographical divide in educational standards, after the age of 11, between the North, the Midlands and the south of England.
We are fast becoming a tale of two countries in relation to our secondary school performance compounded by woeful vocational provision at both pre-16 and post-16 levels. The fact that a quarter of a million youngsters leave school after 13 years of formal education without a GCSE in English and Maths is a national disgrace.
Grammars aren’t the answer
All this has led some to conclude that the system is broken. Comprehensive schools, they earnestly believe, have failed. They uncritically accept the narrative, pedalled by many in the press, that comprehensives are comprehensively bad. What is needed, they argue, is a return to the simple truths of yesteryear − when the brightest went to grammars and the rest took their chances.
As I have said before, I think this would be a monumental mistake. I do not wish to traduce in any way the fine teaching that goes on in individual grammar schools – nor the choices parents make. They, like everyone else, have to operate within the system they are given. But for the country as a whole, selection at the age of 11 is simply not the answer.
There is ample evidence, for instance, that grammars do nothing to improve social mobility.
The numbers of children from deprived backgrounds who manage to secure a grammar school place are tiny and their counterparts who go to the local secondary modern fare badly compared to those who go to comprehensive schools. Furthermore, recent research clearly demonstrates that the value-added progress measures for the most able children are no better than they are in high performing comprehensive schools.
Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that grammars are back in vogue now partly because we have failed to sufficiently reform comprehensives. Two years ago, in a speech at the Wellington Festival, I warned that those who were resisting reform – who were refusing to embrace greater diversity in our school system - academies and free schools – would inevitably pave the way for the return of selection. And so it has proved.
The ‘grammar school ethos’ that Harold Wilson confidently asserted would permeate comprehensive schools still hasn’t reached too many secondary schools in the Midlands or the North. These schools may be in the minority, but their continued existence feeds into a larger narrative.
As I said two years ago, even though the anti-academic ideology associated with the early comprehensives has been discredited, its damaging effects remain.
You can see it in the disdain for competitive sports, the half-hearted pursuit of high academic standards and the meagre respect given to leadership and authority. You can see it in sneering headlines when heads try to impose a uniform policy. You can see it in the rejection of subject specialism in favour of cross-curricula muddle. You can see it in the airy dismissal of testing and any kind of meaningful accountability.
And we can’t excuse weak leadership in some of our comprehensives – leaders who simply don’t get the basics right and who do not create the culture in which all children can excel, including the brightest and the best.
Inspectors see too many secondaries where uniform is not worn properly; where the atmosphere in corridors and classrooms is not conducive to good teaching and learning; and where expectations are abysmally low.
There are too many secondary schools with mixed-ability classes without mixed-ability teaching and where bright children languish in a baleful stupor while the teacher teaches to the middle.
In addition, Ofsted’s recent report (‘The Wasted Years’) clearly highlighted the problems in the early years of secondary education. Too many children have been allowed to drift and mark time in years 7 to 9 without building on their achievements at the end of primary school. As a consequence, they just scrape through their GCSE examinations and do not achieve the highest grades of which they are capable.
We all know that improving teaching is hard, and takes time but it can’t be improved unless headteachers are willing to fight the good fight on school culture. I was criticised for describing the best heads as battlers and bruisers – but they need to be in some parts of our country if the comprehensive ideal is still to burn brightly.
There is no reason why comprehensive schools should not have a ‘grammar school ethos’ and celebrate the importance of tradition, ritual and formality.
There is no reason why headteachers should not insist that children should stand up when staff enter the classroom or sing a school song or learn whole tracts of Shakespeare off by heart. My heart sinks sometimes when I visit schools where headteachers walk into classrooms and none of the children pay a blind bit of attention.
As a consequence of all this, and in spite of the enormous strides we have made in the past few years, the comprehensive name is still associated in the minds of many with mediocrity, laxity and failure. For many journalists and politicians, their reputation remains tarnished.
This is why the proposal to set up more grammars has, despite the evidence, found a wider welcome than it had any right to expect. Grammars are back on the agenda because self-styled progressives refused to back comprehensive reform in comprehensive schools.
The tragedy is that the grammar debate isn’t necessary or welcome. It threatens to undo the progress we have made and does absolutely nothing to address more fundamental problems.
It clouds the debate about early years and does not address the big issues of accountability and early intervention in the new academy landscape.
It will obfuscate the big capacity issues – the need for more and better teachers and more and better leaders − which are preventing further progress in our education system, particularly at secondary level.
It will further push to the sidelines much needed reform to vocational education and high-quality provision for those who do not want to pursue an academic route to university. And it will certainly not tackle the long tail of underachievement containing our poorest children – rather the reverse.
This totally unnecessary debate risks consuming our energies when they should be devoted to far more pressing problems. So let me tell you what we should be talking about.
Let me start with leadership – the single most important factor in improving the quality of our school system.
Fortunately, enough of you do know what excellent leadership looks like. It is intolerant of mediocrity. It supports and professionally develops teachers and refuses to permit bad behavior from students. It sets high expectations for all ability groups, especially the most able who often set the tone and culture for the whole school.
These leaders are powerful people conscious of the autonomy and freedoms that have been given to them by government in order to raise standards. They are not afraid to use that power and demonstrate it in the corridors, classrooms and staffrooms of the nation’s schools. These are the leaders who are bringing about systemic change through clusters and chains of schools.
However, we simply do not have enough of them. So why is that? Why aren’t we nurturing the next generation of leaders? Why aren’t we training enough of them well, or ensuring that they go to where they are needed most?
We should be addressing these issues around leadership rather than wasting time talking about grammar schools.
Intervention, too, is an issue. As we pointed out last month, some academy chains are doing excellent work. But others risk replicating the worst aspects of local authorities. They have lax accountability. They appoint bureaucrats who decline to challenge school leaders. They fail to model good practice. They intervene only once problems have developed.
This is why, as Chief Inspector, I am continuing to instruct my inspectors to focus on those chains, which according to the data, are not working for their children.
But frankly, by the time Ofsted judges that a school or chain is failing, it’s way too late. Our inspectors tell me that it is extremely common for schools to display all the warning signs of decline without any of them being addressed. By the time academies are rebrokered, it’s too late – it’s an admission of failure.
Schools need timely and early intervention before they go off the boil. Of course, we now have regional schools commissioners who should provide that vital early warning trigger. But there are real questions about their capacity to do so.
On average, regional schools commissioners have to handle 2,750 schools in their area, of which approximately 750 are academies. How can they possibly monitor so many with the resources they have? How can they intervene speedily and effectively? Even the best are struggling to do so. We could be addressing that issue. But instead we’re talking about grammars.
We know that our school population is increasing at a far greater rate than our teaching workforce. We also know that we are not attracting enough recruits into vital subjects, nor are we tempting them to the isolated towns and regions that need them the most. We could be talking about recruitment challenges but for some reason we’re not.
I’ve worked with 3 secretaries of state now as Chief Inspector and I can tell you that they have all been committed to improving our schools. They have all felt passionately that every child deserves the very best. They have all realized that a better education system is absolutely crucial to the future health and wealth of this country. They all have cared deeply about our schools, our teachers and our students.
Let’s be honest. The big issues facing our education system predate this administration or the one before it, or the one before that. The big issues have been with you and I for as long as we have been teachers.
We all know that if we want to address disadvantage, we have to invest in better early years education. The gap between poor children and their better-off peers starts before school and becomes entrenched well before the age of 11. So I’m delighted to see more and more forward-thinking academies not only promoting all-through schools but also expanding into nursery education.
But more needs to be done. The children of the poorest are still not receiving the best quality education at an early enough age. And we need to think creatively about that.
We also need to accept that neither disadvantaged children nor the most able have been nurtured and stretched as well as they could have been in too many of our schools. The most effective schools may be comprehensive but that doesn’t mean that the same approach works best with every child, or indeed every teacher.
Schools need to think intelligently about where they deploy people and resources for the maximum effect. That already happens in the best academy trusts and we need to see more of it.
Finally, we have to tackle our poor performance in vocational education. We know that a good grounding in academic subjects is essential for every child. But we also have to accept that some children, when they are older, thrive in a more technical environment.
We need to make that happen, not only for their sake but also for our own. Because to prosper, the country, post-Brexit, cannot rely on importing the skills its school-leavers lack. It has to develop them itself.
So if the Education Select Committee called me back tomorrow, I would still say that we have a mediocre education system. Our schools have not reached their full potential, nor fully met our expectations.
But if they pressed me and asked if we should salvage what we could and admit defeat with the rest, I would be equally forthright. No, we should not.
Our schools have made enormous strides. And they are remarkably good at building social cohesion. We should not let our impatience blind us to our achievements.
How foolish would it be to jettison the good work of the past few years only to embrace a model that doesn’t meet our needs and has gone out of fashion elsewhere?
I would also make another observation: the best global education systems have achieved success in large part because they improved the attainment of the poorest performing children. It isn’t a matter of focusing on the top 20%. To be world class, you have to focus on the 100%.
It turns out that doing the right thing is also the smart thing. And if our international competitors think the future is comprehensive, why shouldn’t we?