Nick Gibb: the importance of school leadership

Nick Gibb explains how government reforms are developing more excellent headteachers and helping school leaders improve their schools.

Can I start by saying thank you for inviting me to visit The Key and discuss school leadership with you today? In just 8 years you have grown to become a fixture in the English education ecosystem, and I am a great admirer of the guidance and support you offer to school leaders.

I am all too aware that a government cannot drive up school standards alone. What government can do is set the conditions in which schools are able to improve themselves. That is why heads are so central to our vision of a school-led system, and why I want to talk about school leadership today.

In his memoirs about his own school days, Winston Churchill recalled his old master Dr Welldon, and observed that: ‘Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested.’ And that was before the current era of unprecedented school autonomy.

Compared with 2010, all headteachers have more power to exclude pupils whose behaviour disrupts the education of those around them, more power to move on teachers who do not meet their expectations of quality teaching, and more power to determine how teacher pay should relate to performance.

In addition, headteachers no longer have to complete self-evaluation forms, submit annual absence and performance targets to local authorities, or instruct their teachers to teach in a particular style - and produce written lesson plans - simply to please Ofsted inspectors.

We have got rid of 10 different data collections for schools since 2010, such as ‘making good progress’ and ‘standards fund monitoring’, and we have removed 21,000 pages of unnecessary school guidance, reducing the volume by 75%, and centralising all that remains in one place on the GOV.UK website.

Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, at the Key

For headteachers who lead academies the freedoms are more extensive still. They have more control over their funding, the ability to change term times and the school day, greater freedom over their curriculum, and the freedom to choose where to go to get the best services, such as behaviour support and school improvement - or indeed to provide such services in collaboration with other academies.

But, more importantly, the academies programme has been driven by the fact that, like the lotus fruit in The Odyssey, once headteachers taste school autonomy there is no going back.

We have been guided in this policy by the international evidence that high levels of school autonomy, coupled with strong accountability and excellent leadership, are consistent features of the top-performing education systems. Conversely, there is nothing more deflating than being responsible for an organisation over which you do not have adequate control.

A great privilege of having served as Schools Minister in 2 successive governments has been meeting inspiring headteachers. In particular, I have been deeply impressed by those heads who have grasped the opportunities offered by today’s era of school autonomy to make a clean break with the current orthodoxies of how schools should be run, and plough their own furrow.

It is a remarkable fact that the best non-selective state secondary school in the country today, according to the 5 A*-to-C measure, is not situated in a middle-class suburb, or a pleasant rural town. Instead, it is situated in 1 of the most disadvantaged London wards for child poverty, and 41% of the school’s pupils are eligible for free school meals - almost 3 times the national average.

Yet at this school, King Solomon Academy, 95% of pupils gained 5 good GCSEs in 2015, and 77% of pupils passed the EBacc, an achievement which would have been branded fanciful at the time of their opening in 2009. In that year, King Solomon Academy was founded by Max Haimendorf as a ‘new academy’, and from its inception it used academy freedoms to break from the orthodoxies of English state-schooling.

The behaviour and ethos of King Solomon Academy is explicitly modelled on the strict ‘no excuses’ approach of American charter schools, but coupled with a deep concern for the well-being of the pupils - tough love, some may say. In addition, the curriculum focused on depth before breadth. Their inspirational mathematics teacher Bruno Reddy ensured that every pupil mastered their number bonds and times tables to the point of instant recall, as a prerequisite for further teaching.

As our free school and academy reforms mature, I am certain that we will see more and more brave and free-thinking school leaders, such as Max, whose pupils achieve previously inconceivable feats under their charge.

Ever since she burst onto the public stage in 2010, I have been a great admirer of Katharine Birbalsingh. She is currently running a free school in Wembley which shows an admirable disregard for the way in which English schools are normally operated. At her school, desks are always in rows, there are no graded lesson observations of teachers, and pupils memorise subject content for weekly tests. And, if visitors to the school do not like what they see, Katharine says ‘tough’ - they must reserve judgement until the school’s first set of GCSE results in 3 years’ time.

However, we can’t have a school system defined by a handful of exceptional individuals. For there to be a real step change in the life chances of pupils throughout the country, we need school leadership to show strength in depth in all parts of the country.

And to ensure that heads are the best they can be, there is a role for the government to play. Over the past 6 years, our reforms have focused on building the networks of collaboration and support which will allow best practice to spread to most schools.

The National Professional Qualifications are now delivered by schools and other providers, allowing aspirant heads to train on the ground with serving headteachers. Some of our leading teaching schools and MATs have embraced this opportunity to create new leadership development organisations, such as Inspiring Leaders, Taudheedul Education and Cabot Learning Federation.

We have funded other targeted programmes to develop excellent leaders for challenging schools, such as high-potential senior leaders, currently delivered by Future Leaders, and high-potential middle leaders, currently delivered by Teaching Leaders.

Programmes such as these act as a pipeline for young, aspirant heads who want to gain leadership responsibility, and are keen to do so in those schools that need them most. So far, high potential senior leaders has provided training to 667 assistant and deputy headteachers, helping them to secure and excel in their first headship position.

In addition, we are encouraging more of the best school leaders in the country to become national leaders of education (NLEs), with a stated purpose of improving education provision beyond their own school. As of January 2016, there are over 1,000 NLEs and more than 370 national leaders of governance.

For bright and ambitious young graduates, a career in teaching now offers rapid advancement opportunities to rival any other profession. If our schools are to improve across the board, our education system needs to reward hard work and ambition, not just time served.

And career advancement for teachers does not end with headship. The challenges of running a multi-academy trust demand a whole different set of abilities compared to headship, but equally should offer an exciting new avenue for our brightest and best in the profession to continue progressing throughout their careers.

This government will have achieved its aims, if, in the years to come, teaching has become established as one of the most exciting, rewarding and fulfilling professions available to young people.

We are aware, however, that even the best headteachers are not superhuman. That is where organisations such as The Key serve a clear purpose. Running a school is a demanding and complex process, and the help that The Key offers in all areas, from planning a budget for the coming year, to risk-assessing a school trip, is invaluable.

The Key also offers help in school improvement, school curriculum and classroom teaching. Here, I would encourage your organisation, and all other organisations involved in the same field, to be as discerning and rigorous as possible in deciding what to promote as ‘good practice’.

I will give an example of how it can be done badly. In a report last year, a highly influential international thinktank examined ‘Schools for 21st-Century Learners’, promoting to schools approaches such as ‘authentic learning’ and ‘technology-rich environments’.

In a passage on ‘inquiry learning’, this report cited a case study of a secondary school in the north west of England where pupils work for 1 day a week on research projects; where they were free to pursue their own interests with teachers simply acting as ‘facilitators’.

On reading this case study, I decided to investigate how well the school in question actually performs. It turns out that for the past 2 years, over half the pupils have not achieved 5 GCSEs graded A* to C including English and maths, and in 2013 the school was graded ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted.

Why on earth, I ask myself, would an organisation which is geared towards improving educational outcomes profile a struggling school with unimpressive examination results as an exemplar? The only answer I can reach is that for many in education, a preference for child-centred teaching methods is still allowed to trump actual evidence of failure and success.

I am confident that the education sector is moving towards becoming a mature profession, where evidence is finally allowed to trump orthodoxy and dogma. To speed this process along, it is the responsibility of all organisations involved in helping headteachers with school improvement to be absolutely rigorous in scrutinising the methods and approaches they promote.

Whether promoting the merits of project work or direct instruction, synthetic phonics or whole word, a knowledge-based curriculum or a thematic curriculum, educators must ask themselves: ‘Do I wish this to be true, or do I know this to be true?’

In England, we have some truly astonishing schools which achieve great results against the odds, and the number of such schools is growing with every year. We should not be looking to struggling schools where half of the pupils do not meet the minimum expected standard for inspiration.

So my challenge to The Key, and any organisation of a similar nature, is to ask yourselves whether you are comforting schools by reflecting current orthodoxies, or challenging schools to improve by promoting approaches which have been proven to work.

I look forward to answering your questions.