Writing in Academy Magazine, Sir Michael Wilshaw shares his views on progress made within the state education system and the challenges that lie ahead
The missionary zeal of the early Academy Principals to promote freedom and autonomy for all schools as a means of raising standards was palpable. The big question now is whether that missionary zeal is as strong, powerful and as effective when academy status is more the norm than the exception. I didn’t beat about the bush when addressing the Education Select Committee recently with my view that we still have a mediocre education system. This did not go down well in certain quarters but I stand by it, as 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. However, 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 , dream of future glory then collapse into despair when we come across superior play.
This familiar tale of disappointment, however, is misleading in two important respects. Firstly, it fails to recognize that our education system has come from a Iong way back. Twenty years ago standards were truly dire with generations of children being let down year after year. Since those dark days schools have got a Iot better. Secondly, it can tempt us to adopt fanciful and nostalgic solutions while our very real structural problems are ignored.
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 and as a result, some 1.8 million additional children are now in good or better schools than was the case six years ago. Primary schools have been particularly successful, with a great majority now judged good or outstanding.
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.
There is another successful aspect to our school system that has largely gone unnoticed. We regularly castigate ourselves for the poor performance of white British pupils. Children of immigrants, conversely, have in recent years done remarkably well. Our schools are proving themselves to be 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 and are the place where different communities integrate and 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?
At 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 with exceptional head teachers transforming schools that not so long ago were in desperate straits. You can find success stories up and down the country with professionals, often working in extremely challenging circumstances, achieving 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. 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.
However, 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. Thousands of poor children, who are in the top ten per cent nationally at age 11, do not make it into the top 25 per cent five years later.
In my last year’s Annual Report, I highlighted a growing geographical divide in educational standards, after the age of eleven, between the North, the Midlands and the South of England. This is compounded by woeful vocational provision at both pre and post-sixteen. 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.
All this has led some to conclude that the system is broken. 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. 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, Iike 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 I warned that those who were resisting reform and refusing to embrace greater diversity in our school system 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 Iarger narrative. Even though the anti-academic ideology associated with the early comprehensives has been discredited, its damaging effects remain.
We cannot 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 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 head teachers are willing to fight the good fight on school culture. There is no reason why comprehensive schools should not have a grammar school ethos and celebrate the importance of tradition, ritual and formality.
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. 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.
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 Iandscape. It will obfuscate the big capacity issues – such as the need for more and better teachers and school Ieaders – which are preventing further progress in our education system, particularly at secondary Ievel. It will further push to the side-lines 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. For example Leadership is undoubtedly the single most important factor in improving the quality of our school system. Excellent Ieaders are intolerant of mediocrity, support and professionally develop teachers and refuse to permit bad behaviour from students. They set 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 who are conscious of the autonomy that has been given to them in order to raise standards and who are bringing about systemic change through clusters and chains of schools. However, we simply do not have enough of them, so why aren’t we nurturing the next generation of leaders or training enough of them well, or ensuring that they go to where they are needed most? We should be addressing these issues rather than wasting time talking about grammar schools.
Intervention too is an issue. Some academy chains are doing excellent work but others risk replicating the worst aspects of local authorities. This is why my inspectors are instructed to focus on those chains, which according to the data, are not working for their children. Schools need timely and early intervention before they go off the boil. We now have RSCs who should provide that vital early warning trigger, but there are real questions about their capacity to do so. With, on average, 2,750 schools in their area, of which approximately 750 are academies ,how can they possibly monitor so many with the resources they have and intervene speedily and effectively? Even the best are struggling to do so and we could be addressing this issue but instead we’re talking about grammars.
We know that our school population is increasing more rapidly than our teaching workforce. We also know that we are not attracting enough recruits into vital subjects, nor tempting them to the isolated towns and regions that need them most. We could be talking about recruitment challenges but for some reason we’re not.
I’ve worked with three 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 and have all realized that a better education system is absolutely crucial to the future health and wealth of this country. But let’s be honest, the big issues facing our education system predate this administration or the one before it, or even the one before that.
We 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. We need to think creatively about that and 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 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 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 and say 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? 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 per cent, to be world class you have to focus on the 100 per cent. 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?
Sir Michael Wilshaw was head of Ofsted until 30th December 2016.
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