Michael Wilshaw – 2016 Speech to Festival of Education


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Wilshaw at the Festival of Education held at Wellington College in Berkshire on 23 June 2016.

It is good to speak on this momentous day in British history when the decision to stay or leave the European Union will have a profound effect on the future of our country.

I do hope though, when the decision is made and the dust settles, people will see that despite the sound and fury, those on both sides of the argument have spoken with passion for what they truly believe.

In the same way, I hope that when my term of office ends in a few months’ time, people will understand that what I have said and done has been motivated by a passionate desire to improve the lives of children and young people.

If I have stirred up emotions from time to time and caused offence by speaking bluntly, then I apologise. But I have been a Chief Inspector in a hurry, impatient to bring about improvement through inspection.

I leave office knowing that, although our inspection frameworks are now tougher and more demanding than 5 years ago, many more children are in good and outstanding schools than ever before. I do hope that this is recognised by those who have, from time to time, questioned my approach and sometimes taken my words completely out of context.

Our education system is miles better than it was 20 years ago when Ofsted came into being. And each year since, we’ve seen incremental improvement.

Our primary schools, in particular, are doing well, although there is much to do in many of our secondary schools. So why is our education system still mediocre and not up there with the best in the world?

Quite simply, it’s because we have largely failed to address the long-tail of underachievement in our country, containing most of our poorest children.

This one constituency has not felt the benefits of the improvements I have just mentioned. And the irony is not lost on me saying this to you in a school like this – bedecked with privilege, with the opportunities that are often denied to our poorest children.

The lot of disadvantaged children in primary schools has improved – a bit. But in secondary schools, the attainment gap between children on free school meals (FSM) and their better-off peers has refused to budge in a decade.

Despite all the good intentions, the fine words and some imaginative initiatives, we are not making a real difference. The needle has barely moved. In 2005, the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils in secondary schools was 28 percentage points. It is still 28 percentage points now. Our failure to improve significantly the educational chances of the poor disfigures our school system. It scars our other achievements. It stands as a reproach to us all.

Not long after I started my tenure at Ofsted, we published a report Unseen Children, which looked at the increasing invisibility of underachieving poor pupils as they progressed through our schools, not just in urban areas but also in isolated rural and coastal communities. We wanted to understand why a majority of disadvantaged children consistently underachieved at school.

As I approach the end of my tenure, I’m returning to that theme.

I spoke earlier in the year about the widening gap between the performance of schools in the North and those in the South. But as I stand in these glorious grounds, in this beautiful corner of Berkshire, I wonder how many people realise just how badly the poorest pupils have been let down in some of the wealthiest parts of the country?

The attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM secondary school children in West Berkshire is 31 percentage points. In Kent it’s 34. In Surrey it’s 36. In Buckinghamshire it’s 39. And, in Reading, it’s a whopping 40 percentage points – all far in excess of the national gap of 28. What an appalling injustice. What an inexcusable waste of potential.

And yet, alarming as these figures are, they do not reveal the full extent of our failure. They hide the continuing underperformance of the white working-class, for instance, or the dashed hopes of too many of the most able disadvantaged children, whose early promise is so often left to wither.

As a teacher who has spent his professional life working in some of the most deprived areas of the country, I find our failure perplexing and infuriating. I know individual schools across the country have turned things around, particularly in London, and managed to give children who had been written off a good education. So why have we failed at a system level? Why haven’t we made progress? Why do we keep letting down our poorest children in large parts of our country?

Guilty parties

To my mind there are 5 culprits. The first are the political ideologues of both Left and Right.

The poor have been caught in the crossfire between these two for as long as I can recall. Of course, both claim to be acting in the interests of the disadvantaged. Yet neither accepts the damage they invariably inflict.

The Left’s brand of snake oil was very pervasive in the 70s and 80s. They infiltrated scores of local authorities, peddling their anti-academic nonsense and undermining the authority and respect of school leaders.

I know I have talked about this before. But the reason I keep returning to the subject is that their irresponsible, ideological agenda ruined the education of hundreds of thousands of our poorest children − children now in middle-age whose literacy levels are worse than their parents’ and grandparents’.

I have been criticised for saying that school leaders should be battle-axes and bruisers. But in the 70s and 80s, headteachers who wanted to stand against this destructive tide had to be educational warriors. It was only those who were prepared to stand up to the ideological bullies, masquerading as pastoral reformers, who survived that terrible period.

Many didn’t. I well remember, for example, an experienced and respected headteacher in Newham who was quite simply broken by his experiences of dealing with endless militancy in his school in the mid 1980s, with insults being thrown at him when he refused to allow staff to join the demonstrations during school time to support the miners’ strike. There were many others who experienced similar intimidation.

The middle classes, of course, could escape to the remaining grammars and independent sector. The poor had no such option. They had to endure the chaos, the indifferent teaching and threadbare curriculum that passed for education in many state schools of the time.

They and we are still living with the consequences. Those who are fundamentally opposed to the academy programme should remember why it happened in the first place. Academies were a response to the failure of so many local authorities. They let down the very children they were supposedly supporting.

The market-based laissez-faire approach of the Right can equally damage the chances of the poor. Schools will wither on the vine as they did 20 or 30 years ago if a more liberal and autonomous system is not subject to strong central and local intervention when early decline sets in.

The market will not stop the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker. Teachers and leaders will always gravitate to the places where it is more attractive, comfortable, more leafy and easier to work.

The figures for teacher training speak for themselves. The prosperous South East region has over 458 trainee teachers per 100,000 pupils. Yet the East Midlands manages only 362 per 100,000 pupils. The East of England fares even worse, with only 294 per 100,000. No wonder these last two regions are poorly performing. Schools in these areas find it more difficult to get good staff. Teacher supply follows well-resourced demand, not educational need.

Hastily rebranded schools in deprived areas soon find that the magic of the market hasn’t eradicated underlying problems. But when they fail, as so many do, it is the system, or reactionary leftists, or those old hippies in Ofsted that are to blame.

Free marketeers forget, or perhaps they never cared to think, that without the semblance of a strategy, without meaningful accountability, or early intervention, the system risks repeating all the mistakes of the worst local authorities. They forget that it’s easy to destroy a school and so much harder to build one up. And once again, it is the poor who ultimately pay the price.

Structural vandals

The second group that has helped hobble the poor are the structural vandals, those who argue that children don’t need structure in school.

In educational establishment circles it was argued in the 70s and 80s, and still is in some quarters, that structure stifles. It kills childhood creativity; it dictates mindless conformity. This argument rears its head most often today in the endless whines about ‘petty’ uniform rules or the insistent shriek that testing is inhumane. And again, it is the poor who have to bear the consequences.

Many middle-class children, of course, are less reliant on structure in the school and classroom. They get implicit support and direction at home. But many of our poorest children don’t. A rule-based classroom culture helps compensate for a chaotic home life. Take it away and the poorest children rarely swim; they sink.

Even when home structures are in place, the poor’s expectations and potential are often constrained by limited cultural horizons. Through no fault of their own, many simply aren’t aware of what is possible. Why should they be? Few of them have had access to the life-enhancing opportunities a good education brings.

Middle-class children always have a head start. Their cultural hinterland is usually rich. Their parents are usually well educated. They tend to do well in school. And when they don’t, their parents can always hire a tutor.

To those who bleat about the tyranny of testing, let me say this. Testing isn’t a burden; it’s an opportunity. It allows teachers to know where a child stands and what help they need. It gives the poor a passport to the prospect of a better life.

Weak heads often complain about testing. But in my experience, a good head never tells colleagues to teach to the test. They insist on good teaching, which invariably leads to good results. The tests take care of themselves.

We can see what happens to progress when there aren’t any tests. It is one of the reasons why there is such a gap in attainment between key stages 2 and 4. It is the reason why I called for a return to testing at key stage 3, so the poor, in particular, can benefit from formal assessment.

Take testing and exams away and the poor can’t rely on the cultural capital or family connections that middle-class children possess. The irresponsibility of the anti-testing lobby in this regard is breathtaking. It is the disadvantaged who suffer from their thoughtless crusade.

A constricting curriculum

The third culprit is our continuing failure to develop a curriculum pathway for those youngsters who want a strong route into an apprenticeship, especially after the age of 14.

Let me be clear. You will find no stronger supporter of a core curriculum and strong literacy and numeracy programmes than me. I was insisting on the primacy of subject knowledge and the importance of an academic bedrock when many latter-day evangelists were negotiating their way around a Wagon Wheel.

Nor have I ever made the mistake of thinking that the poor wouldn’t benefit from access to the canon, to that rich corpus of knowledge that underpins all learning. The poor have as much right to – and capacity to appreciate – the works of Shakespeare and Newton and Austen and Macaulay as their better-off peers.

This I do not dispute. But what about those youngsters who would benefit from a technical education? What about those employers who, year after year, say that school leavers are not equipped with the technical skills that they are crying out for?

The figures are shocking. In the UK as a whole, there are now 210,000 vacancies as a consequence of skills shortages across the economy – an increase of 43% from 2013. In key sectors such as manufacturing, construction and utilities, over 30% of vacancies exist because there aren’t enough people with the right skills to fill them.

I have taught in disadvantaged communities for most of my professional life. And I can tell you that there will always be some children who will respond better to a technical curriculum than others.

The consequences of an inflexible curriculum are plain to see. We see it in the demotivated youngsters who leave school with few relevant qualifications and an antipathy to learning. We see it in the ranks of the unskilled unemployed. We see it in the hundreds of thousands of skilled vacancies that go unfilled and are eventually filled by those from abroad. We see it in the 40% of youngsters who don’t get 5 good GCSEs.

Poor teaching

The fourth reason why the poor continue to languish at the bottom of the educational pile is that they are often lumbered with the worst teaching. Despite excellent initiatives such as Teach First, poor communities are still more likely to have less access to good teaching than better-off ones.

According to the Social Market Foundation, schools in deprived areas are more likely to have fewer experienced teachers, more likely to have teachers without formal teaching qualifications, more likely to have teachers without degrees in relevant subjects, and more likely to have higher teacher turnover than schools elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, these problems have been exacerbated as teacher recruitment becomes more difficult. Last year, Ofsted’s own Annual Report acknowledged that recruitment was toughest for schools in deprived areas.

A recent snapshot survey my inspectors carried out of secondary schools in Kent and Medway has found that the situation is at least as grave now as it was then.

The problem in Kent is compounded by selection. As you know, the proportion of FSM eligible children attending selective schools nationally is only 3%, way below the national figure of 15%. Yet many of the good and outstanding schools in Kent are grammars and, according to research from Education Datalab, grammar schools in this area are more likely to attract and retain many of the best teachers.

As a result, secondary schools in Kent with the most disadvantaged children have more unqualified and less experienced teachers. They are also less likely to be judged good or outstanding for teaching, learning and assessment. Kent is an example of what happens to the poor nationally when market forces predominate.

As heads of non-selective schools told our inspectors: “The few good teachers that there are around prefer to go to the grammars,” and “We end up having to appoint unqualified or less experienced teachers. This places just more and more demands on experienced staff.” While another said: “There are just no incentives for teachers trained in Kent to stay in Kent and teach in more challenging schools.”

As I said earlier, the lack of a national, strategic approach to teacher training means that there are challenging areas of the country without ready access to the best newly qualified teachers. Outstanding schools train and retain the best candidates, leaving schools where the need is greatest to scramble for the rest.

In Kent, as in the rest of the country, challenging schools are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit the best teachers. We can roll out as many new shiny, well-intentioned educational initiatives as we like. But if we don’t have the people to carry them out, the disadvantaged will remain where they are – at the bottom of the heap.

Poor leadership

The same thing is true of leadership. The final culprit, the final reason why we continue to let down the poor is our inability to deliver strong leadership to those who need it the most. The poor disproportionately attend schools that are strangers to good leadership. Yet we know that good teaching can only thrive when leadership is strong.

Why have we not given greater priority to developing good leadership in our country, particularly in the most difficult areas? Why has the National College for Teaching and Leadership fallen on such hard times? Is the Talented Leaders programme enough?

As things stand, only 6% of schools in the most prosperous areas of England have leadership and management that are judged less than good by Ofsted. In the most deprived areas, almost 4 times as many schools – 23% – suffer the same.

Unless we resolve to get more of our best leaders into the most challenging schools, the poor will continue to be short changed.

What is to be done?

We don’t have to dig too deep to understand why we have failed our poorest children.

We can see it for ourselves in increasing alienation, the bitter resentment as others arrive to do the jobs the badly educated cannot do. “Blame the parents,” say some; “Blame the immigrants,” say others. Well, we should really blame ourselves, because it doesn’t have to be like this.

We should start by refusing to patronise the poor. There is nothing wrong in insisting on structure in school. We should be tough on feckless parents who allow their children to break the rules. I appreciate that many of them were let down by the education system. But they need to be reminded – through letters, meetings and sanctions – that the way they bring up their children has profound implications for us all.

We should have a curriculum that not only has a strong core but is flexible enough to meet the needs of those youngsters who want a technical pathway.

The government should insist that every major multi-academy trust should have a University Technical College. Every multi-academy trust should be inspected to ensure that the University Technical College does not become a dumping ground for the difficult or disaffected and that it delivers high quality pre-apprenticeship programmes to the age of 19.

Finally, the government must do more to direct good people into the most challenging areas. There have been some laudable initiatives. But they have been late, small and piecemeal.


I came into teaching, above all, to make a difference to the lives of our poorest children. As Chief Inspector, I have attempted to show how the educational underperformance that blights the lives of disadvantaged pupils in reality beggars us all. Of course, the poor suffer the worst consequences. But we are all the poorer for their missed opportunities and wasted potential.

We know that it does not have to be this way. We know that their life chances would be greatly improved if they had the best teachers, the best leaders and a better curriculum.

As I begin my last few months as Chief Inspector, it saddens me immeasurably to say frankly that we are still letting down our poorest children and that if things do not change fundamentally, we will continue to do so.

Thank you.

Michael Wilshaw – 2016 Speech at TES Leadership Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of OFSTED, at Bedales School in Hampshire on 25 May 2016.

Thank you for inviting me here to this beautiful school, Bedales. I believe the title of your conference is Liberating Leaders: A Leadership Conference with a Difference.

And today I want to make the case for difference, for maverick teachers and school leaders. Why? Because we desperately need more mavericks in the classroom and in the headteacher’s office.

A pretty ordinary education system – unfortunately we still have one – needs people who are flamboyant, colourful and yes, downright strange. In other words, we need extraordinary people. We need our awkward squad. The independent sector has always had them – our state system needs more of them.

It may seem peculiar to argue for more mavericks in education. Schools, after all, are ordered, structured places with clear hierarchies – the teacher and the taught, those who have authority and those who look up to it. Yet in my estimation the best heads and teachers are often mavericks. And when I say ‘maverick’ I mean ‘odd’. I should know; I’m pretty odd myself.

But I wasn’t born odd. I really had to work at it. I had to learn pretty quickly as a young teacher, that teaching, like it or not, was inevitably bound up with personality and character. Imparting knowledge is never going to be enough, especially when those at the receiving end are disinclined to receive it.

After experiencing my first week of teaching, I learnt from the experience and resolved to be a teacher and person who could never again be taken at face value. I had to be a chameleon, changing my personality according to the circumstances. It wasn’t a question of giving students what they wanted; it was a question of reading them sufficiently well to give them what they needed. A good teacher, I came to realise, understood how children thought and how their perceptions of the teacher governed how well they learnt.

Forty years later I saw exactly the same lesson on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in the hands of a great teacher, Rebecca, who was universally recognised by other staff as a bit bonkers…

And, as an apprentice headteacher I learnt from some of the best maverick leaders.

Take Cecil Pocock, the headteacher of the school I attended. He used to arrive in class on a bicycle, gown flowing, moustache bristling. Dismounted he had to say only one word – “Pax” – and any hubbub in the class immediately ceased. There followed some of the best history lessons I have ever heard.

Take Bridie Burns, headteacher of the first school I taught at in Bermondsey. She was a 4-foot dynamo who moved around the school as if on wheels. Everyone was terrified of her, although she had the warmest of hearts for the poor and the disadvantaged in East London. A raised eyebrow and a curt admonition were enough to silence the school thug or a tyro teacher like me who had the temerity to wear a short-sleeved shirt. You knew where she was in the school because a hush, a cloud of complete calm descended on her immediate vicinity.

And then there was Paul Docherty, who taught me so much about headship. Paul elevated the art of the unexpected into an Oscar-winning performance. Informed that children were misbehaving on the local buses, he donned a disguise, lurked at the back and, when trouble erupted, leapt out to confront the astonished culprits. Trouble on the buses soon became a thing of the past, because students were never entirely sure if the passenger obscured by a hat or newspaper was demonic Docherty or not.

All 3 of these teachers were very different people. But they were all as tough as hell. They all exuded authority and they all had a fierce moral conviction that all children, especially the poorest, deserved the best education — and woe betide anyone who got between them and that mission.

They were also something else: they were accomplished actors. They weren’t odd for the sake of being odd. Out of school they were very normal, ordinary people. But in school it was different. They put on an act. They acted the maverick.

A hint of menace helped – and so did an outsize personality. Truly great teachers like Cecil Pocock, Bridie Burns and Paul Docherty knew this. They read their students and created personae accordingly. They became towering characters who made incredible impressions in the class, in the corridors and, yes, on the buses.

They weren’t mavericks because they wanted to be different. They were mavericks because they wanted to make a difference. It was calculated oddity, peculiarity with a purpose. To reach these children they had to get ‘in character’. And although their characters varied they had some traits in common.

All commanded instant authority; nobody doubted who was in charge. All could be unnerving, though they managed to do the unexpected in a reassuringly familiar way. All were fair; there was nothing whimsical, cruel or capricious about their surprises. And all exuded a sense of optimism, which wasn’t necessarily sunny but left you in no doubt that defeat and disappointment were not on the menu. They were, if you like, part Rocky, part Henry V and part Mrs Doubtfire.

Of course, at some level, everyone knew it was an act. I’m pretty sure that at home Cecil Pocock did not ride his bike into dinner or attempt to quell any domestic disturbances by uttering the word “Pax”. I can imagine what the result would have been if he had. Acting was reserved for the classroom.

This, in no way, makes it bogus. School is theatre – everyone has a part to play – students as much as teachers. Children often put on a mask: the class clown, the school geek, the attention-seeker. They instinctively understand that teachers play a role, too. But as in the theatre, roles only work if people believe they are credible.

The inauthentic performer

The second invaluable lesson I learnt from my mavericks was this: a persona is essential but it will only work if it is believable. A teacher’s classroom act must connect in some way with who they really are. It’s no use, for instance, acting the authority figure if you can’t say boo to a goose, or if you are essentially anarchic.

Children will sniff out the fake at 5 paces. To act in the classroom is to exaggerate some traits you actually possess and suppress others for the purpose of engaging children. It is not about fraud or fakery. It is about projection and imaginative editing. Your act must be an extension of yourself not a contradiction of it.

To take a fantastical example – it’s pointless pretending you’re Superman if children can’t even glimpse a Clark Kent through your Frank Spencer. Actors are typecast for a reason. And there is a reason why John Wayne wasn’t known for his Hamlet.

Children, the sternest of critics, are particularly unforgiving. They know so much is at stake – their futures are at stake. So they won’t hesitate to dismiss as a fraud any teacher who tries to play a part for which they are not suited.

Students know that a teacher with only a passing acquaintance with the subject won’t get them through the exam. They suspect that a diffident or hesitant head won’t keep them safe and secure. The wise teacher and head adopts a persona that is tethered in some way to his or her personality – not unlike a good actor.

The same can be said of teaching styles. A lot of hot air has been generated in recent years about the correct way to teach. When I was coming up through the ranks, progressive pedagogy was all the rage. Latterly, the traditionalists have been in the ascendancy. When it comes to content, I’m a traditionalist. But I have always been and remain an agnostic when it comes to teaching styles.

What is right is what works for the teacher and the class. Two of the best teachers I ever employed had widely different teaching styles. One was a ‘sage on the stage’ who delivered lessons soberly, but engagingly and with great authority. The other bounded from desk to desk like some female Robin Williams, declaiming as she leapt. The results from both were outstanding.

Why should I have attempted to force them to conform to teaching in a particular way? As a head, it was far better that I left them to stick to what they were, rather than tried to make them something they were not.

Ofsted is not interested in prescribing a particular teaching style. If we were ever guilty of that – then I apologise now.

The self-obsessed performer

Worse than delusion, for me, is outright indulgence. Students must not only believe in you as a teacher and leader but also that you are performing on their behalf for the right reasons. To play the maverick for personal reasons rather than professional ones, or to be unorthodox just for the sake of it won’t work.

Maverick teachers and heads aren’t cool or ‘down with the kids’. They aren’t non-conformist because it amuses their Twitter followers or does wonders for their public profile. They don’t get excited by the thousands of devotees they have on social media if their students can’t pass their GCSEs. They tend to the audience that matters – not the one that strokes their egos.

The mavericks that had such a big influence on my education and career weren’t indulgent or self-obsessed. They cannily adapted a persona to suit a particular student or a school need, not because they wanted to express an inner yearning that demanded a public audience.

If a head insists on wackiness for the hell of it, for instance, and without the proper culture and structures in place, the result will be chaos. If a head demands a course of action not because it is in the best interests of the children but because he or she is eager to please the council, the union, the government, and, yes, even Ofsted, then they are not doing their job.

Maverick teachers or heads deploy the unconventional in the service of their students. They don’t adopt it for their own ambition or to indulge their own weaknesses. They use it to ignite curiosity, to excite the indifferent, to inspire the neglected, to confound vested interests and to keep the vulnerable safe.

Never make the mistake that children won’t see through you. If you haven’t got their best interests first and foremost in your mind as a head, it will be as apparent to them as a receding hairline or visible roots. If you’re not there principally for them, they will know it.

The adaptable performer

The final lesson my trio of mavericks taught me was adaptability. At the start of my tenure as HMCI, I think I may have recommended Clint Eastwood as a role model that heads should follow. I recalled that scene in Pale Rider when the baddies are shooting up the town, the mists dissipate and Clint is there, the lone warrior fighting for righteousness.

I also remember that the notion wasn’t universally welcomed. But I stand by Clint. If a head finds him or herself in the educational badlands, facing impossible odds and a hesitant posse – then Clint is what is needed. And for those of you who prefer Oklahoma to True Grit or Pale Rider when it comes to westerns, can I remind you that the song’s title is Annie Get Your Gun, not Annie Get in the Conciliation Service.

Tough situations call for a tough act. But what I neglected to say at the time was that Clint is not suitable for every eventuality. What my mavericks taught me was that great teachers and heads weigh up their students and schools very quickly and adapt their teaching and leadership style to suit.

Clint can be very useful in a special measures school, for instance, where you know that ‘steady as she goes’ won’t cut it. Where what is needed is decisive, highly visible and perhaps unconventional action. But he is less appropriate in a coasting school, where what is required is a bit of subterfuge and cajoling. In that situation what’s needed is a Machiavelli or a Frank Underwood, minus the body count of course.

A maverick leader adapts. They refine their act. They appreciate, for instance, that what may work with unresponsive children won’t cut the mustard with implacable staff. The unconventional can be very effective. But even Clint, when the occasion demanded, swapped a rifle for a guitar.


Now you may be thinking, and what of Chief Inspectors? Has being a maverick served me well?

Well I can tell you now that it hasn’t made me popular. What is interesting is that the catcalls have come from different parts of the audience as time has gone on.

Initially, I was a government stooge and patsy. I wasn’t Wilshaw but Sure Will, eager to do ministers’ bidding. I haven’t heard that one for a while, mind.

But however I’m perceived, my mission as far as I’m concerned has remained the same. I am still a maverick with a purpose. As important as the reorganisation of Ofsted was, being Chief Inspector was not and has never been a purely bureaucratic position. We are charged with holding schools to account and improving the lives of our youngest citizens, especially the poorest. And to do that, to get things done, it is sometimes necessary to challenge, to take a risk, to be awkward – to be a maverick.

Do we need more mavericks in education? Yes we do – all the way to the top.

Thank you.

Michael Wilshaw – 2016 to the Fair Education Alliance


Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of OFSTED, in London on 14 April 2016.

Good evening everyone. I am really pleased to have been asked to take part in this event to mark the launch of your latest annual report card.

As I approach the end of my tenure as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, I am saddened, but not surprised, by many of your findings. My motivation and commitment to the cause of educational equality and social mobility remains as strong today as it did on the day I first entered a classroom in Bermondsey nearly half a century ago. And let me tell you about that first class, because it has a bearing on what I’m going to say tonight.

Since Tracey disappeared into the mists of East London to do an unskilled job, somewhere on the Bermondsey dockside, the world has changed. The world economy has changed, and expectations have changed. Quite rightly we have much higher expectations of what our children can achieve to prepare them for this vastly different economic landscape.

If Tracey were growing up in today’s world she would have more choices and better options. Children from all walks of life should now be able to achieve any goal. Expectations are higher, our schools are better – in part thanks to Ofsted – and there is definitely more opportunity for all.

The fact that many more of our children from across the social spectrum are doing well is a cause for optimism.

So why am I standing here making this speech? Because, although we are doing better, we are not doing anywhere near well enough to compete with the best jurisdictions in the world. And we are certainly not doing well enough for our poorest children. What is particularly worrying is that we are not doing well enough for our brightest children coming from poor backgrounds.

There’s that damning statistic, the one that keeps me awake at night, from the Sutton Trust. Seven thousand of our brightest children, mainly from poorer backgrounds, were in the top 10% nationally at age 11 but were not in the top 25% at GCSE 5 years later.

I therefore applaud the collective efforts of the people in this room who have come together under the umbrella of the Fair Education Alliance to try to do something about educational inequality.

And let’s be clear. This isn’t simply about doing right by a certain sector of society. Tackling inequality benefits the whole of our education system. When we improve standards for the most disadvantaged then standards improve nationally. As Lord Adonis, the pioneer of the original academies programme, understood, if you tackle problems at the bottom end there will be a trickle-up effect through the whole sector.

One of my first acts as Chief Inspector was to assemble an expert panel of head teachers, academics and educational leaders to undertake an in-depth study into the educational achievements of England’s poorest children. This was a follow-up to the landmark reports published by 2 of my predecessors in 1993 and in 2003.

My report on access and achievement, entitled Unseen Children, concluded that poverty of expectation had become a greater problem than material poverty. The children of poor parents with high expectations were doing much better academically than those whose parents and teachers expected little of them.

The report also found that the distribution of underachievement had shifted. Twenty or 30 years ago, the problems were in urban areas, especially inner London schools. At that time these were the worst-achieving in the country.

By 2013, schools in inner as well as outer London had become the highest performing in England. Instead, we found that many of the poor children being let down by the system in recent times attended schools either in generally affluent areas with small numbers of free school meal children or in places that were relatively isolated, such as rural communities and coastal towns.

I made a series of recommendations for politicians and policy-makers on the back of these findings.

Among the most important of these were:

– the development of a number of sub-regional challenges aimed particularly at raising the achievement of disadvantaged children

– a more strategic approach to the appointment of National Leaders of Education and their matching with schools in need of support

– the creation of a ‘National Service of Teachers’ to direct ambitious and talented professionals to underperforming schools in less fashionable or more challenging parts of the country
the reshaping of vocational education

The report also recognised the fundamental importance of early years in shaping the future prospects of young people.

Of course there is no magic bullet or shortcut to success. The Fair Education Alliance (FEA) itself sets out an ambitious array of recommendations for how we can make things better. Tonight I would like to concentrate on progress we have seen and the challenges that still lie ahead.

We need to get the early years right

I have said many times before that underachievement starts from birth. Too many children are given a poor start in the essential early years. I whole-heartedly support the recommendations of your report for more use of qualified teachers in this sector.

Children who fall behind in the early years of their life struggle to make up for it in later years. If by age 7, a child cannot read, the odds are stacked against them. If children cannot count, sit still, follow instructions or hold a pencil properly when they leave Reception, they will always be playing catch-up.

This is why I have long argued that effective nursery and primary schools are the best places for very young children from disadvantaged homes. In these schools, clear routines bring order and security into the lives of young children and help build self-assurance as well as awareness of the needs of others.

In our last Annual Report for the Early Years, I suggested that there was a strong case for schools taking many more of the poorest children from the age of 2. Schools have the in-built advantage of being able to offer continuity across the transition to Reception, have more access to specialist support, employ well-qualified graduate teachers and are familiar with tracking children’s development.

I also called for much more to be done to encourage parents of the poorest 2-year-old children to take up the offer of a funded place in a high-quality provider. We found that nearly half of all 2-year-olds (around 113,000) eligible for 15 hours of free early education had not taken up their place in any type of setting. It is essential that more is done, through children’s centres and health visitors, to promote greater take-up.

We need to get the best leaders and the best teachers to the schools that need them most

It is vital that we do far more to attract and incentivise the best people to lead underperforming schools in challenging areas. All my experience has taught me that when schools are chaotic it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most. The lack of structure at home is replicated at school and, unlike their peers from middle class backgrounds, poor parents often lack the capacity to compensate for deficiencies in the school and in the classroom. Therefore getting good leadership into these areas is of fundamental importance.

The government’s recently published White Paper talks about “rebalancing incentives” and “investing in targeted initiatives” to boost leadership capacity in challenging areas and to create career pathways for people who want to work in the areas where they are most needed.

This is certainly something I welcome, along with the emerging National Teachers Service, particularly given they were a key feature of my report, and I look forward to hearing more detail about these measures and, more important, seeing them bearing fruit.

The FEA proposals for incentivising teachers to different areas, with schemes such as mortgage-deposit support, are exactly the sort of innovative thinking that we should be exploring to help with this challenge. We need to get vocational and post 16 education right.

The Unseen Children report expressed my concerns about the overall quality of provision for the many children who would prefer an alternative to university. Our system is adept at guiding students into higher education. However, as the House of Lords social mobility committee found last week, it still struggles, despite the recent focus on apprenticeships, to inform them about alternative career pathways available to them.

We simply have to improve the quality of our technical provision and present it as a valid educational path if we are to equip youngsters – especially those from poorer backgrounds – with the skills they need and employers want.

We are making strides in the right direction here, with ambitious targets for the creation and quality of apprenticeships and a growing number of university technical colleges coming into the system.

As the Alliance report card recognises, we need to ensure that careers advice in schools improves so that young people understand the different options in front of them and can make informed choices about their future.

We need more political leadership and regional solutions
We need more focus on those areas that are not delivering the necessary high standards for their children. I welcome the government’s White Paper proposals for focusing efforts in ‘Achieving Excellence Areas’. This version of my suggestion of ‘sub-regional challenges’ will only succeed if local politicians, be they mayors, council leaders or cabinet members, are prepared to take ownership of school performance no matter what the governance structure and status of the school.

We need them to be visible, high-profile figures that people can recognise as education champions. The great success stories in London would not have happened without the drive and commitment of the likes of Jules Pipe and Sir Robin Wales in Hackney and in Newham, respectively.

There is ultimately, however, only so much that the school can achieve without the commitment of parents and carers.

We need to ensure schools do more to engage with those parents who don’t care enough about their children’s education.

As the chief executive of Centre Forum observed last week, many white British pupils are falling behind students from other ethnic backgrounds by the time they take their GCSEs because of a lack of support from their parents.

The family is the great educator. We need more leaders who have no qualms about reminding parents of their obligation to be a good parent – coming to open evenings, making sure their child does their homework, reading to them and listening to them read.

I know this is a difficult task but it is not impossible.

As I recounted in a radio interview just this morning, it can be tough to get these parents on board. I often speculate on how useful it would be for heads to have the ability to fine those who have the capacity but wilfully choose not to engage.

Grounds for optimism

Let’s not allow ourselves to be too pessimistic.

I do not underestimate how difficult it is to educate children who are poor and who lack all the advantages that a more affluent background confers. I understand that it’s a lot easier to teach children who don’t come to school hungry, who live in homes filled with books, who have parents that are employed, let alone university educated.

I spent most of my professional career trying to enthuse children whom others had written off. It isn’t easy for schools to compensate for social disadvantage. But never make the mistake that because it’s difficult, schools cannot make a difference. They can.

We know that we can overcome the challenges of poverty because we have seen it happen. In London, with effective, tenacious leadership and political will, failure turned into stunning success over a relatively short period of time. There is no reason, in my view, that this sort of success cannot be replicated elsewhere.

This FEA report has focused on the progress that is being made in the North East of England. We also know there are schools in places like Portsmouth and Barking and Dagenham that are now bucking the trend in terms of the achievement of poorer children, especially from white British backgrounds.


It is not only a moral imperative that we should do better for our poorest youngsters, but also crucial if we are going to become a more productive nation and a more socially-cohesive one.

If we are to compete with the best jurisdictions in the world then we need more organisations, politicians and leaders to collaborate and support schools, and ensure that every young person gets the standard of education they deserve.

It’s only through commitment, ambition and determination that we will break the pattern of underachievement in challenging areas of the country and create a more fair and equal society. A society where every child has the same life chances regardless of where they live.

I commend all of you in this room for your commitment to those goals.

Michael Wilshaw – 2016 Speech to ASCL Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of OFSTED, in Birmingham on 4 March 2016.

Thank you for that introduction, Stephen, and thanks for inviting me to speak at your annual conference once again.

Can I first of all apologise for pulling out of last year’s conference at short notice. But I’m afraid an emergency heart operation got in the way. Nevertheless, all these things have an upside because it reassured the doubters that I really do have a heart. Indeed, I have a very big heart for our education service and particularly for the great work that you do as headteachers. That’s not just an idle platitude at the start of a speech, but a deeply felt belief in the power of headship to change young people’s lives for the better. Standards have improved in our country over the last 20 years principally because of you.

A tough job made tougher

Yours is a tough job. But there is no better one. And the best heads, despite the difficulties and the anxieties, know this to be true. In my view, every head has to be Janus-like. What I mean by this is that part of you is always looking one way – at what’s happening in the classroom and in the corridors to ensure that young people are being taught well. But another part of you is always worrying about the 2 looming vacancies in the maths department and the possibility of losing the best head of science you’ve ever had to the school down the road whose budget allows a higher salary to be paid.

This constant head-turning always gave me a painful crick in the neck, but at the moment you probably need a double dose of Ralgex applied liberally when resignation deadlines come round.

Recruitment is a burning issue and all of us, including the Department for Education, have got to face it head on and develop strategies not only to solve the present problems but also to ensure that we don’t face these staffing issues again and again and again.

I feel passionately about this because for a dozen or so years as a head I was compelled to travel to Galway, Cork and Dublin to attract Ireland’s finest to teach in east London and if that didn’t work, raid the school budget to fly to New Zealand or Australia. But I suspect budgets now won’t allow that extravagance.

The problems around recruitment, as I said to the select committee earlier this week, are threatening to undermine the progress that all of us have made. But it will also make it harder to meet the challenges of more demanding assessment, higher floor targets and a changing curriculum. I know you will meet these challenges in the same way that previous generations of headteachers have met earlier challenges. But you need help. The reasons for the teacher shortages are already well documented so I don’t need to dwell on them too much today, other than to say that the exponential growth in international schools abroad, many of which are sponsored by our top public schools, is pouring petrol onto the fire.

As I pointed out last week, there are now an estimated 8,000 international schools, many of them employing our teachers. And that figure is forecast to nearly double over the next few years. What joy! How wonderful for the independent sector, how miserable for the rest of us.

I have to confess that as a head, it was always my ambition to make my school so good that parents would rather opt for a free state education than an independent one. Therefore it’s good to see that the Good Schools Guide is recognising that our schools are getting so much better. Our job must be to convince parents, particularly those of more able children, that state secondary schools can deliver the very best education and help youngsters achieve their full potential.

It is precisely for this reason that I have asked HMI to focus on the progress of the most able pupils more than ever before during school inspections. They will be particularly tough on schools where children are coming into Year 7, having done well at primary but then tread water rather than swim upstream.

I want to see, and you want to see, more youngsters from the state system going to the top universities year on year. I particularly want to see poor youngsters getting to the Russell Group in greater numbers than they are doing at the moment. If that is to happen, then the gap in progress and attainment at secondary level between free school meal children and their peers has got to start closing. It really is an indictment of our secondary system that this 28 percentage point gap has not closed in nearly 10 years. This really can’t go on. It is morally indefensible and a waste of so much pupil premium money.

However, let’s be clear, these recruitment problems are not just being fuelled by a rapacious independent sector and an improving economy, but also by public perceptions of our profession.

One way you can certainly help is by refusing any request for your school to feature on a ‘fly on the wall’ television show. The problem with these programmes is that they provide great TV but little reality. They inevitably focus on the sensational, at the cost of presenting a balanced picture of what goes on in our schools. The spotlight always falls on the ‘lippy’ kid and the NQT in trouble and gives a distorted view of our state system. All they do is reinforce the caricatures of comprehensive schools promoted by those who don’t understand them, would like to get rid of them and return to selection.

However, no matter how much effort we put into raising the status of the profession, I fear we will never properly get on top of the teacher supply issue unless, and until, the National College for Teaching and Leadership starts to get ahead of the curve. Put bluntly, the National College of Leadership has to show leadership. It has to say more about leadership. And it certainly has to deliver more teachers to your front door. At the moment, it is letting down our system, our schools and our children, particularly in the poorest areas.

As I argued in my Annual Report, shortages are being exacerbated because the current teacher-training regime is too disorganised, too unevenly distributed and too driven by market forces. The freedom that good and outstanding schools now have to take more control of teacher training – while a positive development – risks further widening the inequalities in our system because there are few strategies in place to prevent this happening.

You will know that I have previously voiced concern about an emerging two-tier education system. More and more, we see the best schools in the most popular areas snapping up the best teachers while underperforming schools in poorer or more isolated areas are facing an increasingly desperate struggle to find good candidates. They are trapped in a vicious cycle – unable to recruit because they are struggling, but unable to improve because they cannot recruit.

Headship remains a great job

Having said all this, you know and I know that most headteachers will do their very best to cope with these problems.

And let’s not forget, the opportunities and rewards out there for the problem-solving, creative and ambitious head are greater now than ever before. Secondary headship is well remunerated and executive headship even more so. And rightly so. It’s one of the most important jobs in any community and vital to our country.

Today’s good and ambitious head can not only shape the lives of young people but also shape our national system through system leadership.

The good and ambitious head can now find themselves running a multi-academy trust or becoming a Regional Schools Commissioner or, my goodness, even ending up as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

The critical importance of headship is a theme I have returned to time and again during my time at the Ofsted helm. Our inspection evidence consistently shows that having the right calibre of leader in charge is key to a school’s success.

Leadership succession

That is why perhaps the single most important duty of any headteacher is to plan effectively for their own succession. In a much more autonomous system, with so much depending on appointing people who know how to use their freedoms, it is vital that we do more to nurture leadership.

I have long worried that bringing through the next generation of leaders has not been given the priority that it deserves. The same attention that has been given to structural reform in the last few years now needs to be given to ensuring that our country not only has enough high-quality teachers but enough great leaders, particularly in those regions that are languishing in mediocrity.

It is for this reason that I commissioned HMI to carry out some fieldwork to gain a better understanding of the systems in place across the country to identify and prepare the next generation of great secondary headteachers. The findings will inform my next monthly commentary. It should have some important things to say.

Weaknesses remain in secondary sector

As a nation, we need to be assured that there are enough great leaders to sustain high standards and to tackle the deep problems that have still to be overcome in our state school system.

For make no mistake, while the system has got better, improvement is only partial.

Inspection evidence over the last academic year demonstrates that England’s primary schools continue to forge ahead. However, as you well know, secondary school performance remains a problem in large swathes of our country.

As a result, there should be some anxiety that when the next PISA tables are published later this year, our rankings won’t show much improvement.

Those who read my last Annual Report or my recent IPPR speech on the northern powerhouse and the low outcomes for pupils in Manchester and Liverpool, will know how concerned I am that educational success isn’t spread evenly across the country. What improvement we have seen in secondary schools has been disproportionately driven by schools in some parts of England, particularly London, and not others.

There is an 11 percentage point gap between the proportion of secondary schools that are good or better in the South and East and in the North and Midlands. This is something we cannot ignore, especially as primary schools are doing just as well in these regions as they are in the South.

Local politicians in underperforming parts of the country must be as determined to drive their schools to do better, irrespective of their status, as they are to lobby for fast trains or new motorways. Children in their regions deserve as good an education as children in the South. Without a decent education, many will remain trapped in a cycle of deprivation that no amount of extra roads and railways will ever help them to escape.

Children in Salford, Knowsley and Bradford need to have the same opportunities as those in London, Oxfordshire and Surrey.

However, it remains the case that some of the weaknesses in secondary schools I have highlighted over the past 12 months are more generic and need attention right across the country.

As I’ve already implied with my earlier comments about independent schools, we still have far too many secondaries not building on progress made at primary school, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of the most able.

The survey that Ofsted brought out last autumn, entitled The wasted years?, found that in too many secondary schools, Key Stage 3 is not given the priority it deserves. Its status as the poor relation to other key stages is exemplified in the way many schools monitor and assess pupils’ progress and in the way they allocate resources and timetable teachers. Too often, inspectors found that the best and most experienced teachers were heavily weighted towards Key Stages 4 and 5.

The quality of teaching and the rate of pupils’ progress in Years 7 to 9 are too often failing to prepare youngsters for the next stage of their education. Modern foreign languages, history and geography, in particular, are being taught in a way that is failing to engage or enthuse pupils in many of our schools at this key stage.

This is a serious concern given the government’s clear ambition for the great majority of pupils who started secondary school last September to enter the EBacc subjects in 5 years’ time.

You will also know that I have real concerns about the overall quality of provision for the many children who do not succeed at 16 or who would prefer an alternative to university. Our system is adept at guiding students into higher education. But it still struggles, despite the recent focus on apprenticeships, to inform them about alternative career pathways available to them.

Preparation for employment remains poor and careers guidance in both schools and colleges is uniformly weak. We simply have to improve the quality of our technical and vocational provision and present it as a valid educational route if we are to equip youngsters with the skills they need and that employers want.

So my major question to you today is the one I have posed in the past and will continue to ask in my remaining few months in this job.

If some schools can get these things right, then why can’t more do so?

The task of any secondary headteacher and any leader of a federation or multi-academy trust must be to properly address these systemic weaknesses in their institution or their constituent schools.

So that when an inspector walks in and rattles off the important questions:

What are you doing to strengthen the Key Stage 3 curriculum?

What are you doing to make sure your most able pupils are being stretched?

What steps are you taking to improve outcomes for your youngsters on free school meals?

How do you ensure that your Year 11 students fully understand the range of career and study options available to them?

You should be able to answer by demonstrating progress in each of these areas.

Challenging the system to do better

Since being appointed Chief Inspector, you know that I have had to sometimes deliver difficult messages.

I am very well aware that I have often been challenging and outspoken on a number of issues. And I know I have been particularly tough on secondary schools in the last couple of years. But I hope you understand my reasons for being so.

I am desperate to see standards rising in all our schools and for every child to have the chance of a decent education that will set them up for life in an increasingly uncertain and competitive world.

I know my decision to scrap the satisfactory grade and replace it with requires improvement, for instance, caused a fair degree of ferment at the time. But you know as well as I do that we couldn’t carry on with a situation where 2 million children were being consigned to a mediocre education year after year, inspection after inspection.

The fact that we now have nearly 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010 convinces me that it was the right thing to do and should give us all cause for optimism.

And despite all the challenges and the problems that I’ve alluded to, I do remain an optimist. One of the undoubted upsides of this job is being able to tour the country, taking in places like Stoke-on-Trent where I was last week, and seeing dedicated and talented leaders producing results in the most difficult circumstances. It reinforces my sense of optimism and my belief in the power of headship in particular.

As I have remarked before, one the most gratifying things I do is to write to those headteachers who are leading schools that require improvement but where inspectors have judged that the leadership is tackling the weaknesses and turning things around. That is such an exciting experience for all involved, including inspectors.

I am also committed to recognising the achievements of those people who are showing true system leadership. I recently took pleasure in writing letters to the first of the heads nominated by HMI as ‘exceptional leaders’. Heads who have turned their ambitions for success into reality. Heads who have managed to raise standards for children not only in their own schools, but at other schools nearby. I look forward to writing many more such letters in the months ahead.

Formally recognising exceptional leadership is just a small demonstration of my determination to support good and ambitious headteachers. Indeed, Ofsted will always support those who are doing their best, particularly in challenging circumstances. Those who attack the inspectorate, as they have done regularly over the last 20-odd years, should recognise that. They should also remember how dismal things were before greater accountability was introduced in the early 1990s.

Ofsted remains an important and influential lever for improving standards.

Inspection, however, will never be an exact science – and nor, in my view, should it be. Our judgements are always going to be a balance between historical data, observation on the day, and our professional assessment of the leadership being exercised at every level.

It would be foolish to argue that any system based partly on human subjectivity is infallible. However, in the last few years we have done more than at any previous time to eradicate inconsistencies and make inspections as robust as possible. Ofsted occasionally gets it wrong but when we do, we intervene much more quickly and take steps to put it right.

However, I appreciate we need to do even more to instil even greater confidence in the reliability and consistency of inspection.

That is why I have introduced more independent scrutiny of our complaint investigation arrangements to ensure that they are seen as transparent, fair and objective. Since September, we have had external representatives sitting alongside Senior HMI on our new complaints-scrutiny panels. To date, these panels have considered more than 20 such cases and the feedback has been positive.

Quality assurance is central to our work and we will continue to modify and refine our QA systems as we move forward.

Promised reforms have been delivered

When I addressed this conference 2 years ago, I promised that Ofsted would move towards a more proportionate and risk-based inspection regime, alleviating the pressure and burden on the majority of schools that were now good.

I made a commitment to bring inspection in-house as soon as our outsourced contracts reached their expiry date. I also made a commitment that our inspection teams in future would not only include many more serving heads from good and outstanding schools but would also be led by Her Majesty’s Inspectors.

I am pleased to be here in front of you today knowing that I have honoured each of these pledges.

As you know, since September, Ofsted has been inspecting schools judged good at their last inspection in a radically different way. Our new model of HMI-led short inspections starts from the premise that the school remains good. The focus of inspection is very much on whether the culture of the school is supporting good teaching and learning and whether the leadership has a real handle on the strengths and weaknesses of the school. And, most importantly, that the leadership has a clear plan to put things right.

Inspectors take a pragmatic view of any isolated pockets of weakness as long as the school is heading in the right direction and leaders have identified what needs to be done.

This is designed to encourage honest dialogue between the HMI and senior leaders. We want you to be equally open about what is working well and about what needs to improve. In other words, don’t obfuscate or try to cover up weaknesses that will almost inevitably become apparent during the course of the inspection.

So far this academic year, nearly 7 out of 10 good schools we have re-inspected have either stayed good or improved to outstanding. In the schools that remained good, HMI encountered a positive culture where pupils were keen to learn. The leadership of teaching, learning and assessment was secure across the school. Governors had a sound grasp of both the school’s strengths and the areas needing improvement. They did not stray into operational matters.

Inspectors were satisfied that the weaknesses identified by leaders and corroborated by inspection evidence were not having a detrimental impact on overall standards. These schools, to all intents and purposes, remained good schools.

In the minority of schools that went down a grade or more, inspectors, by contrast, often found an overly generous self-assessment of the school by governors and senior leaders that was not supported by evidence. Leaders were slow to take action to address weaknesses and there was too much variation in the quality of middle leadership. In these schools, the messages of the head and senior leaders were not getting through to middle leaders and frontline teachers. As a result, disconnection led to variability across the schools in terms of teaching and behaviour.

It is still early days, but the feedback we have had so far on these new, more flexible arrangements has been encouraging. I would be really interested in hearing the views of anyone here who has had first-hand experience of a short inspection.

Meanwhile, my colleague Sean Harford and others have been working hard to dispel many of the common staffroom myths that build up over time about what Ofsted requires when it comes to things like lesson-planning, observation and marking.

The message is taking time to get through, especially to classroom teachers. So I will make it plain once again: Ofsted wants schools to simply focus on doing the basic things well and acting in the interests of their pupils and their parents.

We do not have a prescriptive idea of what the teaching should look like, how books should be marked, feedback provided or progress assessed. We are only interested in whether it works.

As I have already outlined, we have taken some important steps to reduce the unnecessary pressure and burden of inspection.

You must do so as well by not using Ofsted as a management tool to do what should be done as a matter of routine. A good head should always say to staff, “I want you to do this for the benefit of the children, not for the benefit of Ofsted.” A weak head uses the fear of Ofsted as an unnecessary crutch to compensate for poor leadership.

So please don’t spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for inspection, which for most schools will now only come around every 3 years and will last for just a day. Please don’t expend precious time and resources on game-playing and ‘Mocksteds’. And please try to refrain from providing a living to those consultancy charlatans still claiming to know what Ofsted is looking for.


I would like to end my speech as I began it – by acknowledging the real challenges you are facing as school leaders. I know that Ofsted will never be popular but I do hope you can see why we have been so vital to the education system in this country and why our children have benefited from greater accountability.

In a few months’ time I will be handing over the reins to my successor. From whichever side of the Atlantic they may hail, I’m sure you will make them feel as welcome as you have always made me feel.

In ASCL conferences to come, I hope very much the next Chief Inspector will be able to congratulate you for delivering sustained improvement in secondary school standards, for bridging the regional divide and for sending many more children from the comprehensive system to our top universities.

My abiding belief in the power of great leadership means I am confident that all this can be achieved. I wish you every success.

Thank you for listening.

Michael Wilshaw – 2016 Speech at IPPR


Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of OFSTED, at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on 23 February 2016.

I’m making this speech in London, but I would have preferred to make it in Manchester. Unfortunately, logistical difficulties made that impossible. But the irony of pronouncing on education in the North from the smug South isn’t lost on me.

My last Annual Report in December painted a stark picture of a nation divided at the age of 11. Too many children in the North and Midlands, I reported, are being taught in schools that are not good enough. Nearly 1 in 3 secondaries there requires improvement or is inadequate compared to 1 in 4 elsewhere. Of the 16 local authorities nationally with the poorest performing secondary schools, 13 were above a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash.

It is fair to say that not all parts of the North and Midlands perform poorly. Many are good and a few are exceptional. It’s also the case that there are areas in the South that are educational laggards. But overall there is a significant discrepancy in performance between North and South. According to the Sunday Times schools guide only a third of the best state schools are in the North and Midlands.

Manchester and Liverpool illustrate the scale of the problem. Three in 10 secondary schools in Manchester and four in 10 in Liverpool require improvement or are inadequate compared to 1 in 10 in inner London. The situation in some of their satellite towns is even worse. A third of the schools in Rochdale are not good enough, as is a similar proportion in Salford. In Oldham, 6 in 10 secondaries require improvement or are inadequate and in Knowsley not a single secondary school is good or better.

Fewer than half of all children in these 6 local authorities achieved 5 good GCSEs last year, compared to a national average of 57%.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds fared particularly badly. In inner London, almost half of pupils eligible for free school meals were awarded five good GCSEs last year. In Greater Manchester, just under a third were successful. In Liverpool it was around a quarter and in Knowsley, only 1 in 5 pupils eligible for free school meals achieved 5 good GCSEs.

Manchester and Liverpool are at the core of our ambitions for a northern powerhouse. They are the engines that could transform the prospects of the entire region. But as far as secondary education is concerned, they are not firing on all cylinders. In fact they seem to be going into reverse. The proportion of Manchester’s pupils gaining good GCSEs declined from 51.4% 2 years ago to 47.5% now. In Liverpool, the percentage fell from 49.9 to 48.6% over the same period.

Is poverty the culprit?

Since I spelt out Ofsted’s concerns late last year, several commentators have argued that disadvantage explains the difference. The North is relatively poor and the South rich.

But if poverty is the culprit, why are primary schools in the North and Midlands doing so well? There is little difference in inspection outcomes for primaries in these areas and those in the rest of the country. How can deprivation explain disappointment at secondary school yet fail to impede progress at primary? Poverty doesn’t wait to kick in at 11.

I do not underestimate how difficult it is to educate children who are poor and who lack all the advantages a middle-class background confers. I have spent most of my professional career trying to enthuse children whom others had written off. It isn’t easy for schools to compensate for social disadvantage. But never make the mistake that because it’s difficult, schools cannot make a difference. They can.

Does ethnicity explain London’s success?

Others claim that it isn’t poverty but ethnicity that accounts for the discrepancy. London has outperformed the rest, so the argument goes, because children of immigrants tend to be more ambitious. London benefits disproportionately because 37% of its citizens were born overseas. Whereas the rest of the country has higher proportions of the lowest performing ethnic group, white Britons on free school meals.

Yet parts of inner-city Liverpool and Manchester are no strangers to immigration. Some 25% of residents in Manchester were foreign-born. While Leicester, which has a minority white British population, is one of the worst performing local authority areas. Only half of its pupils achieved 5 good GCSEs.

Conversely Newcastle, where 85% of secondary schools are good or better and where on average 57.3% students achieved 5 good GCSEs, has far fewer immigrants – only 6% of its citizens were born overseas. Clearly, school progress or decline cannot be explained solely by ethnic background.

Is it then a question of funding? Inner-London boroughs historically benefited from much higher-per-pupil funding than elsewhere because they were among the most deprived. But Manchester and Liverpool also do relatively well, especially when the effects of increased London pay are stripped out. Around two-thirds of any extra money London receives is spent on higher wages for staff.

Higher spend doesn’t automatically lead to better performance. Nottingham, which has one of the highest-per-pupil funding settlements in the country outside London, has one of the worst records at secondary – only 42.4% of its youngsters got 5 good GCSEs, including English and maths, last year.

What needs to be done?

Yes, London has advantages that other cities lack, but what of Liverpool or Manchester? Are you really telling me that they lack swagger and dynamism? That they cannot succeed in the way London has succeeded? These are the cities that built Britain. They pioneered a modern, civic education when students at certain other universities spent most of their time studying the New Testament in Greek.

Today, Manchester and Liverpool boast 8 universities between them, 2 of which are among the top 200 in the world. They are beacons of higher educational excellence. But if these cities can provide a world-class education for youngsters at 18, why on earth are they failing to do so for too many at 11?

At some point, we have to accept that our children’s education can be better – or worse – because of the choices we make. At some point, politicians in Manchester and Liverpool will have to accept that the Northern Powerhouse will splutter and die if their youngsters lack the skills to sustain it.

Back in the early nineties, the prospects for schools in Hackney, where I taught, seemed as bleak as many areas in the North and Midlands seem today. Only 14% of youngsters in the borough gained a good GCSE in 1990.

Leadership turned things around. But school leaders didn’t do it by themselves. They had recognizable local champions, politicians like Jules Pipe in Hackney and Robin Wales in Newham who took responsibility for the performance of their local schools – all schools, not just those under their direct control.

They expected results and refused to accept excuses from any of them. Their priority was, and remains, the better education of children. They did not allow varying school structures to deflect them from that objective. All children in every school were their children and all schools would be held to account for their performance.

This is what needs to happen now in Manchester and Liverpool. I appreciate that it isn’t easy and I accept that improvement can’t happen overnight. I understand that it’s a lot easier to teach children who don’t come to school hungry, who live in homes filled with books, who have parents who are employed let alone university educated.

Nor am I calling for a return to micro-management of schools by town halls or for new local educational powers. But I am talking about political will and vision. I am calling on local politicians, be they mayors, council leaders or cabinet members, to stand up and be counted, to shoulder responsibility for their local schools, to challenge and support them regardless of whether they are academies or not. I’m calling on them to be visible, high-profile figures that people can recognize as education champions. I am calling on them to make education in general – and their underperforming secondary schools in particular – a central target of their strategy for growth. I am asking them to better understand that unless there are high standards in the major cities of our country then good practice will not radiate out to the satellite towns and communities outside those cities.

Unless they do, I fear Manchester and Liverpool will never become the economic powerhouses we want them to be. We cannot fight for social mobility with political immobility. Politicians need to act. It requires grit, imagination, faith and bloody mindedness – qualities that, fortunately, I really don’t think are less common in the North than they are down South.

Thank you.

Michael Wilshaw – 2016 Speech on Ambitions for Education


Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, at CentreForum on 18 January 2016.

Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today.

There will be many who think your ambitions for the future of English education are too bold and too unrealistic. I am not one of them. We simply have to aim high. Unless we can compete with the best jurisdictions in the world, all our hopes for a fair, cohesive and prosperous society will come to very little.

High expectations are essential to those ambitions. As a teacher and later head in some of the toughest parts of London, I had high expectations for each and every child in every classroom.

As I look back, I am proud to say that many of them lived up to those expectations. Most of my former pupils went on to lead successful lives, even though many came from poor backgrounds with limited experience of success. I was as proud of the student from a troubled family who started his own plumbing business as I was of the former pupil who ended up as the first black president of the Oxford Union.

The youngsters in schools that I led did well because we exploited their different talents and provided them with different pathways to success. A great all-ability school ensures that those with potential can be surgeons as well as nurses, architects as well as joiners, technocrats as well as technicians.

The great comprehensive school headteacher knows that a ‘one size fits all’ model of secondary education will never deliver the range of success that their youngsters need.

Some of our international competitors understand this probably better than we do.

Their education systems are more flexible than ours and are much more geared to aligning the potential of the student with the needs of their economies. As a result, countries with excellent academic and technical routes have far lower youth unemployment than we do. Despite 6 years of economic recovery and falling unemployment, youth unemployment in the UK still stands at 12%. In Germany it is 7% and in Switzerland 3.7%.

If our neighbours understand this, why don’t we? Surely we have got to understand that rebalancing our economy means rebalancing our education system as well – a point I’ll elaborate on later.

As Chief Inspector I have high ambitions for every child and every classroom in the country. Every child – not just those who are easy to teach – and every classroom – not just those in prosperous or urban communities.

All improvement is incremental. We know that. And the targets that CentreForum has set will take time to achieve. But setting the course and being clear about the destination are essential if standards are to improve.

You are right to emphasise the importance of a good early years education and mastery of English and maths at primary. If 85% of pupils manage to achieve at least a 4b at Key Stage 2 by 2025, then your expectations for three quarters of our young people to achieve good outcomes at 16 by 2030 should be perfectly feasible.

But what of the quarter to a third of youngsters who cannot achieve those challenging targets? What is to become of them? Even when I was head at Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, which had a great academic reputation, 20% of youngsters failed to reach our targets. Most of them went to a local FE [further education] college, usually a large, impersonal and amorphous institution, and did badly.

As somebody who was motivated by moral purpose, I always felt that I was letting down a significant number of good children who deserved better. Talk to any good secondary head and they would say much the same.

Yes, our ambitions should be bold. But they should be inclusive too. Our responsibilities as educators do not end when students fail to attain our targets. On the contrary, the written off and the ‘failed’ need our help most and we should never forget it.

Our ambition has to be broad if we are to ensure a step change in educational achievement. And it has to be deep. Vaulting ambition cannot succeed if its foundations are shallow. But I’m afraid our foundations in some areas are very shallow indeed. We do not have enough good leaders. We do not have enough good governors. And struggling schools in many areas of the country are finding it extremely difficult to get the good teachers they need.

Reform requires reformers and in many places we simply lack the talented people necessary to make progress happen. We are facing real capacity issues that need to be addressed urgently if we are to maintain our current performance, let alone the accelerated improvement demanded by CentreForum.


The start of a new year, however, is a time for optimism. And even though the challenges before us are great, we have much to be optimistic about. We have a far better education system than we did when I first became a head 30 years ago.

People forget how bad things were in the miserable decades of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. They forget how many children were failed by political neglect, misguided ideologies, weak accountability and low expectations. They forget how local authorities failed to challenge and support headteachers. They forget how much they conceded to vested interests and how infrequently they championed the rights of children to a decent education.

Before we steel ourselves for the challenges ahead, we should remember how far we have come. Before critics disparage our schools, they should recall our recent history. Ambition has to be sustained by hope. And it’s a lot easier to hope if we remember that standards have improved, and can improve further.

Across the country as a whole, nearly a million and a half more children are in good or better schools than were 5 years ago. The proportion of newly qualified teachers with good degrees has never been higher, while the proportion of the poorest pupils going to university has increased from an eighth to a fifth in a decade.

The most dramatic turnaround, as your report notes, has been in our primary schools. Primary schools are getting the basics right. Literacy and numeracy are much improved. There has been a steady rise in performance at Key Stage 2 – the results last year are the highest on record. And although much work needs to be done, primary schools have succeeded in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers. So I have every confidence, on the basis of what we know about primary schools, that your targets of 85% of children achieving a level 4B in reading, writing and mathematics will, again, be entirely feasible by 2025.

Ofsted’s greater challenge to the system has helped to bring about some of these improvements. The abolition of the satisfactory judgement and its replacement with ‘requires improvement’ signalled that the inspectorate would no longer accept mediocrity. I also believe that our new proportionate inspections of good schools, the end of inspections by third-party contractors and the recruitment of thousands of serving school leaders as inspectors have helped to refine and improve Ofsted’s oversight.

But for all these improvements, we would be deluding ourselves if we thought the battle to raise standards had been won. There is still much more to do. There can be no let up on educational reform because our international competitors are improving at a faster rate than we are.

There are many challenges facing our education system but 3 are acute:

– the gains made by children in primary schools are often lost in secondaries

– a disproportionate amount of that underperformance is in the North and the Midlands

– educational provision, for the many children who do not succeed at 16 or who would prefer an alternative to higher education, is inadequate at best and non-existent at worst

Stalling secondary schools

As I said earlier, the improvements in primary education have been significant and widespread. Sadly, they are not sustained in many secondary schools. Things often go badly wrong at the very start of Key Stage 3.

Poor transition, poor literacy and numeracy, a lack of monitoring and poor teaching, particularly in foundation subjects, fail to prepare children for exams at Key Stage 4. Widespread, low-level disruption adds to the problem. It means that in many secondaries almost an hour of learning is lost each day because of poor behaviour. Quite frankly the culture of too many of our secondary schools is just not good enough. Instead of fostering a climate of scholarship and deep learning, inspectors see too many secondary schools with noisy corridors, lippy children and sullen classrooms. This, perhaps, explains why the caricatures of comprehensive secondary education are still well embedded in our media and popular culture.

It is no surprise then that 45% of our youngsters fail to achieve the benchmark GCSE grades, and just under 1 in 4 succeeds at EBacc. Yes, more disadvantaged and state school pupils now go to university than ever before. But disproportionately few of them go to our top universities.

According to the Office for Fair Access, teenagers from the richest 20% of families are 6 times more likely to go to the most selective universities than youngsters from the most disadvantaged 40% of families.

The fate of the most able pupils in non-selective schools is particularly depressing. Some 60,000 youngsters who achieved the top levels at Key Stage 2 did not achieve an A or A* in English and maths 5 years later. Indeed, only a quarter achieved a B grade.

According to the Sutton Trust, 7,000 children a year who were in the top 10% nationally at age 11 were not in the top 25% at GCSE 5 years later. These youngsters are drawn disproportionately from the white working class.

One stark fact probably sums up our under-performance at secondary more than any other: the gap in attainment between free school meal students and their peers has barely shifted in a decade.

Unless we raise the performance of disadvantaged pupils in general, and the white working class in particular, we won’t achieve the targets that you’ve set out in your paper.

The North and the Midlands

As I pointed out in my last Annual Report, a disproportionate amount of secondary schools that are less than good are in the North and the Midlands. One in three secondaries in these regions is not good enough. Of the 16 local authorities with the poorest performing secondary schools, 13 are in the North and the Midlands.

It is no coincidence that these regions also account for the largest proportion of schools with behaviour and leadership problems. Three quarters of secondary schools judged inadequate for behaviour and for leadership were in the North and the Midlands.

Let me give you a sense of the scale of the challenge facing us. In 2015, in some of our biggest towns and cities in the North and the Midlands, less than half of our young people achieved 5 good GCSEs.

In Liverpool it was 48%. In Manchester it was 46%, in Bradford 45%, in Blackpool 42%. And in Knowsley, a local authority area without a single good secondary school, only 37% of young people achieved 5 A* to C grades in English and maths.

CentreForum has set ambitious targets for English schools to meet at Key Stage 4. It is going to be a challenge for the average performing school’s students to reach the new minimum acceptable grade 5, assessed between the present C and B grade. How much harder will it be for children in struggling schools, disproportionately concentrated in the North and the Midlands, to reach them from such a low base?

Left behind at 16

No area of the country, however, can really claim to succeed when it comes to provision for those youngsters who do not do well at 16. Nor can we say that we are really delivering high-quality vocational education to youngsters of all abilities who would prefer to take this route.

The statistics show that those who fail to achieve the required grades in maths and English at 16 make little or no progress in FE colleges 2 years later. The 16-19 Study Programme is yet to make an impact on these success rates.

Preparation for employment remains poor and careers guidance in both schools and colleges is uniformly weak.

But my goodness, the country needs these youngsters. Fifty years ago John Newsom warned that by failing them we beggared ourselves. “Half our future”, he pointed out, is in these young people’s hands. We cannot continue to fail half our future. Yet in the intervening half century, what has changed?

Nine out of 10 employers, according to the British Chambers of Commerce, say school leavers are not ready for employment. Six out of 10 firms say the skills gap is getting worse. Leading industrialists like Sir James Dyson complain that they cannot find the skilled workers their businesses need to grow.

Our system is adept at guiding students into higher education. But it still struggles, despite the recent focus on apprenticeships, to inform them about alternatives to university. We simply have to improve the quality of our technical provision and present it as a valid educational path if we are to equip youngsters with the skills they need and employers want.

I can almost sense eyes glazing over when I say this. For over 50 years, I’ve heard so many people bemoan the fact that vocational education is not good enough. So at the risk of switching you off, I’m going to say it again. It is a moral imperative as well as an economic one that we do something now to change direction. We must all make sure that the ambitious programme for apprenticeships does not prove to be another false dawn. And, even more importantly, that the school system prepares youngsters for these apprenticeship places.

This does not mean diluting a strong core curriculum. There should be no trade-off between the quality of academic studies and the pursuit of specialist vocational provision and training.

So I applaud CentreForum’s bold aims for English education. There is no good reason why the vast majority of pupils shouldn’t have mastered basic maths and English at primary and a Grade 5 at GCSE.

However, we should never forget the minority who will never do so, nor the larger number who may pass but who do not wish to pursue a wholly academic path. They too deserve an education worthy of the name. The country cannot continue to fail half its future.

What is to be done?

Yes – the challenges facing our secondary schools and colleges in particular are immense. But these challenges can be met. CentreForum has highlighted how a number of schools are bucking the trend and are succeeding. They show what is possible with great leadership and great teaching.

Yet individual success stories also show how daunting the task is. They stand out because they are so atypical. The question is, how can we scale up improvement? How can individual success be replicated across the board?

Even if we have an answer to that, there is another pressing issue. How can we ensure that we have capacity in the system to bring about essential improvements? Because without the right people to make it happen, our dreams will remain just that.

We need to improve 3 things:

– accountability and oversight

– the way schools of all types work together

– leadership, and the leadership of teaching in particular

Accountability and oversight

For a start, we will struggle to embed reform if oversight remains confused and inconsistent. I have long argued for a middle tier to oversee school performance and intervene where necessary. So the government’s decision to introduce Regional Schools Commissioners to oversee academies is one I support. Unfortunately, their roles and how they fit with other accountability bodies isn’t always clear.

Ofsted is charged with inspecting all schools and colleges. The Education Funding Agency not only funds schools but also intervenes when decline occurs. Individual multi-academy trusts have their own oversight arrangements and then there are local authorities. The latter complain they lack any influence over academies, even though they are still responsible for ensuring all children in their area are safe and receive a suitable standard of education. It is a patchwork of accountability rather than the seamless cover we need.

At the moment, we have a confusing and ill-defined system of oversight and intervention. Problems, inevitably, are shuffled between various agencies. This isn’t fair on parents and it certainly isn’t fair on schools. A symptom of that confusion has been a more than doubling of complaints to Ofsted about schools in the last 3 years. The danger is that only those able to navigate this accountability maze will have their concerns addressed.

Governance, too, is an issue. Three years ago I argued that school governing bodies needed to be far more professional. In that time, not a lot has changed. We need governors chosen for the skills they bring to a school, not because they represent a certain faction. We need governors who will hold schools properly to account, not who are largely concerned with furthering vested interests. And if that means paying for expertise, then we should consider paying them.

As we all know, the key to school improvement is early intervention. But can we realistically expect commissioners, with their current resources, to gather the necessary intelligence on the increasing number of schools under their control? Will they be able to step in when it matters most?

Now, I am not going to argue for the return of all schools to local authority control, far from it. The rot set in in large parts of our education system because local authorities allowed too many schools to decay over many years. But it would greatly simplify matters if all schools were held to account in the same way.

I have no doubt that commissioners will grow into their roles and my regional directors will continue to work alongside them. But, I think we are going to need something more if we are to bring about the kind of improvement we have seen in London.

We need powerful political figures who feel responsible to local people for the performance of local schools. Mayors like Robin Wales and Jules Pipe in London, who see it as their personal responsibility to improve underperforming schools in east London, with impressive results.

Obviously, it is a matter for government whether the recent drive to devolve powers locally should include education. But, even without more formal powers, shouldn’t local politicians take more responsibility for education and expect more of their schools?

Improvement across such a complex system needs strong leadership that is aware of local weaknesses and isn’t afraid to confront vested interests. In such a complex system, parents need clarity about who will stand up for them and their children. In such a complex system, someone with local knowledge needs to ensure that there are good schools for all, not just for those lucky enough to live in the right postcodes.

It can be done. Improvements in London are beginning to radiate across the capital and into surrounding areas as schools and politicians set higher and higher expectations. London has become a nursery for success. I know of outstanding headteachers who have chosen to leave the capital and work further afield.

If it can happen in London, it can happen elsewhere. But it won’t happen by accident or committee. Local politicians in Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool and Leeds now need to provide the leadership and drive regardless of the powers bequeathed by Whitehall.

A truly comprehensive system

The second issue we have to address is the lingering damage caused by the botched reform of our schools in the ’60s and ’70s. Let me say straightaway that I am not going to argue for selection or a return to grammar schools. But the ideologues who drove the comprehensive agenda confused equality with equity. They took it to mean that one size should fit all.

As a consequence, there was a wholesale dumbing down of standards. It meant aggressive anti-elitism. It meant glittering prizes for all, whether merited or not. It meant scorning attempts to celebrate excellence. It meant paying scant regard to literacy, numeracy and good behaviour. It meant the erosion of headteacher authority by militant unionism.

For those who can’t remember those times, look up the history of Highbury Grove, or Holland Park or Hackney Downs to see what can go badly wrong in schools more interested in ideological conformity than educational excellence. Look up the initiatives that encrusted schools like useless barnacles, such as the SMILE maths programme, which encouraged children to amble up to the filing cabinet, pick out their worksheet and learn at their own speed.

I’m pleased to say that much of that nonsense has gone. There is now a growing awareness of the needs of different pupils. However, as I said at the beginning, the one-size-fits-all approach still lets down far too many, particularly at both ends of the ability spectrum. The most able are not being stretched. The options for those who struggle are limited. And too few children have access to a curriculum that prepares them for the workplace.

There is another, unremarked disadvantage to many comprehensive schools. They expect teachers to do too many things. Some teachers are good at teaching able students; others are better with youngsters with special educational needs. Teachers, like everyone else, are rarely good at everything. Yet many comprehensives treat them as if they are. In smaller secondaries, with limited numbers of staff, they have no choice but to do this.

Teachers may be required to teach a high-flying sixth form group in one lesson and a low-ability Year 7 group in the next. On top of this, they are expected to be pastoral tutors, behaviour experts, playground patrollers and outreach workers. It’s no wonder they become exhausted. It isn’t good for them, the students or the school.

We have a real opportunity to put this right. The raising of the participation age to 18, the increased freedoms offered to school leaders, the incentives for schools to collaborate within academy trusts provide us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a smarter comprehensive system, without the need for more legislation or further structural change.

Let me explain what I mean. If I were running a group of schools, I would include both primaries and secondaries. I would make sure the primary schools were either working closely with local nurseries or taking children from the age of 2 into on-site early years provision. I would work with local health visitors to make sure disadvantaged 2 year olds were taking available places.

I would make sure the secondary schools learnt from what is working well at primary. I would make sure the different phases worked together to understand and track pupil progress. And I would appoint a heavy-hitting senior leader to track free school meal pupils from one phase to the next.

I would include in my federation a 14-19 university technical college that would admit youngsters across the ability range to focus on apprenticeships at levels 4, 3 and 2. It would not be a dumping ground for the disaffected and cater just for the lower-ability youngsters.

Careers advice across the federation would be a priority, with a real focus on Year 9 to ensure that each student, at the end of Key Stage 3, had a clear sense of the different pathways in front of them.

In my ideal federation, English, maths and science teachers would be contracted to work in the partnership and would be obliged to move across the different schools in the consortium. I would encourage extensive business and school links and introduce salary incentives to attract the best leaders to work in the more complex and challenging institutions.

Working in this joined-up way across phases and school types would have 3 powerful effects. First, youngsters would be able to transfer across institutions in the cluster and access high-level academic and technical study.

Second, teachers would have better opportunities for increased specialisation and professional development.

Third, if done transparently and effectively, such federations would allow improvements to cascade through the system because they would be implemented across the organisation and not left to individual schools.

Let me be clear – what I would want to offer is not selection at 14 but maximum opportunity at 14. Above all, I would want all routes through the federation to have equal prestige in the eyes of pupils, teachers and parents.

School leadership

As I said earlier, creating a federation like that would not require legislation or massive structural change. But it would require leadership, imagination and courage. Leadership is the third aspect of the system that I believe is crucial for wide-ranging school improvement. So we have to ask ourselves – do we have enough people with the right skills? And if we don’t – what are we going to do about it?

This isn’t just a question of raw numbers. It is also about the need to identify talented individuals and incentivize them to move to the schools that need them most. As we move to a much more autonomous system, with so much depending on appointing people who know how to use the freedoms given to them, it is vital that we do more to nurture leadership.

All our evidence shows that it is good leadership that makes the biggest difference to school standards. Yet, many areas of the country, especially those with a disproportionate amount of poorly performing schools, simply do not have access to the calibre of leadership required. What’s worse, there is no reliable regional data to highlight what the local situation really is.

Our inspections of the weakest academy chains show that they have the same problems as weak local authorities – poor governance, confusing lines of responsibility, insufficient monitoring and inadequate intervention.

More and more responsibility now rests with chief executives of academy trusts. Yet how many programmes are there to train them in best practice? How are we making sure we identify potential leaders at an early stage of their careers? How are we incentivising them? What programmes are in place to support them? Far too few, I fear.

No organisation in the private sector would have such a haphazard approach to leadership training. Indeed, it’s hard to believe any other service in the public sector has such a laissez-faire attitude to career development. Can you imagine a trainee medic not being aware of the ladder they have to climb if they wish to progress and the training necessary for it? But that is the state of affairs confronting our young teachers.

You highlight in your paper a number of schools that are already achieving your targets. I know many of the headteachers of these schools well. The reason they are good is because they learnt their craft working with successful heads elsewhere. This model needs to be developed nationally. Leaving it to the market will not do. We can’t leave it, for example, to a mediocre academy chain with a paucity of good leaders to model excellent practice from which others can learn. It needs a national programme, bought into by everyone and which harnesses the support of the best heads in the land.

There are, of course, admirable leadership programmes set up by charities such as Future Leaders. But they are too small and piecemeal to address the entire problem. If we are to meet the targets you have set for 2030, we have to expand the best practice you have identified in a few schools across the whole country. If we are to improve our secondary schools we must beef up our leadership programmes. That requires joined-up thinking. It requires a far more strategic approach to leadership training.


I hope it is clear that I am not offering a counsel of despair but a call to arms. I share your ambitions for a step change in the quality of English education. But this will only happen if we address the confusion around school accountability, if we encourage schools of all types to work together in tight partnerships and federations. Most of all, we must stop paying lip service to improving vocational education and get on and do it.

It means we need national politicians to step up to the plate and we need local politicians to take more responsibility for education standards in their area. It means we need joined-up accountability and school partnerships that cater for the needs of all pupils. And it means identifying and developing the next generation of school leaders so that they can create the conditions in which teachers can thrive.

We are right to be ambitious. The conditions are there. We need to act now and we need to act together, because history will not forgive us if we let this moment pass.

Thank you.