Sir Michael Wilshaw laments North-South divide in educational quality and deems that academisation is not the panacea for poor pupil outcomes

5 Jan

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) of Schools in England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, issued his fourth annual report on 2 December 2015.

(1)        Two questions

In his preamble to it, he posed two questions.

(a)        Is our educational system improving?

(b)        If there is improvement, is this improvement likely to raise our standing internationally?

In answer to his first, he said that there is improvement, but, alas, this improvement is only partial.  There are disparities.

There is a North-South divide in educational quality and outcomes, with the North lagging well behind the South. England is a divided nation after the age of 11, he avers.   While across the country, an equal number of primary schools – roughly 84% – are deemed to be good or outstanding, there is a gap in the achievements of pupils in secondary schools between the North and South. Altogether, 79% of secondary schools in the South are good or outstanding whereas only 68% of secondaries in the North are.

In particular, London schools do very well.  However, he states that the excuse that London and the South East are advantaged does not wash as some of poorest students in the country live in the capital.   Besides, primary schools perform equally well in North England as in the South.

The inevitable answer, therefore, to the second question is that, as a country, we still have some way to go before we can be considered world class.

(2)        Unlocking the door to success

Sir Michael stresses that there is nothing magical about school improvement.  Rather, it requires excellent leadership, hard graft and a refusal to tolerate poor pupil (and sometimes adult – both staff and parental) behaviour.  This is best achieved through collaboration (rather than solitary) effort.   Using London as an exemplar, he mentioned that “the collective decision by heads, local politicians, chief executives and MPs” refusing to accept underperformance and insist on high expectations for all” created the London Challenge which improved teaching and learning quality and impacted positively on pupil performance and achievement.

Curiously for Sir Michael, the son of a postman who became Chief Inspector in January 2012 after transforming Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney into an outstanding school, academisation is not the panacea to educational malaise.  While Wilshaw supports academisation as an instrument of school improvement, he confesses that converting schools “can only do so much”.  Altogether 53% of secondary sponsored academies are good if not better (as compared to 50% when they were simply secondary schools) and 99 converter academies dropped from being good or outstanding to less than good in 2014/15.

“Much of the education debate in recent years,” he wrote, “revolved around school structure.” As a consequence, of the 3,300 secondary schools in the country, 2,075 are now academies.  Secondary academies have become the norm.  Yet, these schools are performing less well than the primary ones, most of which (85.4%) are not academies.   “If we are serious about tackling underperformance in our schools,” remarks Wilshaw, “we have to move on from what has become a rather sterile debate.”

A quarter of a century ago schools were given their own budgets to manage. They had become sufficiently autonomous to take initiatives and free themselves of the yoke of local authorities through the local management of schools.   Academisation has extended the process of autonomy and independence.   However, it does not follow that autonomy and independence are synonymous with licence, as schools – and academies – are accountable to the parents and the public at large for the development of the children.  It is not so much the freedom from something that matters as the freedom to do the right thing by our children and secure their success.   Consequently, what really matters are the elements in the black box of education, i.e.

(i)         the quality of teaching and learning and

(ii)        the good leadership that makes for its success.

(3)        Staffing schools/academies well

It is impossible to improve the quality of education without good and/or outstanding teachers.  Wilshaw states that there are not enough high-quality teachers entering the school system.   It is a nonsense for civil servants at the Department of Education (DfE) coming up with picturesque charts – such as one made at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) – to demonstrate that there isn’t a problem.   The reality is that certain pockets of the country are finding it very hard to recruit good professionals.   Wilshaw said that 50% of school leaders admitted that they were struggling to recruit in affluent areas and more than 75% of schools in deprived areas had similar experiences.

Altogether 337,600 qualified teachers are not working in any English school, according to a 2013 survey by the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL). A record 50,000 teachers left the profession in 2014.   On top of that, half of those still in schools say they are considering leaving in the next two years.  In the 12 months to November 2014, 49,120 teachers left teaching.

In addition, last year, there were 21,000 fewer applications from young (and not-so-young) people to become teachers.  The statisticians estimate that the nation will be 65,000 short by 2018.  Into this mélange schools will be pressed to expand because the pupil population will grow 582,000 by 2020.    The situation is exacerbated by a drain of English teachers taking up posts in International British Schools, which are highly valued by other countries.

The make a bleak picture bleaker, there is a lack of quality leaders coming through the system according to the HMCI report.   He welcomed programmes such as Future Leaders and Talented Leaders but cried out for action on a “national scale”.  So concerned is he that he has commissioned a survey to look at the issue in greater depth.

More than a third of schools had reported struggling to fill in leadership posts, according to the National Governors’ Association (NGA).  The Times Educational Supplement (TES), the premier weekly educational journal in England, mentioned that the re-advertisement rate for secondary headteacher roles stood at 25%.

While the Future Leaders’ programme is successfully coaching and placing hundreds of leaders in challenging schools and the Talented Leaders’ initiative is encouraging outstanding headteachers to work in deprived areas, much more is needed.  The approach to address the famine of leaders is piecemeal and uncoordinated.   An NCTL survey showed that middle leaders were being turned off rising to greater heights and refusing to consider graduating to the headteacher roles.

Wilshaw rues the absence of a nationally coordinated programme to ensure that sufficiently talented teachers are trained for headteacher posts.  Even worse, there is no data base on the position of future leadership supply-and-demand.

(4)        Performance of poor white pupils

HMCI reports that white British pupils, in particular white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, remained the lowest performing group of students at GCSE level. Fewer than a quarter of poor white boys gained five good GCSEs including English and mathematics.   The proportion of white working-class children in receipt of free school meals reaching the government’s GCSE benchmark was the same as the proportion of un-statemented pupils with special educational needs.

(5)        Apprenticeships still a curate’s egg – good in parts

Nationally, there has been a focus on apprenticeships to transform the fortunes of those who are not in education, employment and training (NEETs) and others who do not wish to pursue studies at university for a host of reasons. The scheme has been devised by government to train and skill the next generation.  Wilshaw warns that enthusiasm is not a substitute for quality.   Fewer than half the programmes inspected were found to be less than good, according to his report. This means that 73,000 apprentices are being sold short after being enrolled on courses of “dubious worth”.

He added that despite the investment, the number of 16-to-18-year-old apprentices is nearly as low today as it was 10 years ago.   The surge in enrolment is from those over the age of 25.   But the quality of their experiences leaves much to be desired, he stated.   This had to be addressed.

(6)        Commentary

Wilshaw, who has two years left on his contract, is not fearful of firing the shots to combat low progress and achievement, lower expectations of school staff and shoddy national ‘solutions’ used to deal with educational malaise, whenever he see examples of them.  He did so fearlessly in his latest report.   A former successful academy principal, himself, Wilshaw is clear that school structure is not a solution to a problem, but rather the quality of leadership and the performance of teachers in the classrooms.  If the Titanic has been hit by an iceberg, rearranging the deckchairs does nothing to keep it afloat.  Rather, finding and recruiting and retaining high-quality headteachers and teachers is the action that we need to take to plug the hole in education.

There is much to celebrate in our educational system, such as the very good work going on in the early years and primary education and the significant improvements being made in the London and Birmingham.

Referring to primary schools, Wilshaw said: “There can be no doubt that, against a number of measures, primary schools are doing well.  The last few years have seen a steady rise in the achievement of pupils taking the SATs at the end of key stage 2. Compared with 2012, over 60,000 more primary school pupils this year achieved a good level of reading and writing, and a standard of mathematics that will set them up confidently for secondary school.

“Similarly, the proportion of 6- and 7-year-olds reaching the expected standards in literacy and mathematics at the end of Key Stage 1 has also improved over this period and now stands at around 90% for both. However, we do not have to rely on test results alone. Our own Ofsted inspection evidence and judgements very much confirm this upward trajectory of improvement. There were 2,293 more good and outstanding primary schools in the last academic year than in 2011 to 2012 and 219 fewer inadequate ones.

“These are highly impressive and encouraging statistics.”

Wilshaw is concerned, however, that secondary schools and academies are not capitalising sufficiently on the good work being done at primary level.  He puts it eloquently, when he states: “Our report last year on provision for the most able pupils and our recent survey on the effectiveness of the curriculum at key stage 3 gave me great cause for concern about the transition from primary to secondary education.

“Both these surveys identified that pupils, who have achieved so much at primary school, are not supported well enough to build on that momentum when they enter secondary school. My inspectors tell me that much of the good, structured work done in primary schools on understanding and using correct grammar, both when writing and when speaking, is lost when pupils enter the secondary phase.

“Worse still, the rigour with which spelling, punctuation and grammar is being taught at primary stage is often not developed sufficiently at secondary stage, especially in the foundation subjects like history and geography. This slows down all children, but is particularly damaging for the most able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who disproportionately fail to fulfil their earlier potential when they come to sit their GCSE examinations. In 2014, for example, around 5,000 disadvantaged pupils who attained the highest levels at the end of key stage 2 failed to achieve a grade B in English and mathematics at age 16.”

Also, the underachievement of schools in the North, the secondary education drag on the system, the poor showing of white British boys and the inferior services being offered to apprentices are matters that he feels should be addressed sooner rather than later.

But will they?

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