Ofsted Annual Report 2015/16

1 Jan


Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (HMCI), published his fifth and final Ofsted annual report on the education system in England on Thursday, 1 December 2016.  He retired 30 days later.  In presenting the report, Sir Michael said “a world class education system is within our grasp – but only if serious capacity challenges are urgently addressed”.

Sir Michael stressed that a north/south ‘geographical divide’ meant the ablest pupils in the North and Midlands were less likely to reach A/A* at GCSE. He said: “Standards can only truly be considered high if they are high in every part of the country and for all pupils regardless of background or ability.”

However, his report is, in the main, positive.    The country’s schools/academies, he avers, had made progress over the last five years. Educators could be justly proud.  “Young people are getting a better deal than ever before,” he said.  School/academy leaders responded well to the changes in the system.  The decision to replace the “satisfactory” judgement with “requires improvement” led to schools/academies upping their game, making a greater effort ensuring that pupils are offered the very best possible education.     Of the former 4,800 satisfactory primary schools/academies, 79% were now good or outstanding and, of the previous satisfactory secondary ones, 56% were good or better.

II       Key Points

The main issues and findings of the report were as follows.

(1)        Education for children below the age of 11 is stronger than ever. That there are more good and outstanding primary schools/academies, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders (altogether 91%) is creating a level playing field for children – whatever their backgrounds. The proportion of good and outstanding primary schools/academies rose from 69% to 90% in five years.

The focus on reading and systematic synthetic phonics has been a particular strength. The successful emphasis on reading, writing, spelling and grammar, however, is sometimes resulting in a narrower curriculum.

(2)        Education for children above the age of 11 has improved, but not everywhere.

(3)        The reading ability of pupils eligible for free school meals at age seven in 2015 was 6% closer to the level of their peers than five years ago.

(4)        Secondary schools/academies also improved. Altogether, 78% are now good or outstanding compared to 74% in 2015.  However, schools in the North and the Midlands are dropping further behind the rest of the country.   The progress of the ablest children and provision for those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) are both particularly affected by this divide.

Also, the education of youngsters from the ages of 11 to 19 is strongest for pupils studying an academic curriculum aimed at university entrance.  For pupils not destined for university, especially those who don’t achieve well by the age of 16, there are fewer high-quality options available that lead to good qualifications and destinations.

(5)        Schools have successfully increased the proportions of pupils going on to complete the academic qualifications needed to be accepted into universities.  However, for those going directly into the workforce, only a minority of schools prioritise giving them a solid preparation for the world of work.  University Technical Colleges (UTCs) should be a clear route of pupils focused on technical or vocational pathways, but barriers to teacher and pupil recruitment mean that the performance of these schools to date has been variable.

(6)        Pressures on the supply of secondary teachers continues unabated.  Fifteen of the 18 curricular areas had unfilled training places in 2015/16. There were 2,500 fewer secondary school teachers than the previous year and the secondary pupil population was set to rise in the coming years.

(7)        Secondary schools that improved in 2015/16 did so by focusing on the professional development of teachers and middle leaders. They drew heavily on external sources of support including high-performing local schools which are now in greater supply in some parts of the country than others.

(8)        Academic level 3 study programmes (equivalent to A-Level standards) were working well regardless of where they were provided, particularly where there were large numbers of A-level students. In small sixth forms where the number of A-level students was too low to enable the school/academy to offer specialist teachers across the curriculum, provision was less successful.  Technical and vocational level 3 student programmes and those below level 3 were now working as well.

(9)        In some parts of the country, fewer than 40% of pupils in receipt of special educational needs and disability (SEND) support were progressing well.   Local areas were tracking the progress of these pupils less systematically, compared to pupils with statements of education, health and care plans (EHCPs).  However, local areas were becoming more accurate in their identification of children and young people who have special educational needs and/or disabilities.  Consequently, the proportion of pupils identified as needing special educational needs support is at its lowest point in a decade.

(10)      Only one in four primary schools had good arrangements in its assessment system, in the absence of levels.

(11)      The gap had started to narrow between children eligible for free school meals (FSMs) and their peers reaching a good level of development (GLD) by the age of five.  Take-up of funded early education for the disadvantaged two-year-olds had increased.  However, there were still 6,000 disadvantaged children aged two in inadequate nurseries.

(12)      Transition from primary to secondary school continues to be a point where some pupils begin to fall behind.  The mistrust between primary and secondary schools around transition contributes to a failure to share information about assessment and the curriculum or to understand it fully when it is shared.

(13)      The proportion of good or outstanding general Further Education (FE) colleges declined from 77% in 2015 to 71% in 2016.  Full-time students are required to retake English and/or mathematics if they do not secure a C grade at age 16.  For general FE colleges, this resulted in an increase of 156% in the number of students studying GCSE English over the last three years.  Many colleges struggle to recruit enough teachers in English and mathematics.

(14)      The supply does not meet demand for high-quality apprenticeships at level 3, with available data showing around nine applicants for every vacancy.  There are some signs in good quality apprenticeships and schools are doing more to raise awareness of apprenticeships as an option.

(15)      Altogether, 65% of prisons and young offender institutions have learning and skills and work activities that are not good enough.  By a wide margin, this is the least successful aspect of our education and skills system.  Many prisoners have primary school-level reading ability.   Successful completions of English and mathematics qualifications are nine percentage points lower this year compared with four years ago.

(16)      Most institutions provide safe places for children and young people of all ages.  However, on occasions, leaders and managers do not regard the safety of young people as a high priority, other than to satisfy external scrutiny.  In other cases where safeguarding is found inadequate, it is because leaders and managers are ignorant about what is required.   This is sometimes because they have extended the reach of what they are delivering without finding out what the implications will be for the pupils and learners involved.

(17)      In the independent sector, 12% of those serving primary-aged pupils and 15% of those serving secondary-aged pupils are inadequate. The proportion of good and outstanding schools declined in both phases two years in a row.   In schools that declined, leaders and managers had not kept on top of the quality of teaching or up-to-date about how to keep children safe.

(18)      The scale of unsafe practice being uncovered in providers suspected of operating illegally is a serious concern.  However, local authorities have become more alert to the need to identify potentially illegal or unsafe practice.  In cases where problems have been identified, local authorities have intervened quickly to make sure children in their areas are kept safe.

(19)      Sir Michael had little to say about school governance other than make the blindingly obvious statement that at the root of much school/academy failure is weak governance.  However, some of his inspectors surveyed schools/academies with the specific objective of looking at governance.  Inspectors visited 24 recently improved schools/academies in some of the poorest areas of the country.  Neither the types of schools/academies nor the structure of governance were the reasons for the original weaknesses in governance. Rather, to improve, governors needed to become more self-aware.  Two-thirds of the schools/academies surveyed had not engaged in any self-evaluation of governance prior to being found to be less than good.

Governors in schools where leadership is questionable need to develop the professional knowledge, understanding and insight about the functions of their boards.    However, in the 1,600 responses for Ofsted’s call-for-evidence, governors said that it was difficult to access high-quality professional support and training.  National Leaders of Governance and Professional Clerks are in short supply.  Also, three-quarters of the respondents said that it was difficult to recruit and retain good and committed governors.

(20)      The performance of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), which were inspected, is variable.  There are 33 MATs in which fewer than half of the academies are good or better, including five of the largest MATs. MATs with the largest number of secondary academies vary in their value-added scores.  [Most of the 5,800 academies in England are now nearly 800 MATs.]

In March 2016, Sir Michael wrote to the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, to report that, following the inspection of seven of the largest MATs, he was concerned about the quality of education in them.   Despite having operated for several years, many of these trusts showed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local authorities.   Pupils in them made poor progress – especially at Key stage 4 and disadvantaged pupils generally.  He highlighted the following weaknesses, in particular.

  • Leaders had inflated views of the quality of teaching.
  • There was not enough scrutiny of pupils’ progress.
  • There was a lack of strategic oversight by the trusts.
  • There was a lack of urgency to tackle weak leadership in academies.
  • There was confusion over the roles and responsibilities of the trusts and the local governing bodies of the constituent academies.

To counter-balance this, his inspectors also visited some of the best performing MATs earlier last year.   Their strengths were as follows.

  • They had executive leaders who had a proven track record of turning around failing schools.
  • Leaders had a clarity of vision.
  • There was urgency to assist pupils/student reach higher standards, especially for disadvantaged pupils/students.
  • There were clear, delegated frameworks of governance.
  • There was intelligent use of assessment information so that potential problems could be anticipated (and tackled).
  • Staff development was an important priority, which assisted in improving staff recruitment and retention. For example, the ARK MAT reported that 86% of its newly qualified teachers (NQTs) were still teaching within the ARK academies five years after qualifying.    Many had secured leadership positions early in their careers.

III     Commentary

(1)        During Sir Michael Wilshaw’s watch, unquestionably, there have been considerable improvements made to the provision of schools and academies.   He raised the bar by replacing the judgement of “satisfactory” with “requires improvement”, reduced the notice period for an inspection to half-a-day and revolutionised all our mind-sets by stamping on our penchant for making excuses for schools/academies that have to educate pupils from socially deprived backgrounds.  However, “becoming better” does not mean that we have got there.

There is a worrying North-South divide in standards with growing concerns about the former.  There are 12% fewer good and outstanding schools in the North and Midlands than in the South.   Sir Michael’s analysis concludes that these areas struggle to recruit and retain the best teachers and leaders. His panacea is that the government appoints a “Minister for the North” to “bang a few heads together”.

But this could have unintended consequences as a punitive approach could drive away good headteachers.  Sir Michael was an immensely successful Headteacher.  However, using strategies that he might have used as Headteacher could well be detrimental to the one that he is proposing for improvements in a much larger arena – such as North England and the Midlands.   We first have to try and understand what are the factors for pupil underachievement and diagnose the educational disease before finding the appropriate remedies.   Regional problems are often plagued with greater complexities than those in any one individual school/academy.

Nevertheless, what was heartening were his remarks – when presenting his report – about what will not work, i.e. an increase of selective schools across the country.

(2)        Unsurprisingly, Sir Michael and his troops have provided evidence that structure is much less important for school improvement than the quality of teaching and learning.   He has shown that just as there are strong local authorities there are also effective MATs; poorly performing MATs have the same negative characteristics as failing LAs.  Collaborating institutions are more likely to be better performing than those that working in isolation.  Historically, LAs had the responsibility of promoting good working-together arrangements.   Some operated with considerable aplomb and others failed spectacularly.   Similar scenarios are being replicated in MATs.

(3)        Sir Michael mentions that the number of pupils with special educational needs has gone down.   However, there is no reason to celebrate because one of the key drivers for the reduction is that there is less funding to support them.   Accordingly, mainstream schools are focusing their energies on supporting them as much as possible before turning to their local authorities for assistance in constructing Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).    Also, because local authorities are increasingly finding themselves in financial straits, they are less inclined to investigate potential cases of child abuse: they do not have the capacity to do so.   In this connection, schools and academies are reminded of Henry Ford’s exhortation: “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.”

(4)        The Cinderella of education, Further Education (FE), continues to be neglected and remains in the backwaters of provision.  However, if we have to make a success of apprenticeships, the government will need to address this area.  Robert Halfon, the Minister of State for Education, has responsibility and is doing everything he possibly can.   He needs to be supported by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister if he is to succeed.

(5)        Teacher recruitment continues to be a “chestnut”.  A shortage of teachers, especially in the secondary sector, is a blight on the provision our school/academy staff members are making.  Sir Michael states that 15 out of 18 curricular areas had unfilled training places in 2015/16. Altogether, only 82% of training places were filled.   There were 2,500 fewer secondary school teachers in 2015/16 with the secondary roll set to rise.  Deprived areas are suffering more than most – especially the North-West.

Sir Michael’s own words resonate. “We need more and better teachers, and we need them now.” He cites this issue as the biggest threat to the quality of education in England. His report states that the proportion of teachers leaving the sector in 2015 was at its highest for some years.

One reason trotted out by ministers is that the economy is doing well so that fewer young people are opting to become teachers.  However, there are other factors such as a punitive accountability system, the focus on a narrow curriculum – endless literacy and numeracy – to the neglect of other disciplines and extra-curricular activities, league tables and the more attractive salaries and living arrangements provided to teachers in other countries – particularly in Luxemburg, the United Arab Emirates and China.

(6)        I would be failing in my duty if I closed this brief commentary without paying tribute to the sterling work that Sir Michael has done over his five-year tenure, living up to the now famous epithet of the former Secretary of State for Education, “My hero!”  He has left a great legacy and all of us would want to wish him well as he begins the rest of his life.   Despite the heart problems which have afflicted him during his tenure, I find it impossible to believe that Sir Michael will want to put his feet up.

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