The power of education

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw's speech to launch Ofsted's 2015/16 annual report for education, early years and skills.

This is my final Annual Report as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Children’s Services and Skills.

Over the past 5 years of my tenure as Chief Inspector and in my 43 years as a teacher and as a head, I have had the pleasure of working with a huge number of great educators who have served this nation’s children and young people extraordinarily well.

I am delighted that many of them are in this room today alongside HMI and other colleagues from Ofsted with whom I have had the honour of working over the last few years.

I am proud to have been Chief Inspector and I am proud of this organisation, Ofsted. It has been a privilege to lead an organisation that has been one of the major drivers of improvement in education since its inception in 1992.

Those who question whether we need independent inspection have short memories and little perspective. So let me remind them what it was like before the advent of Ofsted.

Standards were far lower than they are today and in our capital city in which we sit, absolutely dire.

I know this because I was a teacher and head in inner London in the 3 terrible decades before Ofsted came into being. London’s schools − like many outside the capital − were failing whole generations of children. Schools like Hackney Downs − the predecessor to my old school Mossbourne − and William Tyndale may have grabbed the headlines, but there were many others that were only a whisker away from gaining similar notoriety.

Since those dark days, greater accountability and much greater political focus have transformed our education system. No, we are not yet world class, but children and young people across the phases are getting a much better deal now than ever before. We know schools improve incrementally and the same is true for our education system as a whole. It is a step-by-step process.

It’s easy to echo the familiar drumbeat of criticism common in much of the press. Comprehensives are invariably ‘bog standard’, classrooms are always in chaos and qualifications are never worth the paper they are written on. But for the most part, those criticisms are simplistic, out of date and frankly wrong.

A much improved picture

So what of more recent history? In my first Annual Report, I described our system’s performance overall as ‘not good enough; must do better’.

I am happy to report 5 years on, we have seen some significant improvements.

Let me tell you exactly what our education system has achieved in recent years.

• 1.8 million more pupils are now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010
• 9 in 10 early years providers are now good or better – a 22 percentage point increase
• The proportion of good or outstanding nurseries is now virtually identical in the least and most deprived areas of the country
• Nearly 7 in 10 young children now reach a good level of development by the age of 5, compared to just over half in 2013
• Primary school performance has improved dramatically, from 69% good or outstanding to 90%. That means that 1.3 million more pupils now benefit from a better primary school and children in disadvantaged areas have consistently seen most improvement
• The gap between the proportion of good and outstanding primary schools in the most and least deprived areas has more than halved. 5 years ago, it stood at 24 percentage points; this year it is 9 percentage points
• Key stage 1 and key stage 2 results at the age of 7 and 11 have improved. Pupils on free school meals have gained ground on their better-off peers in every subject in these tests

Let me give you one example among many. In 2012 when I was appointed, I criticised the poor performance of primary schools in Coventry, which was at the bottom of the primary league table published in my first report. Thanks to the focus and hard work of the local authority and school leaders, the city has turned things around. The proportion of children attending a good or outstanding primary school in Coventry has now more than doubled, from 42% of pupils to 93%.

That’s nearly 18,000 more children in good or outstanding primary schools in Coventry alone. And for Coventry, you can substitute Norfolk, Bristol and numerous other areas that have seen significant improvements in their primary schools in the last few years.

Outcomes have markedly improved at the other end of the education spectrum too. In 2003, only 27% of the population had a degree. By 2013, that had grown to 38% and it is projected to increase to 47% by 2020.

Particularly gratifying are the increasing numbers of youngsters from deprived backgrounds who now make it to university. The trend has been so marked in inner London that, astonishingly, A-level students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the capital are now more likely to go to university than their peers.

We can also be proud of the success our schools have had in forging social cohesion. It’s an achievement that has gone largely unnoticed, but it’s no less real for that. In most places in Europe, the children of immigrants do badly compared to their peers. Here, they do just as well, if not better.

Whatever cultural tensions exist outside school, race and religion are not barriers within them. In the vast majority of schools, children are taught equally and benefit equally. Children in schools across the country are learning about modern British values and seeing them in practice.

Take a moment to think what an incredible boon this is to our society. And think how much more fractured and divided our society would be if schools did not perform this valuable service. Schools, especially in some of our mono-cultural communities, are the only places where children have the chance to breathe the oxygen of our shared values and gain a sense of modern Britain and the wider world. Many of these children would otherwise suffocate under the weight of their community’s insularity.

It is absolutely critical, therefore, for our country that we have good schools in these mono-cultural areas. Why? Because they must have the capacity to promote greater social cohesion and provide children with a sense of their worth in modern Britain.

If youngsters in these areas go to underperforming schools and are denied the same opportunities as youngsters elsewhere then I fear that further fragmentation and isolation will follow from that.

It is also why we should worry about the growth of illegal schools. Far too many parents, often for cultural or religious reasons, are turning away from mainstream provision. This is dangerous; dangerous because those who wish to do harm to children will exploit unregulated institutions run by people who have little regard for safety, the requirement to provide a balanced curriculum or the promotion of British values.

This year alone we have identified more than 150 potentially illegal schools and that number is growing daily.

Ofsted is on the frontline in tackling this growing problem but our specialist team of inspectors is struggling to cover the ground. Local authorities must do more and commit more resources to this issue, supported, if necessary, by central government.

Educational reforms

But back to mainstream education.

All these improvements have happened alongside the development of a more rigorous curriculum, the end of grade inflation and the introduction of more demanding inspection frameworks.

And I make no apology for the latter. I know I may have ruffled a few feathers over the last few years, but there is no question in my mind that the system as a whole has responded positively to our demand that good should be the only acceptable standard in schools and colleges.

I know that, in particular, my early decision to scrap the ‘satisfactory’ grade and replace it with ‘requires improvement’ was greeted with a great deal of sound and fury. But it was unquestionably, looking back, the right step to take. This decision, more than any other, has ramped up expectations and galvanised many schools to do significantly better.

In 2012, nearly a million children were being educated in schools that had been ‘satisfactory’ or mediocre for at least two inspections in a row. Some were unlucky enough to spend their entire school career receiving a mediocre education.

This just would not happen now. Schools know that the clock is ticking. Under the inspection arrangements introduced 4 years ago, schools know they have a limited time to get to good.

The figures speak for themselves. At the point when we brought in the new grade in September 2012, there were nearly 4,800 primary schools that were judged to be satisfactory. Many had been content to coast along carrying that label year after year. Today, 79% of those primary schools have improved to good or outstanding.

There were 933 satisfactory secondary schools 4 years ago. Today, 56% of them are good or outstanding.

And again, this improving picture has disproportionately helped children from the most deprived backgrounds.

There are, of course, many areas of our education system where performance continues to worry me – some of which I will come onto in a minute.

However, I am convinced that the education reforms of the last few years, the increased diversity in the system and the new freedoms gained have made a real difference. A system that isn’t required to continually improve will stagnate. Overall, I agree with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Autonomy matched by accountability works.

These successes have been hard won. The radical changes to school structure and school-led improvement need more time to bed in. They should not be jeopardised by ill-thought-through policy decisions or a lack of attention to what really matters. And what really matters is having enough good teachers and good leaders in our schools in every part of the country, and especially in those areas where standards are low.

A country divided

Because, make no mistake, there are still parts of the country where our education system is not yet working well, particularly for children after the age of 11.

I would have liked to stand here and report that, during my tenure, everything had improved, that all the indices were pointing in the right direction and that henceforth the country can expect only good news. Sadly, I can’t do that.

Overall, the proportion of good and outstanding secondary schools has increased over the last 5 years, from 66% to 78%. We should be pleased that there are 420,000 more pupils in good or outstanding secondary schools than in 2010.

However, that improvement has not benefited all parts of the country and in some areas performance has stagnated.

Last year, I highlighted the disproportionate number of less than good secondary schools in the north and Midlands compared to the south of England. I regret to say that the gap persists and has even widened slightly this year. Overall, 72% of secondary schools in the north and Midlands are good or better compared to 84% in the south.

That means 135,000 more children in the north and Midlands attend an underperforming secondary school than in the south of the country.

Of the 10 worst performing local authority areas, 7 are north of the Wash.

Shockingly, the north and Midlands are home to nearly 3 quarters of the secondary schools judged inadequate for leadership.

This is not a result of unfair inspection practice. Every Ofsted region in the north and Midlands is below the national level on every major measure – Progress 8, Attainment 8 and the EBacc (English Baccalaureate). Pupils here are less likely to achieve top grades at GCSE than elsewhere.

And while the number of young people going to universities has grown, some of the shocking statistics in the Social Mobility Commission’s recent report should give us some pause for thought. For example, not 1 child on free school meals from the entire North East, Yorkshire and Humber region went to Oxbridge after leaving school in 2010.

The north west is of particular concern. Five years ago, it was one of the strongest regions. But over the past 5 years, the proportion of good and outstanding secondary schools has increased by only 3% in the north west compared to 13% nationally. 3 in 10 secondary schools in Manchester and 5 in 10 in Liverpool are now less than good, compared to 1 in 10 in London.

This north/south divide was a central feature of my last Annual Report 2014/15. I must admit to hesitating before deciding to highlight it again. But it is beholden on me to speak out.

Education has the power to bring people together, but it can also divide.

The fissures in the standard of education that divide our regions and towns from each other is destabilising our country. Regions that are already less prosperous than the south are in danger of adding a learning deficit to their economic one. So it will not be healthy for them or the country as a whole if these disparities are not addressed.

Recent political history shows what can happen when large parts of the population feel alienated because they think they are not being dealt with fairly.

What’s more, as I have already suggested, the comparatively low standards in many northern and Midlands secondary schools risk further polarising the communities already living parallel lives in some of the towns and cities in that part of the country.

It is no good wringing hands after the event. We have known about this educational inequality and its likely consequences for some time. My report on ‘Access and achievement’ raised concerns near the start of my tenure. I am sorry to say that many of my recommendations in that report have not been acted upon.

Perhaps we now need the government to appoint a high profile minister for the north to bang heads together across the regions and make sure action is urgently taken.

Capacity is key

And action needs to be taken. I want to emphasise this point because if we do not act now, the fissures we are already seeing will deepen and all the improvements we have seen to date will be at risk.

Most urgent of all, we need to address the endemic capacity issues in our education system. We can make all the structural changes we want, but if we do not have sufficient teachers, they will be for naught.

If it is the first duty of government to defend its citizens, then the first duty of the education system is to ensure that there is a supply line of high quality teachers and leaders to our schools, particularly those that need them most.

And I am sorry to report that we are failing in that duty. Everywhere I go, headteachers – particularly secondary heads − tell me how difficult they are finding it to appoint high-calibre teachers.

I have raised this issue in my last 2 annual reports, but the problem persists. We need to face up to this crisis.

The recorded rate of vacancies and temporarily filled positions in schools has more than doubled in 5 years. And this problem is only going to get worse as the secondary school population increases.

Just as worrying is the disproportionate impact this is having on the areas that are already struggling the most.

My regional director reports that, in parts of the north west, for example, headteachers say that there is practically an auction for secondary teachers in hard to fill subjects.

Let me be clear. Education is a people business. Without enough people – good people – it cannot and will not function. This is the most pressing issue facing the education system today.

I accept it is not easy to recruit or retain teachers. The triple whammy of a growing economy, public sector pay restraint, and the still comparably low status of teaching in England means it is hard to attract the right people into the workforce.

But I believe there is more that the government could and should be doing.

So why does the Department for Education have such a “weak understanding of the extent of local teacher supply shortages”, according to the National Audit Office?

Why are the campaigns to sell teaching as a profession so underwhelming?

Teaching is the best job in the world. I have never for one minute regretted my decision 40 odd years ago to become a teacher.

We need to do more to celebrate the difference you can make as a teacher to the lives of thousands of children. We need to do more to encourage the brightest and the best to pursue it as a career of choice.

They say teaching is a noble profession and it is. But I’m not sure you would gather we were members of an aristocracy from the way the job is advertised.

One more question − why isn’t the government slapping golden handcuffs on newly qualified teachers to compel them to start their careers in the state system that trained them and gave them up to £30,000 tax free in the process?

There are similar challenges with the supply of school leaders. Two-fifths of governors say they find it hard to recruit to senior posts. That situation is only going to get harder as the ‘baby-boomer’ generation of school leaders nears retirement.

We know that some good multi-academy trusts are effective at securing the teachers and leaders their schools need, but we also know that there are still too many underperforming MATs and it remains the case that some of the better MATs are themselves predominantly based in the south of England and particularly in London.

Sir Nick Weller’s report last week on the northern powerhouse was a welcome acknowledgement of the issues I have been raising. Unless we, as country, develop and implement a more coherent, strategic approach to training and retention that matches supply to the most pressing demand, our schools will struggle to meet our expectations and the progress that I’ve outlined over the last few minutes will slow.

England’s education system is not yet running on empty but it cannot be sustained for long with lofty ambitions, good intentions and blind faith in the invisible hand of the market. England needs more and better teachers and leaders. And we need them now. The improvements we have made over the last few years are at risk.

The forgotten half

Unfortunately, geographic divisions and a lack of capacity are not the only fractures that risk undermining our education system. We also have to acknowledge our persistent failure to provide a high-quality technical and vocational education to those children who do not go on to university, the forgotten half of our student population.

As I said earlier, we have made remarkable progress getting ever-greater numbers of students from all backgrounds into university. Sadly, we have yet to provide enough good technical and vocational avenues for those who do not. Report after report after report finds that careers guidance in both schools and colleges is uniformly weak, while the way we prepare young people for the world of work remains poor.

Put simply, compared to our competitors - Norway, Germany and Switzerland, for instance - England struggles to guide youngsters into high quality alternatives to higher education.

The country is facing serious skills shortages, particularly in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union. A quarter of all vacancies in the country – some 200,000 posts – are in skills shortage areas. Yet, the performance of the institutions responsible for the large majority of the country’s technical and vocational education for 16- to 18-year-olds continues to decline.

This year, nearly half of the 82 further education colleges we inspected were less than good - half. 12 of them were inadequate.

In these underperforming colleges, students are much more likely to experience teaching that is not good enough and be given undemanding work. Links with local businesses are often poor. Many students are on courses that are not linked directly to local or national skills shortages. Only a tiny proportion of courses are geared towards apprenticeships in too many colleges. These are places that instead of specialising are still trying to do too much and as a result are falling through too many gaps and failing too many.

This is simply not good enough. For half a century, the FE sector has been the Cinderella arm of the education service. The problem is that this has somehow been acceptable. Is that because this is a sector that educates other people’s children? Each year, around 100,000 16-year-olds enroll at a further education college to do technical or vocational courses. How many of them are the children of the powers that be - of national politicians and the commentariat?

What if your child was one of the 40% who do not get 5 good GCSEs? He or she may have done their best, but is not academically inclined. Maybe they received poor careers advice and guidance in secondary school and tried but failed to get the EBacc. Maybe they just missed out and got a D in maths or English.

What if their only option is to go to the local underperforming further education college, which caters for 10,000 other learners? What if they end up on a course that is irrelevant to the local job market? What if the teaching they receive is not as good as it should be? What if they fail to get a C or better when retaking their GCSE maths and English − as around two-thirds do each year? Would you demand action then?

As a nation, we spend £7 billion on the further education sector. We can no longer afford to accept mediocrity on such a grand scale. We cannot allow this state of affairs to continue. Things have got to change.

I wish I could believe that the answer is further consolidation. But merging 2 poor colleges to create one even larger college is unlikely to improve them and may well make them worse. Creating ever bigger, more amorphous and impersonal institutions will only mean more young people falling through the net.

We have to learn from what works elsewhere. We need to look at Germany with its specialist colleges, where employers take the lead.

There is a moral and economic case for radical change. The autumn statement was a pretty frightening forecast of what is ahead of us. We must develop a technical and vocational education system which produces a workforce that is highly skilled and will improve productivity.

The obsession with grammars and the top 10% ignores this problem. I started this speech by talking about the importance of accountability measures. We now need the same level of accountability at 19 as we have at 16 and at 11. We need a radical shake-up of the system.

University technical colleges may be part of the answer, but it is early days. They have the potential to raise the quality of vocational education, but some as you know are struggling. Many are finding it difficult to enlist students at the age of 14 and recruit teachers with the necessary industry experience.

The government has sought to address the nation’s skills shortage by increasing dramatically the number and the quality of apprenticeships. This year the proportion of good or better apprenticeships is 12 percentage points higher compared to last year, and that’s good news. But almost 2 in 5 apprenticeship programmes inspected this year were still less than good.

I hope that bringing responsibility for this sector into the Department for Education will make a difference. Because unless we get out of this self-defeating spiral, it is difficult to see how our education system will deliver for many of the youngsters who need a good technical and vocational training at this time.


This is the last speech I will make in public as Chief Inspector, so I hope you will indulge a former history teacher if I return to the past before I draw it to a close.

Forty years ago, James Callaghan made a speech at Ruskin College that outraged the educational establishment. Our schools, he said (and I was around at the time when he said it), were not good enough. Traditional teaching had been neglected. The new ‘informal instruction’ was of some concern. Industry complained that school leavers often lacked the basic tools to do their jobs.

They were reasonable criticisms, very mildly put. But the reaction was anything but mild. It was furious. Prime ministers traditionally did not venture into the ‘secret garden’ of education. That was for the experts. And the experts weren’t happy.

The unions were excoriating. The ‘Times Educational Supplement’ sneered that judging education was a skill too sophisticated for the prime minister to grasp. And my predecessor as Chief Inspector rebuked No 10 for interfering. “This is none of your business,” she warned. I confess it’s a line I’ve never tried with the present or previous occupant. I would rightly expect short shrift if I did.

Jim Callaghan foresaw that we would expect more of our education system, that we should expect more. “We demand more from our schools than did our grandparents,” he said. And how right he was. But I doubt even he could envisage how much change our schools would have to accommodate.

What would Callaghan make of our education system if he were around now? He would be alarmed, I suspect, by the divisions between north and south, between the status of academic and vocational education and between the divergent performance of our primaries and secondaries. Yet, in other respects, I think he would be very, very impressed.

As I said earlier, I don’t think the many critics of our education system appreciate just how much has changed. If they did, perhaps they wouldn’t be so dismissive of a system that has delivered so much to so many over the last number of years. Nor would they blithely advocate turning the clock back to a time when the top few per cent went to grammar schools and the rest were left with a very threadbare education.

The world that schools have to prepare their students for has altered fundamentally. It is not just a question of equipping them with excellent academic, vocational and technical qualifications, important though that is. It is also a question of equipping them with the values that our diverse, dynamic and constantly evolving society needs to function.

If anything, as I come to the end of my time as Chief Inspector, I wonder whether we sometimes ask schools to do too much in this regard. Do we expect schools to do alone what must also be the wider responsibility of society, communities and families?

Tiger economies, after all, need tiger attitudes to learning, and that should come from home. Where it doesn’t, the only answer to feckless families is fiery leadership which not only reminds parents and pupils that no one owes them a living but also unashamedly takes on that parenting role. That’s what I did at the schools I led and that’s what truly great headteachers are doing now.

All my experience as a teacher, headteacher and Chief Inspector tells me that schools can make that difference.

Recently, I met a group of old pupils for dinner. They were all in employment, all struggling to cope with ludicrous London property prices and were all doing better than their modest backgrounds might have suggested when they were growing up. They were unquestionably modern Britons: tolerant, compassionate, and at ease with the diverse society in which they live. I am pleased that some of them here today.

It is the success of old pupils like these that motivated me as a teacher and headteacher. And I know, it is the success of pupils like these that motivates hard working teachers and headteachers up and down the country today.

Until I became Chief Inspector, I thought that teaching was the most fulfilling and − at times − the most frustrating job you could do. I have to say this job has given teaching a run for its money in that respect. But I am proud of having done both and, as I take my leave, I wish my successor as Chief Inspector all the success in the world. You have the power to close the divides in our country. Young people like these depend on you.

Thank you.


Sir Michael Wilshaw