The morning after the launch of HMCI’s Annual Report, most of the headlines are in relation to Sir Michael’s comments on the relationship between Brexit and educational underperformance in certain regions. Whilst this angle might have grabbed the media’s attention, these comments were something of an afterthought which emerged from the audience’s questions rather than the speech itself.
Behind the Brexit headline was a largely positive assessment of the country’s schools and the progress made over the past five years. There is a great deal in the report and in Sir Michael’s speech that all educators can feel justly proud, not least his declaration that “young people are getting a better deal than ever before”.
School leaders have responded well to the significant changes in the system, Sir Michael said. He believes the decision to replace ‘satisfactory’ with ‘requires improvement’ to have been at the forefront of the improvements he heralds in the report. Of the 4,800 previously satisfactory primary schools, 79% are now good or outstanding and 56% of satisfactory secondaries are now good or better. It's a shame that much of this positivity has been buried beneath the avalanche of Brexit commentary.
"We need more and better teachers, and we need them now."
Perhaps more significant, however, is the warning issued for policymakers on the subject of teacher recruitment and retention. Ofsted has been a growing voice in the campaign to push government to acknowledge and act on the teacher recruitment and retention crisis. In Sir Michael’s own words, “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. According to the report, the proportion of teachers leaving the sector in 2015 was at its highest for some years.
The problem is particularly acute in secondary education, where only 82% of training places were filled. Even more concerning, is the evidence which suggests this is disproportionately affecting schools in deprived areas, including in the North West – one of the areas flagged in the report.
North - South divide
The Annual Report’s assertion that there are far fewer good and outstanding schools in the North and Midlands is borne out in the evidence presented in the report, where the figure is 12% less than in the South. However, there is little analysis here of the reasons for this discrepancy, beyond the conclusion that these areas struggle to recruit and retain the best teachers and leaders. Sir Michael’s recommendation is that the government appoints a ‘Minister for the North’ who will “bang a few heads together.”
The recommendation for a discrete focus on the North and Midlands might be useful, but the limitation of his analysis is telling. The complexity of problems underlying the apparent North-South divide require a complex response – one that first seeks to understand before it ascribes to ‘banging heads’. My concern is that Sir Michael’s report could be misinterpreted by those who wish to bang ‘Heads’ together, rather than heads in the general sense.
This approach will do little to attract individuals into headship in the areas most in need of quality leaders and his analysis seems to characterise the limitations of an approach to regulation that is heavily influenced by the perceived impact of heroic leaders. Sir Michael’s report was frequently punctuated by affirmations based on his own leadership and approaches as a headteacher. This is not to belittle his accomplishments, but rather to recognise, as the report itself demonstrates, that England is highly regionalised and complex.
A collaborative endeavour
Therefore, the solution to problems within the system will not be solved by lone operators, however skilled, but by thoughtful, progressive, collaborative endeavour – not just on the part of school leaders, but by everyone in the system, and including the government.
More importantly, it must be a solution which works for all young people. It was heartening to hear Sir Michael’s candid assessment of the government’s policy on selection – it doesn’t seem to be the right solution for the problem at hand. The report also highlights issues in the FE sector, an area Sir Michael suggests might be neglected because ministers tend not to send their own children to FE colleges. No doubt, those within the sector would identify with some of his concerns, although they might do well to remind him of the financial restrictions within which many are operating. It could be argued that funding is as much of a barrier to improvement as is his assertion that a lack of accountability is at the root of the issue. Either way, he provided a clear steer for where he feels FE policy makers should focus their efforts. It will be interesting to see if they pick up this trail.
The Annual Report is a fitting legacy for the determination with which Sir Michael Wilshaw has tried to take on challenges within the education system, particularly in relation to trying to tackle disadvantage. It is important that we recognise the underlying positivity about our schools – not yet world class, he says, but heading in the right direction.
More crucially, though, is the clear warning for government that teacher recruitment and retention, particularly in the North and Midlands, threatens to undo years of hard work. Hopefully ministers will dig beneath the headlines.
Stephen will be leading the following seminars in 2017:
Ofsted Seminars: how to be prepared for inspection 9 February 2017, London and 21 March 2017, Leeds