Some of the headlines following Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech today focused on his comment that England’s education system was “better than many, but hardly top-notch.”
His observations were in fact far more positive than this might immediately suggest. He argued that our schools have improved immeasurably. However, it is his narrative about social cohesion that I’d like to explore here.
Sir Michael said: “Interestingly, given the controversies around Brexit and immigration, one of the few measures where England leaves its rivals trailing is in the proportion of students with a degree who come from immigrant backgrounds. In this respect, we are way ahead of most countries.”
He argued that schools are “escalators of opportunity”. What a remarkable thing to say.
An unnoticed success
Sir Michael told the story of one successful aspect of our schools that has largely gone unnoticed. We regularly chastise ourselves for much about the performance of our education system. But the children of immigrants have in recent years done remarkably well.
In many countries, immigrant children do worse than the children of non-immigrants. Sir Michael cited Germany, France, Finland, Italy and Switzerland, where the children of immigrants do worse in school than their peers.
The hugely powerful point is that in English schools, children are taught equally. Sir Michael concludes that schools, it turns out, are great forces for social cohesion - we forget to notice what an incredible achievement this is.
Schools as the glue that helps hold our society together
Arguably, it has never been more important that our schools are the places where different communities integrate – the glue that binds us together.
Schools create the bonds between children and build the bridges between communities. They create the social and intellectual spaces for children to learn together – to learn with each other and about each other. They are the harbingers of a better, more equitable society.
The importance of leadership
Sir Michael ascribed this success to school leaders – he was unequivocal in his praise. He said that head teachers are responsible for most of this success and leadership is the single most important factor in improving the quality of our school system.
He asked questions about why we are not, therefore, systematically nurturing the next generation of leaders. Why aren’t we training enough leaders well, or ensuring that they go to where they are needed most?
This is exactly why the Foundation for Leadership in Education has been established. It is possible for us to be a beacon of leadership excellence – to go beyond politics, to celebrate our successes, to promote evidence-informed practice and realise achievement at scale, for all children and young people.
Meanwhile, let’s take a step back – we will never be complacent about the challenges that face us in education, but let’s not forget to celebrate our successes.
As Sir Michael said: “Our schools have made enormous strides. And they are remarkably good at building social cohesion. We should not let our impatience blind us to our achievements.”