It is a pleasure to be here at the 115th NAHT Annual Conference.
Thank you for giving the opportunity to speak today. I have looked through the delegates list for your conference and didn’t spot too many delegates from Liverpool, where my constituency is. It did lead me to wonder whether this afternoon’s FA cup final might have played a role in that? None-the-less, it is fantastic to be here with you all in Harrogate.
The NAHT has a long and proud history. I last spoke at NAHT conference as Schools Minister in York in 2003. Some of the veterans amongst you may recall the conference which was held against a back-drop of tensions between central and local government on school funding. It wasn’t the easiest time for me to have to speak on behalf of the government and you certainly didn’t give me easiest time. Whilst I do not miss the prospect of being jeered for taking difficult decisions, I do miss the responsibility of being in government. Government is an important vehicle by which to affect change, in education and in society more broadly. And whilst we didn’t get everything right in government, we made huge strides in education.
Sure Start for Early Years education, hailed by the charity 4Children as one of the great achievements of modern government;
Progress in numeracy and literacy;
Narrowing the attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds;
Raising the status of the teaching profession so as to improve the outcomes of our education system;
So whilst we left office with unfinished business in education, we, together, achieved great things.
Whilst being in opposition affords politicians the space in which to reflect on the challenges ahead, it is government to which I strive in my role as Education spokesman. So whilst I was initially billed as the warm up for the Education Secretary, who addressed you before lunch, I ask of him not to get too comfortable.
Evidence not dogma
I want to begin by picking up on something from the President’s Welcome in your conference guide. Steve Iredale, whom I met recently on a visit to Barnsley, asks whether it might too idealistic to propose that policy in education be guided by evidence and what works rather than political dogma. In a recent speech, I made a down payment on Labour’s approach to education policy. Ask me what should guide education policy and I say ‘evidence, evidence, evidence’. Too often dogma frames the debate in education rather than what the evidence shows. This is true of the Left and the Right.
And that is why I have said that a future Labour government would establish an Office for Educational Improvement, an education equivalent of the OBR, to act as an independent clearing house for research, a champion for improving the international standing of England’s education system and a body for sharing best practice within the school system.
I welcome that Steve, like many other education leaders I have been in contact with, reminds us of the importance of evidence in raising standards in the school system.
I have been to some excellent schools since my appointment as Labour’s education spokesman in October.
Schools of all types.
Primary schools and secondary schools.
Comprehensives, voluntary aided and independent schools.
Free Schools and Academies.
I have been inspired by some of the excellent school leaders whom I have met.
Like Jayne Kennedy at Barlow Hall Primary School in Manchester. Barlow Hall has a 100% attainment rate at Key Stage 2 in English and Mathematics.
Like Kevin Boyle, who is here today, at Oaklands School in Cheshire, where they are living up to their motto ‘The best for all, the best by all’.
And Vanessa Langley at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, whose school was recently judged Good with Outstanding features.
I mention these heads because their schools share a focus on the importance of raising aspirations for all, not just some, of their pupils. Starting from a low base as many of their pupils do, these schools are uncompromising on their hopes for their pupils and instil within them belief, confidence and a desire to be the best that they can be.
These schools have high intakes on free schools meals.
I too look forward to visiting Westfield School in Wigan, recently rated as outstanding by Ofsted. I know that the Head Tim Sheriff is here today and has done fantastic things at Westfield.
All of these heads have one other thing in common: they are uncompromising on standards and are passionate about inclusion.
We know that a child’s life chances are enhanced by the educational progress that they make in primary school. And that is why being focused on standards is so important. So what does the evidence say on raising standards in schools?
It is clear that what matters most is the quality of teaching and learning and the individual teachers and leaders in schools.
Recent research from the Sutton Trust has shown that the difference between an excellent teacher and a poor teacher is the equivalent of a whole years learning. And that is why greater focus is needed to raise the quality and status of the teaching profession.
A report published by the Education Select Committee this week has called for a greater focus on the professional development of teachers. In a speech last month I announced that I have asked educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse to undertake a review of continued professional development in schools. There is an absolutely compelling case for getting this right, on both a standards front and importantly in recognising the need to support teachers in developing their skills set and in raising the status of the teaching profession.
Leadership too is central to all of this. Whether in schools, in businesses, in all organisations across society, effective leadership is key to driving forward change. In government Labour’s approach to reform in the school system was always twin track: investment and reform. And a central pillar of the reform agenda was to raise the status of the profession and advance the leadership agenda in schools.
Establishing the National College for School Leadership;
Establishing Teach First;
Reforming the pay framework for Heads and Teachers to make sure that they are recognised for the professionals that they are.
Literacy and Numeracy
I know that most of you here today are leaders in primary schools. It may not surprise you that I want to talk about the importance of Literacy and Numeracy in relation to standards. Literacy and Numeracy are the foundation blocks on which to build and that is why we must have a rigorous focus on getting this right. Good progress was made through the National Strategies on Literacy and Numeracy but there is still much do to in making sure that all children arriving at secondary school do so armed with the skills and knowledge to take on the secondary curriculum.
On reading, there has been much debate on the Government’s approach to raising standards. The Government’s focus on phonics is in my experience shared by headteachers. However, I would urge caution from the Government.
There is not a one size fits all approach that will work for all children in all schools. Head teachers need to be given the freedom to employ practices that are most effective for their schools.
Take Barlow Hall primary school, which I cited earlier, where Head Jayne Kennedy leads a Reading Recovery programme. The programme provides targeted interventions for children who have fallen behind in reading. Barlow Hall has invested, from within its budget, in facilities for training teachers on Reading Recovery techniques. The facilities and services are available for hire by other schools. This is a brilliant example of a school being innovative in addressing standards in a time when there is less money.
On Reading Recovery, a DfE report after the 2010 election made a compelling case for the merits of the programme. I know that there is a workshop on Reading Recovery at your conference this weekend.
As with phonics, this approach has been shown to be successful in teaching children the foundations of reading. So whilst ministers strive to find a silver bullet, the evidence shows that it is not an either or on decoding or comprehension but a choice for schools. This issue highlights a contradiction within government policy. On the one hand we have Ministers saying that they want to give schools more autonomy and on the other we see centralised prescriptions. As is the case with the phonics tests being introduced this year. When we have Professor Greg Brooks, an expert in phonics, saying that introducing phonics tests is “a waste of money”, it suggests that ministers should think again.
Of course, we must advance policies that will improve educational outcomes for all children, but the evidence suggests that the current course is not the answer. It’s time for the govt to listen to the concerns of heads.
Assessment reform at Key Stage 2 is an issue that features prominently in the papers for your conference. I read with interest the report of the Independent Review of Key Stage 2 Testing, Assessment and Accountability, which was unanimously approved by the panel. I know some of the Panel members are here, including Helen Clegg of your National Executive Committee.
As you will know, the report set out as one of its main recommendations that the balance between external testing and teacher assessment needs greater weighting on the side of teacher assessment of pupils.
When I was Schools Minister I reformed assessment in Key Stage 1 to remove testing and focus instead on teacher assessment. When Ed Balls was Secretary of State in the last Labour government, he introduced teacher assessment for Science at Key Stage 2 and Lord Bew’s recommendations that have been endorsed by Government have taken that agenda a step farther.
Crucially the report also identifies that a wider range of data be used- accounting for progress as well as attainment- to hold schools to account for the educational outcomes of their pupils. There were measures that were unfair on schools. For example, including the Key Stage 2 results for pupils who had not attended the school in all of Year 5 and Year 6 in the schools performance measures.
Accounting for individual progress is important and should be factored into the way that schools are measured.
Whilst not everyone will agree with me on the role of tests in Literacy and Numeracy at Key Stage 2, as I said earlier, I think we must be absolutely uncompromising on continuing to raise standards here.
Children must be equipped with the foundations for a life long journey in education and we know that where children fall behind in the Three Rs by the end of Key Stage 2, their chances of fulfilling their potential are greatly reduced.
So I welcome the report as a constructive way forward in setting a better balance between external tests and teacher assessments. We need a system that values the judgements of teachers and that holds schools to account in a fair way.
Middle tier and partnerships
I want to turn now to the issue of accountability in the school system and what is being termed ‘the middle tier’. With the proliferation of academies and free schools, autonomous from local authority control, there are two inevitable trends that are playing out.
The first that heads are being given more freedom over the running of their schools. The second that heads are incurring greater responsibility for meeting the statutory duties required of schools.
Whether schools wish to seek greater autonomy is a choice that should rest locally and Labour has been clear about this. However, what concerns me is the absence of early warning systems and accountability mechanisms in place for some schools that have taken this course. The functions that have traditionally been fulfilled by local authorities- with varying degrees of success- are now left with individual schools.
Although there has not been the same proliferation in primaries as there has in secondary schools, we have seen an increase in the number of primary academies.
Schools have taken different approaches to addressing this issue.
Some have joined federations. Others have joined academy chains. Some have formed co-op trusts.
The original academies that were set up by Labour involved schools having sponsors to develop and support a school improvement plan. The London Challenge, which was key to improving standards in some of the most challenging schools in London, was built on a partnership approach.
Autonomy for schools makes sense but we dont want schools to be isolated. There is currently too much risk in the system.
So whilst it is right to encourage schools to form partnerships that will help raise standards, the current accountability gap leaves too much to chance.
That is why I have launched a consultation on the middle tier to consider options from all those involved in education. Labour is consulting on the functions of the ‘middle tier’, including local authorities, and how best functions might be fulfilled. The direction of travel under current government policy is heavily centralised. So whilst the government talks about localism, we are not seeing a decentralisation in accountability. It is neither desirable, nor feasible, for thousands of schools to be directly accountable to the Education Secretary. If we are to have greater responsiveness, we need a localised system that mitigates risk and involves local communities in their schools.
I have sent the consultation document to your General Secretary and I look forward to receiving a response from the NAHT.
Role of Ofsted
I know that from conversations with heads and with Russel that there are very real concerns with Oftsed.
Inspection plays a very important role in the school accountability system. I want to pick up on some of the concerns that have been raised with me.
On the issue of no-notice inspections.
There are clearly differences of opinion within the profession on the length of time that schools should get notice for a forthcoming inspection. One thing that is clear though, and that I support, is the importance of headteachers being present at the school when there is an inspection taking place. Whilst I respect the independence of Ofsted, I think there is a good case for this arrangement to be looked at again.
Last year the government passed the Education Act which removed the requirement for follow up inspections for a period of up to 6 years for those schools judged to be Outstanding. Labour spoke against this throughout the passage of the Bill. There are cases of schools going into rapid decline in a short space of time which shows the dangers of some schools not being inspected.
On the inspections themselves, I know that there are concerns about consistency and about the tone and language in reports. My view is this. Schools should to be expected to be judged on a consistent set of criteria and that is right. But the application of the criteria and inspections across schools must too be consistent and where there are reports of inconsistencies, Ofsted has a responsibility to assess the practices of local inspectors. Russell has rightly pointed out in the TES interview this week that the system has to work both ways.
John Dunford, who I have asked to lead an independent consultation on my proposal for an Office for Educational Improvement, has made an interesting contribution to this debate on accountability that touches on the two issues of the middle tier and the role of Ofsted. I think it is a proposal that warrants further exploration.
He has suggested that Area HMIs might be appointed to work with schools who are ‘charged with monitoring performance of schools in their area, getting to know head teachers and keeping an ear to the ground for good and bad practice in local schools.’
He goes on
With a truly independent Ofsted, this could provide valuable intelligence to the system, helping to spread good practice and advising Ofsted and the government on where intervention is needed at an earlier stage than tends to happen now.’
I agree with that. I want an Ofsted that is challenging of schools but is also fair and consistent in its approach.
Primary school places
I want to finish on the growing crisis in primary school places. Crisis is a word that is often overused by politicians but I use the word crisis very specifically. To be in a crisis is to be beyond capacity.
And it’s not just me saying there is a crisis.
Professor John Howson, a senior research fellow at Oxford University has warned that a shortage of places for five-year-olds “is the biggest problem facing schooling in Britain”.
This Government has failed to get a grip on this urgent crisis in primary school places.
This is the biggest crisis we currently face.
Half a million more places are needed by the next General Election. Children are being crammed into overcrowded buildings and portakabins and parents are missing out on their first choice of primary school.
But ministers are fiddling while Rome burns.
First, they cut spending on school capital by nearly two thirds – twice the Whitehall average.
Then, Ministers chaotically ended Labour’s own building programmes for primary and secondary schools, wasting valuable time and money.
Finally, they have delayed their own so-called Priority Building Programme three times. Schools expected to hear on their applications in December whether they would get money: now it’s May and still no news.
The Priority School Building Programme has been repeatedly delayed – the Government should get on with it. As part of Labour’s five point plans for jobs and growth we would prioritise these kind of projects to create construction jobs and new primary school places.
It doesn’t help that the Government wasted precious time in dealing with this urgent crisis.
Stephen Twigg MP