Speech – Annual Conference of the Association of School & College Leaders
Birmingham, 12 March 2022
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Thank you to Pepe, Geoff, Julie and your team for making me feel so welcome today.
Geoff, I know you have been a reassuring voice of calm and reason these last two years cutting through the chaos and providing invaluable support to school and college leaders in these difficult times.
Your weekly bulletins have made life that bit smoother for headteachers and principals, during a period like no other.
And you have done so with a positivity that must have been severely tested.
I look forward to working with you and ASCL in the coming months and years.
When the story of this pandemic is written, NHS workers, and those who developed vaccines so fast, will deservedly get many of the accolades.
But I believe alongside them there should be a proud place, for those who work in our schools and colleges – the headteachers, principals, senior leaders, teachers, lecturers, support staff.
It is you who have kept young people going throughout extraordinary and difficult circumstances.
Who have helped with their wellbeing.
Stepped in when free school meals were not being paid.
Undertaken extra safeguarding checks for the children most at risk.
Moved lessons online.
Provided technology for those without.
Supported the most vulnerable.
Turned your schools into testing centres.
Coped with a never-ending exam fiasco.
Kept going when staff absences got above 10, 20, 30% – in some cases more.
You have absorbed the stress of the community.
Comforted bereaved families.
Provided a safe space for reflection.
And through it all, given each teacher and each group of children the best chance of continuing to learn.
You deserve our heartfelt thanks. You have been true heroes.
Sadly, your life has been made so much more difficult and more stressful, by having to deal with a chaotic patchwork of promises and guidance – often at the last minute, often too late to pre-empt every school and college in the country having to make up their own policies.
When clear, focused, government leadership was needed in response to the pandemic there was a vacuum.
No plan, no direction. No ambition.
And when a clear, focused plan for recovery was needed – again, nothing.
Sir Kevan Collins’ plan was rejected out of hand by a Chancellor who told us he had “maxed out” on support for our children, and education ministers who didn’t make the case for investment in our children’s future.
Time and again, for this government, our children are an afterthought.
So I take on my role at a time when we need to raise our sights as a country.
Ambitious Leadership is the theme of this conference.
And now is the time for it.
I know so many of you have reflected deeply on the last two years, and want something better for young people.
If we are to come back stronger after the pandemic, then part of the renewal is to ask bigger and bolder questions.
When forty percent of teachers leave the profession within four years, we need to ask how we make this profession so rewarding and stimulating, that teachers want to stay?
When take up of the creative arts has plummeted, we need to ask questions about the balance in the curriculum.
When one in three children leave primary school below the standards we want them to reach in English and Maths, and a third leave school without vital qualifications, we need to ask how we redouble our efforts to ensure every child leaves education both ready for work and ready for life.
When five years after leaving school, more than a quarter of disadvantaged children end up outside sustained education, employment or training, we need to ask why we don’t have a better model for tackling inequality and creating opportunity.
The biggest question of all is how can we enable every young person both to achieve and to thrive.
For me that’s about seeing every individual as both extraordinary and multi-dimensional – the capacity to inspire, collaborate, create, think, perform, talk, is the great wonder of humanity.
We see that emerging in the early years classroom, captured in the early learning goals that span basic skills, understanding of the world, and social and emotional development.
Yet as children grow up, that balance changes. School becomes more, not less, narrow.
And that narrowing turns too many young people off learning which is a problem for their future, and for all of our futures.
We must retain the breadth of the early years throughout a child’s journey through education.
Our world is increasingly polarised by seemingly binary choices. Debate quickly becomes dogmatic, along those fault lines.
Education is no different.
But I have no time for these false choices.
I make no apology for being determined to see young people achieve academically, and just as important, I want them to thrive in life.
Supporting children to develop the literacy and numeracy skills they need is central to education.
And so is supporting them to become ambitious, creative, confident young people who enjoy music, arts, sport, and culture.
As someone who loved studying history, I celebrate the incredible work of our teachers and lecturers who bring knowledge alive for the next generation.
Knowledge is essential, but so is the ability to apply that rich knowledge to the real world, so young people learn communication, collaboration and problem solving skills, and understand the difference they can make.
That is why Keir Starmer has announced Labour’s Council of Skills Advisors, to support us in ensuring every young person receives a rounded education that instils a love of learning while equipping them with the skills they need for work and for life.
Because children need to achieve so they go on to succeed, and they also need to thrive as human beings so they can flourish as adults.
We want children to be happy and to be successful.
The increasingly narrow focus, often designed to hit what many feel to be arbitrary benchmarks, is not beneficial to young people, and not beneficial for our society or our country.
We need to get behind you – the school leaders – who I know want to nurture creative subjects, enrichment opportunities and a rounded education but often have to go against the grain of the accountability structures currently in place.
That is why we must ensure that school improvement and school accountability work better together – with peer to peer learning in particular, recognized for its value, encouraged, and developed between schools and leaders.
In a week that marks thirty years since Ofsted was created, we should remember the remarkable improvements in schools and colleges in that time.
The “long tail of underachievement” we saw when inspections started has now largely gone.
The fact that 85% of schools are good or outstanding, in Ofsted terms, is testimony to the huge efforts and hard work of school leaders and teachers across the country over these last three decades.
Here in this room, you have put your shoulders to the wheel to achieve that, and I thank all of you.
But I want to highlight too the political choices – the focus, the investment, the ambition, and the sense of priority and urgency – which the last Labour government made, after years of Conservative neglect, and which unlocked and enabled that achievement.
So what next?
Let me be clear. Labour believes that inspection has been part of that success.
An independent schools inspectorate, with chief inspectors not beholden to ministers, unafraid to speak their minds, is a sign of a mature and confident education system.
But to be supportive of Ofsted’s role, is not to believe it cannot be better.
For one thing, it is hardly surprising if the Ofsted we need tomorrow is different from the Ofsted we needed 30 years ago.
For another, the way inspections operate makes teachers, leaders and lecturers too often feel punished rather than supported.
Getting the best out of people means respecting their professionalism, and supporting improvement, as well as challenging their performance.
And of course, the way in which schools are funded, managed, and structured, has changed entirely in that time.
Multi-academy trusts have become central to how many schools are run and how they perform, but inspection of them is missing.
At the same time, and in too many cases, local authorities have responsibilities that matter, but without the powers to deliver.
All of that has to change.
Ofsted should be a critical friend to every good leader and every good teacher.
The sort of friend who tells you the truth from which others might flinch.
Yet Ofsted still operates in a way that is often too high stakes, and where the risks of a ‘bad’ inspection outweigh the rewards of a good one.
A cat and mouse game between inspectors and schools, with no incentive to have an honest professional dialogue, to accept weakness and work to address it, are the unhelpful features of such an adversarial system.
That should concern the government as much as it concerns schools.
So change needs to happen.
Labour is not in the business of disrupting good schools.
We need a focus on supporting and improving struggling schools and spreading best practice.
So the way we assess performance has to fit the educational landscape of today and tomorrow, not yesterday.
We have to be clear what inspection is for.
For children, to ensure they get the start they deserve, the chance to achieve and to thrive.
For teachers, to learn and develop, ensuring they are supported to deliver those opportunities every child needs.
For parents, so we have independent and trusted information about the performance of our child’s school.
For the system as a whole, that responsibility sits at the right level, with multi-academy trusts properly accountable for the provision within schools.
The triggers for intervention and the way the whole system operates need to be more in line with those purposes.
We need to see more of a focus on the schools that need support to improve.
We need inspections of every part of the school system that can be a locus for improvement and a force for change.
Inspections where the intensity of the experience is reasonable and proportionate.
That point teachers to the support they need to improve.
That consider the broad context for schools and recognize when progress is being made.
And we need assessments that celebrate what’s great as well as identify what’s not.
I said that this is the year Ofsted turns thirty.
It’s time for Ofsted to turn a corner.
And we need wider change.
Labour has already started to set out the direction in which we want to take our schools and our colleges.
We have announced a National Excellence Programme for schools and we will pay for that by ending the tax exemptions for private schools.
It will mean a teacher recruitment fund, to recruit and train over six and a half thousand new teachers, filling vacancies and skills gaps; establishing an Excellence in Leadership programme, to support new headteachers throughout their first years on the job; and a teacher development programme, to enable all leaders and teachers to access continuing professional development.
Because we believe that investment in our young people, includes investing in you.
And I have to say, the contrast with yesterday’s announcements from the Secretary of State is stark.
So little to offer a profession that has given so much, and a generation that has lost so much.
We see things very differently.
We believe in supporting children’s recovery from the pandemic, because their future is going to be all of our futures.
It matters for the children who have been deprived of opportunities during lockdown.
And it matters for the country we want to build.
The evidence is very clear about the longer-term damage that will be caused to our economy, to wider society, and to the opportunities and life chances of our young people, if we don’t invest now and get this right.
That’s why this is such a priority for Labour.
Labour’s Children’s Recovery Plan means small group tutoring, breakfast clubs and activities for every child, quality mental health support for children in every school, professional development for teachers, and targeted extra investment for those young people who struggled most with lockdown.
The drumbeat of news about the failures of the government’s National Tutoring Programme shows all too clearly the perils of ministerial arrogance, of not bothering to listen to school leaders about what works.
In this recovery, we also need to pay special attention to the early years.
We knew this long before Covid but now we need to redouble our efforts.
Children who joined reception classes in September will have lived more than half their lives under the pandemic.
In many cases, they have not had the chance to explore, socialise, develop vital skills, in nurseries or play groups, all of which will matter – right throughout school, and right throughout their lives.
As we move on from the pandemic we need not just to get children’s recovery right, but to put education once more at the heart of our ambition for Britain.
Because what’s clear is that for this government it isn’t there.
You heard the paucity of their ambition yesterday.
The Conservatives are failing a generation of our children, and they’re not even ashamed of it.
Our future depends on unleashing the ingenuity, problem solving, community-building, ability of our people.
The only way we will build the Britain we want to see, bringing opportunity to every corner of our country, is by harnessing the creativity, know-how, technology and innovation to create the high skilled jobs of the future.
And to do that education has to be world class.
Keir Starmer has staked out the three guiding principles of this national renewal: security, prosperity, and respect.
Education is crucial to each.
A good education, with strong foundations in the basics, provides the platform of security for young people.
An education that fosters creative thinking, and ensures every child leaves education ready for work and ready for life, is the route for individuals and nations to become more prosperous.
And respect is about how we respect the worth of every person – ensuring that whatever your background, whatever your needs, you are given the opportunity to think big, to spread your wings, to seize opportunities.
Ultimately, education is about opportunity.
So when Keir asked me to become shadow secretary of state for education, I was honoured and delighted.
Because my own life has been a lesson in the power of education.
My local state school in the North East completely transformed my life.
My mam brought me up on her own, so times were often hard for her as a single parent in the 1980s.
We didn’t always have it easy but in other ways I know I was lucky.
I had a family where I was supported to read, where education was valued and encouraged, and I look back now and feel how fortunate I’ve been.
I went to a school where my teachers were fiercely ambitious for me and my friends, because they believed in the value and worth of every single one of us.
They had high expectations and saw no reason why either our ambition or our achievements should not meet them.
So I was lucky. But life should not come down to luck.
Too many children are held back by virtue of where they’re born, their circumstances and family background.
My priority will be to see that change.
Government should not temper, but match, the ambition of our young people.
I will bring that sense of ambition and those expectations with me to government, to champion every child’s learning and wellbeing, delivering enriching childhoods, which support every young person to succeed.
I want every child to benefit from a brilliant education which instils in them a love of learning carried throughout their life.
Because when I meet parents and pupils, teachers, and lecturers headteachers, principals or employers – there is a clear consensus about what needs to happen next.
They all want us to be more ambitious.
To offer young people a rounded education, one that develops all their human faculties – a rich mix of knowledge, skills and abilities – one that gives young people the chance to shape their life rather than having life done to them, one that delivers academic success alongside enriching experiences.
It is that which will give every child the chances they deserve, and it is that which will make a world class education a reality.
Thank you for all your extraordinary efforts over these last two turbulent years.
I look forward to working with you all, to make the change we need, the reality we see.