No School Left Behind - speech by Stephen Twigg

17 June 2013

Stephen TwiggStephen Twigg MP, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, said today at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts:

Thank you to Matthew and the team at the RSA for hosting us in this magnificent venue.

Your work in education is vital and your contributions are significant.

Your two reports ‘No School an Island’ and ‘Unleashing Greatness’ offer important answers to today’s exam question: How do we achieve an excellent school place for every child?

That’s what parents want to know.

I had the privilege of serving as the Minister for Schools between 2002 and 2005.

Education is a very personal passion.

I want to share with you a quote:

‘Education means a way to escape deprivation. It symbolises a better, more stable life for us and those who surround us.’

These are the words of the then 15 year old pupil who spoke at Labour Party Conference last year. She said:

‘I came to this country with nothing but the clothes on my back – a six year old political asylum seeker. I was powerless, hopeless. But what gets you through it is that in Britain we can change our fate; we can alter our future and mould it into whatever shape we want.

‘I discovered that the best way to do this is through education. To me education has a simple meaning. It’s simply a key. A key that will open a bright future. A key which betters me in every way. A key that nobody can take away from me.’

This is a very powerful message and one that was drummed into me by my late parents.

My Dad personified all that is great about education.
He spoke many languages, learning French and German at school before teaching himself Russian, Italian, Greek and at one point Catalan.

His constant pursuit and enquiry about how we build a better world left an indelible imprint on me and my sister.
Likewise my Mum’s determination to ensure we had the best education.

She came from a working class family, went to a grammar school but had to leave education at 15.

She didn't get the opportunity to go to university. I remember her telling us when we were very young, that door would not be closed off to us.

My journey in education, from Southgate Comprehensive school to Oxford University is one that is all too often the preserve of a narrow few.

It remains the case that social background is the biggest determinant of people’s life chances in this country.

Under the last Labour government we made important strides but admissions of working class children into Russell Group universities remain shamefully low. Unacceptably low.

And, as Ed Miliband and I have argued, there is currently no gold standard route through education for young people studying vocational education – their talents too often go unrecognised.

For too many people, the odds are stacked against them from day one.

I joined the Labour Party at 15 because I believe that politics is the pursuit of social justice.

The endeavour of opportunity for all- irrespective of your situation when you came into this world.

It is wrong that too many young people in this country are denied the education that I benefited from.

I am in politics to change this.

It’s what drives me.

It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

So how would a future Labour government deliver an excellent place for every child in every school?

I want to make three radical reforms.

First, where a school freedom promotes higher standards, we will extend those freedoms to all schools.

So if a freedom is afforded to an academy and it drives up standards, that freedom should be available to all schools.
A school should not have to change its status to earn the permission to innovate.

Second, no one cares more about a school than the community it serves.

Therefore, we will deliver a radical devolution of power from Whitehall.

It is not feasible, nor is it desirable, for thousands of schools to be accountable only to the Secretary of State.
Local communities will have a greater say about education in their area.

Third, we will ensure that every school plays its part to raise standards across their area and meet the needs of their community.

Schools working in collaboration. A proven recipe for success.

Networked schools in a networked world. No school left behind.

That’s how we raise standards across all schools.

As we look ahead, our starting point is an education system that is all too often talked down by politicians.

Yes, there are huge challenges but we start from a position of strength.

This is where Michael Gove gets it wrong.

He has invested so much into talking down the education system.

He has lost sight of the most important thing for driving standards forward: the people in our schools and classrooms across the country.

The professionals. They are the true enablers of promise.

Dragon Slaying

Michael Gove tells us he wants to slay the dragons that hold back our education system.

Now, I know the Secretary of State is a fan of Dungeons and Dragons, so he’s used to fighting make-believe battles in his living room, but this is no way to run our education system.

Although he has tried to cast himself as a warrior for freedom in our schools, Michael Gove is in fact the classic centraliser, an armchair general, taking back freedoms, undermining head teachers and centralising power around his desk in Sanctuary Buildings.

Of course there are problems in the system, but this is not the way to deal with them.

He tells us that decisions on schools are best made by central government, not the communities they serve.

He tells us that schools operate best as islands.

He tells us that the problem in the teaching profession is Qualified Status and that the answer is fewer qualified teachers.

Wrong.

He says look to Finland and Shanghai. Well let’s do that.
They have schools working in partnership, they have empowered their communities and they have dramatically raised the status of the teaching profession.

Freedoms for all schools

Labour will learn from the best schools systems around the world and bring order to the chaos Michael Gove has created in our schools system.

We will put an end to the fragmented, divisive system under this Government and ensure that every school can excel and every child is given a great education.

We know that giving schools more freedom over how they teach and how they run and organise their schools can help to raise standards.

Innovation excites, it uncovers new ideas and breathes life into the system.

Innovation challenges the historic inheritances that mean schools do things that way because they always have.

So why should we deny those freedoms to thousands of schools? All schools should have them – not just academies and Free Schools.

A school should not have to change its structure just to gain freedoms. In a One Nation system, freedoms would be granted to all schools and innovation would spread across the system.

So Labour will give all schools the same freedom over the curriculum that academies currently enjoy while continuing to insist that all schools teach a core curriculum including English, Maths and Science.

Academies say freedom to innovate in the curriculum has given their teachers a new sense of confidence and professionalism. All young people should benefit from the positive impact this brings – trusting teachers to get on with the job.

And where a maintained school wants to offer longer school terms so it can offer extra classes to improve results, why should they have to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops when academies can, working with parents, change their term dates to deliver better education? All schools should be able to do this so we will let them.

And school leaders, not politicians, know best what kind of ICT or speech therapy services they need for their staff and pupils. So just as academies can choose to buy in tailored support that better meets their needs, so should maintained schools.

We’ll give all schools, not just some, the option to shop around and get a great service for their school.

So, giving all schools freedoms to raise standards, this is key to a One Nation system where all schools are valued.

A devolved system

But while freedoms can play a key part in raising standards, we should never fall into the trap of simply equating structural change with school improvement.

Michael Gove does. That is why he plays a ‘numbers game’ with how many Free Schools and Academies there are – as if you simply change the type of school and standards magically improve.

If only it were that simple.

Contrary to the Government’s rhetoric, Free Schools and academies are not a panacea for school improvement.

We are seeing that they can and do underperform, just like other schools.

I believe that a key problem today is that academies and Free Schools are overseen only by central government.

The local authority does not have a clear role in monitoring and challenging their performance.

This might have been viable when there was a more focussed academy programme.

But you can’t run thousands of schools from Whitehall.
As the numbers of academies and Free Schools rise, underperformance and mismanagement are being spotted and acted on much too late.

Under this Government, local oversight only exists for maintained schools.

We need stronger local oversight for all schools so that struggling schools are spotted much sooner, local support is on hand to drive up standards, and schools have a clear relationship with their community.

Evidence shows that local challenge is important to drive school improvement.

In Shanghai, top of the 2009 PISA international league tables in reading, maths and science, there is strong oversight at local level – with district leaders working with schools to spread best practice – which is central to their school improvement.

Currently, too many schools are coasting, yet because he is fixated on academy conversion, Michael Gove has no credible plan to drive up standards in schools once they have become academies.

I pay tribute to the excellent work of many chains, like ARK and United Learning. But being part of an academy chain does not guarantee improvement.

Sir Michael Wilshaw has argued that there are real concerns about the quality of some chains.

So more local challenge to help drive improvement would benefit academies too.

We need to demonstrate that we put high school standards over and above any dogma regarding school structures.
That is why Labour introduced sponsor academies in the first place.

If sponsored academy status is the best solution for a failing school, it should happen.

But Labour also wouldn’t tolerate failing academies and Free Schools.

They should be held to the same high standard - any that fail will be given a chance to turn things around, or they will have to take on a new sponsor and leadership.

That is why today I am asking David Blunkett to lead a review into the local oversight of schools. He will look at the role of the local authority and how we better harness the positive benefits of interplay between central and local government.

For example, I am clear that local authorities should be able to issue early warning notices to academies and Free Schools, in the same way as they can for maintained schools, so underperformance is challenged early.

And local authorities should be the champion of children and parents in all schools - irrespective of their type. David will look at how we can provide a stronger local accountability framework for schools, respecting of course the autonomy of schools and the freedoms we will expand.

He will also recommend how we best give local communities a bigger say when new schools are being created.

Labour strongly believes parents have an important role to play in calling for and setting up new local schools.

As part of David’s review, he will be setting out the best way to encourage parent academies. Labour started the academies programme to bring outside energy and expertise into the schools system, we want to extend that to parents.

So David will examine how we harness that enthusiasm within the local community and use it to best effect to create more good schools.

Some of the best schools have been set up by brilliant teachers.

Like Peter Hyman’s School 21 and Patricia Sowter’s Woodpecker Primary School. And we have fantastic Head Teachers of maintained schools like Tim Sheriff who heads the outstanding Westfield School in Wigan.

Tackling disadvantage, raising standards and providing extra schools places where they are needed.

I want to see more schools like this.

Labour’s vision for creating new schools is:

*  One where parents and local communities will have a greater say.
*  Where priority is given to setting up new schools where they are needed most, particularly in areas with a shortage of places.
*  And it will be one where we insist on high standards for our children, with qualified teachers in every classroom.
*  Above all, it is a vision that will bind communities together, not divide them.

Compare that with Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy:

*  Under Michael Gove’s policy, he decides which schools open – even if communities don’t want them.
*  Under Michael Gove’s policy, millions have been spent opening schools in areas with a surplus of places, while children elsewhere face a shortage of places. This is not just wasteful, it is a scandal. It should be the first duty of any Education Secretary to ensure that every child has a place at one of their local schools.
*  Under Michael Gove’s policy, increasing numbers of schools are able to employ unqualified teachers. When we know the key to standards is the quality of teaching, this is the wrong approach.
*  Perhaps worst of all, Michael Gove’s policy has become a symbol of ideology and division. In some parts of the country, it has set school against school, and parent against parent.

That’s why Labour will not continue with Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy. Existing free schools and those in the pipeline will continue. But in future we need a better framework for creating new schools, like the vision I have set out above.

There will be no bias for or against a school type- so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools- all options.

A school system based on evidence not dogma.

That is what a One Nation schools system is about.

Networked schools in a networked world

No school left behind.

That means schools working together.

Working in collaboration to spread excellence.

We used to hear a lot from the Education Secretary on collaboration.

But he has failed to deliver on the commitments he set out in the 2010 White Paper. He promised to ensure that new academies supported other schools, but nearly two-thirds of academies are not in a partnership.

The evidence on school improvement, from home and abroad, demonstrates that partnerships and federations between schools are key to raising teaching standards, leadership skills, and sharing best practice.

Andreas Schleicher of the OECD argues that while more autonomous school systems are generally more successful than highly directed ones, there is a much stronger correlation between collaborative culture and system success. The lowest performing schools in the OECD have autonomy but no collaborative culture.

We need both.

As the Schools Minister I led a programme called The London Challenge.

The London Challenge was about us saying that we would not tolerate the persistent underperformance that led London to be one of the worst performing regions in the country.

Within the space of a decade, London schools have been transformed.

London now outperforms all other regions in secondary education.

This happened in no small part because of the focus on schools working together, in hard edged partnership.

Collaboration and partnership are often presented as 'softer' or 'cuddly' options.

Not the case with The London Challenge.

London Challenge advisors set clear and ambitious new standards. But they did so by working with heads and teachers to get buy in.

Where underperformance was identified, teachers would receive training and support from high performing colleagues in other schools.

Teaching was transformed. Crucially, the impact was not only felt by schools in receipt of the support, it was also felt by host schools.

Woodside High School in Tottenham embodies this story. Under the leadership of Joan McVittie, the school bought into the Challenge programme.

Teachers were coached and mentored by peers in other schools.

High expectations were set. A once failing school was transformed and in 2011 received an Outstanding rating from Ofsted.

I pay tribute to Joan, a true champion of high standards for all children.

There are great examples of school collaboration in place across the country.

The Bradford Secondary Schools partnership has bought together secondary schools in Bradford to develop a rigorous system of performance review, effective school-to-school support and school-led professional development.

Maintained schools and academies coming together to raise standards.

The Gipsy Hill Federation in South London is a collaboration between primary schools to drive up the quality of teaching and learning for their pupils.

Schools and communities are leading from the front.

In Suffolk, the RSA is right to argue in its Inquiry into underperformance that with devolution of power and responsibility to schools should come expectations for collaboration.

As Andreas Schleicher says, collaboration doesn’t just fall from the sky. Here there is an important role for central government.

As the enabler of collaboration.

That is why under Labour, we would make it a requirement for all schools to partner with weaker schools as a condition for attaining an Outstanding rating by Ofsted, taking forward the recommendation of the Academies Commission.

Academies have an important part to play here. That is why I would introduce greater emphasis with regard to collaboration in academy funding agreements.

Not new duties, but giving teeth to existing responsibilities.

Indeed, I also want to make sure that new academy funding agreements, and the renewal of existing ones, are subject to these schools demonstrating a real commitment to playing their part in collaborating with other schools in their community.

Every school too must play its part in ensuring fair admissions.

The comprehensive ideal, within a mixed economy of schools. That’s the challenge.

Research published by the Sutton Trust earlier this month highlights the scale of this challenge.

The findings are very concerning.

The research shows that the proportion of pupils from low income families at our top 500 comprehensives is less than half the national average.

More significantly, 95 per cent of the top 500 schools take fewer pupils on free school meals than their local average.
We are seeing social selection playing out in the system and this worries me deeply.

I am clear; this problem is not exclusive to any one type of school and it’s not a new one.

But its prevalence is plain to see and it must be confronted head on.

That is why I would bring forward changes to the Schools Admissions Code to allow all schools to prioritise disadvantaged children who are eligible for the Pupil Premium, a provision that currently exists only for academies.

I believe there is a strong case too for us to look again at the powers of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator for us to ensure that both the letter and the spirit of the Code are followed.

The appeals process for academies is at present, too opaque. I know that for most academies they will have nothing to fear about their admissions. In order to ensure greater transparency and parity, I would extend the powers of the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate academies and free schools on admissions.

Parents should not have to write to the Secretary of State to complain about their child’s school – they need a local voice.
Local authorities will also have the power to direct all schools to admit hard-to-place child.

All schools fulfilling their commitment to equitable access- both to the letter and in the spirit.

Today I have focused on three themes - Freedom, Devolution and Collaboration.

They matter because the evidence shows that they help deliver high standards. They support teachers and school leaders in achieving a high quality education.

So yes structures matter. But they only matter because good structures are the servants of high standards, never an end in themselves.

The key focus must remain how we raise the quality, status and morale of the teaching profession.

How we attract the best teachers and leaders to the most challenging schools.

How we forge a modern curriculum that unleashes innovation. How we close the appalling attainment gap between rich and poor.

No School Left Behind means that every school has a part to play in meeting these challenges.

That way every child - whatever their background- will get the best possible start in life.