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Improving School Leadership

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 10 September 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am pleased to have secured this important debate on how we can improve leadership in our schools. The purpose of this debate is not to criticise any of the heads in my constituency, or anywhere else for that matter, but to explore how we can build and improve on what we already have.

Every single teacher at whatever level, from newly qualified teacher to senior, experienced head, needs our thanks, support and praise for all they do to educate our children and teach our country’s next generation of wealth creators. My remarks, therefore, are designed to be constructive rather than critical, and I hope they will be heard in the spirit of constructive joint working.

Education is a vocation, and I know of no teacher anywhere who entered the profession for any reason other than to impart knowledge and support and nurture our young people. Teachers, and I hope all those listening to this debate, recognise that education is the greatest gift we can give. We have all heard that before, and I know it sounds corny, but the problem is that it is true because, once the gift of education has been given, it cannot be taken away—it does not break and it will not fade.

Education is the foundation stone on which one’s future success is built. It is the base from which almost anything is possible and from which people can realise their full potential. All that is delivered by some truly dedicated and inspirational people who are found at every level of education in some truly excellent schools. Good education comes from good schools, which from my experience are led by good leaders.

In my constituency we are fortunate. We have some truly exceptional school leaders. Yes, it is true that education in Basildon and Thurrock has not always been as good as it could have been, but the leaders that we now have in place, and the support structures that surround them, will deliver, and are delivering, improving education for my constituents. There are too many good leaders to name them all, but I will pay tribute to a couple.

First, I highlight the extraordinary dedication of Dr Sophina Asong, head teacher of Gable Hall school in Corringham. The area is like many others in the country, but unlike many areas—where the average proportion of five A* to C grades, including maths and English, is just under 60%—Gable Hall was pleased this year to achieve 74% with five A* to C grades, including maths and English. I say “pleased” but the school was not satisfied; it knows it can do better, and Dr Asong and her incredible staff assure me that things will get better. I am sure we want to see such dedication and determination in all our schools.

Dr Asong—I hope she will not mind my saying this—is a force of nature that I would like to see bottled and delivered to all parts of our school system, but I also pay tribute to the new principal of Woodlands school in Basildon, Karen Kerridge. She took over the leadership at possibly the most difficult time that the school has ever faced. Less than a year after a disastrous Ofsted report, Karen has come in and worked tirelessly to turn the school around.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is important that we have outstanding leaders. Will he join me in congratulating Guy Shears, who turned around RSA academy Arrow Vale in Redditch? Could such outstanding head teachers be used as mentors for other head teachers?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and add my congratulations to Guy on all his work. Yes, head teachers with such skills should be used more widely in our education system so that we maximise the potential benefit to the wider teaching community. Karen Kerridge did that, too. She came in from another school to try to help Woodlands, and it is remarkable that in less than a year she has turned the school around so that, rather than being inadequate, it now only requires improvement. That may not sound fantastic, but it is one of the fastest turnarounds of a school, and I am confident that under her leadership it may not be long before we once again have a good school, which would be entirely down to the fortitude and dedication of Karen and all her staff.

My hon. Friend has referred to getting good advice from other schools on improving performance. Is he aware that some schools have teaching school status? I draw his attention to Shenley Brook End school in my constituency, which has been a teaching school since 2012. The school’s leadership and training centre has helped guide and coach more than 2,000 teachers from 25 schools. Such centres are a good way of imparting leadership skills.

Teaching school status is an important part of improving the quality of teaching and the experience that teachers get before they go off into their own schools. That reform has been important, and it is an excellent innovation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I agree with everything he has said so far, which is good. Able leaders, as he rightly says, are important—I congratulate those in my constituency—and they need the best possible teams. Does he agree that there is a strong case for the most challenged schools serving some of our most disadvantaged areas to be able to pay teachers more than schools in other areas so that they attract the best to do the toughest job?

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is about the team. Successful schools tend to have a good head teacher with a good team around them, which is often down to the head teacher’s inspirational leadership. I agree that, where a school faces particular challenges, it is not a bad idea for it to be able to be flexible in the pay and conditions that it offers staff.

Speed is paramount, which is why the achievements at Woodlands school are so important. Students mostly get only one chance of an education, and for every day, week or month that they are not receiving a good education, we are doing them an incredible disservice, potentially damaging their future prospects and hampering their chances of reaching their full potential. We should celebrate the fact that Karen Kerridge has set the school back on the right path in less than a year, and we should thank her.

I would like to celebrate all the schools that are doing well in my constituency, but I am conscious of time and I want to hear what the Minister has to say. I am fortunate to have some great leaders who are helping to ensure that education in my constituency is improving, but unfortunately that is not the case everywhere. Unfortunately, there are too many schools that may not have the right leader with all the right skills and talents to deliver the kind of education that our children need, and often that is not the leader’s fault.

More than ever before, we have to deliver a world-class education, and we need able leaders to do that. It is a tough, difficult job that is not suitable for everyone. The job is different from any other in our education system. As the system is currently designed, however, if someone wants career progression, the obvious path is to head towards taking up a management role and, ultimately, their own headship.

But, as I said, being an inspirational, dynamic and consistent head teacher is like no other role in our education system. Head teachers have to manage complex and large budgets, perhaps a large staff body, premises and a range of other challenges. They are running medium-sized businesses, and they have to be able to deal with that fairly, consistently and in an orderly and professional manner, and many, many do. Despite all the training available and all the mentoring that can be given, we occasionally find that the wrong person has found themselves in an unsuitable job.

I suspect it is a bit like being an MP. Whatever a person imagines the job to be, it is not until they are actually in the hot seat that they fully understand everything it involves and know whether they are personally suited to it. However, an MP can step down at an election and pursue a different path without it being the end of their working life, but head teachers who feel they are in the wrong role have nowhere to go, which can cause problems both for them and for the school.

There are three options when that happens, none of which is a satisfactory solution. First, if the governors recognise that the wrong person is in the job they can initiate capability proceedings, which is a painful, devastating and destabilising experience for all involved, including the staff and students. It may force out of the profession an otherwise excellent teacher, which is a loss both for them and for the wider education system. Nobody gets to be a head teacher without being a good teacher and an asset to the system, and it would be a shame to lose all their talents simply because they lack some of the talents required to do a specific job.

Secondly, there is the “do nothing” option: the school coasts along, slowly declining, because the issue is put on the “too difficult to tackle” pile. Supporters of the school increasingly have to defend the declining performance and prop up the senior management team until finally a devastating Ofsted report is published that presents incontrovertible evidence that the school is not performing as it should. Suddenly, the head teacher is vilified and forced to leave the school and probably the profession, possibly to retire. Again, the damage done can be incalculable for the school, which may have failed students for years; for the head teacher, who has left a profession they probably love; and for the community they served, which feels let down.

Finally, there is the “hope and pray” approach: the governors hope the individual will move on or retire while they try to support those around the head until things get better. Unfortunately, that rarely happens, so one of the other options is usually adopted.

The problem with all those approaches is that even if the ultimate outcome is good, it can take years to deliver. However, there is no time to waste when delivering education. We need a system that supports great teachers, and encourages and nurtures fantastic leaders, but is fleet of foot enough to act rapidly if somebody finds themselves in a role they are not suited for and does not result in their having to leave the profession.

I turn to the role of the governors and the governing body. Having been a governor, I know how dedicated, selfless and hard-working they are. The role is becoming ever more demanding and requires a high degree of professionalism to be carried out well. Governors are the unsung heroes of our education system, and I want to thank them personally for what they do and apologise if they feel my earlier remarks were critical of them. The problem is that, as schools’ independence increases, the role of the governing body grows in importance, and it falls to the governors to hold the head and the school to account more than ever before.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is making an important and excellent point about the impact of not taking action. I want to strengthen his point by saying that if governing bodies do not make that decision early, it becomes a much bigger problem for them, the school and the wider community.

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent point. I was just coming to that issue. He is entirely right that speed is important, but that means that governors have to make some difficult decisions.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that schools serving the most disadvantaged communities often find it hard to get the governors they need for the accountability process? One of the best things businesses can do to help our education system is to encourage more members of staff to become governors in such schools.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. He admirably covered a point that I included in my speech. MPs have a role to play in that process. We should write to the larger organisations in our constituencies to remind them that they and the wider community benefit when they allow their staff to lead schools and play a part in the local community. That excellent point cannot be repeated too often.

For governors who lead schools that have greater independence, it is becoming harder to be all friends together. They may duck away from making tough or unpleasant decisions if they are too close to the senior management team and the head. I am not criticising governors, but I want to ensure they are equipped with the tools they need to play their important role of ensuring the leadership of our schools is the best it can be.

The Government have done much to improve our education system, for which I am grateful. I therefore hope the Minister considers my remarks to be a useful addition to the debate that will help us ensure our schools have the best possible leaders. People who find themselves in the wrong role should have constructive options open to them that do not result in their leaving the profession. We must equip our governors with the right tools to help that change happen. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on securing the debate and on making his case so powerfully. I agree with his points about national education policy and the importance of good leadership and governance. I am delighted that he picked today to hold this debate because this morning the Government announced a series of further measures to strengthen school leadership. He had extraordinary foresight in securing this opportunity, which allows me to put on the record some of the announcements we made today.

I am pleased to hear about the progress made by a number of the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I join him in congratulating the schools whose success he celebrated. He mentioned Gable Hall school, which secured a good set of GCSE results this year. A signal of its success is the fact that it does not see that as an end destination, but as something to build on; it is fantastic that it still wants to aim higher. Woodlands school, which came from a different starting point, has moved out of the “inadequate” category into “requires improvement” in a short period of time. Like my hon. Friend, I wish it well in moving further up to “good” and beyond in the future. It can be a difficult and time-consuming process to take over and turn around schools in the bottom category, so it is good that that happened so quickly.

I was also pleased to hear from other hon. Friends about the progress of schools in their areas—both in Redditch and in some of the teaching schools in the country. I agree with the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) about the need to ensure that schools in some of our more disadvantaged communities have the resources and flexibility to pay more to attract outstanding leaders and teachers.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock struck the right balance when he praised the schools that are doing well. If we are to be listened to in Westminster when we talk to schools that are not doing so well and challenge them to do better, we must show that we have balance and are willing to praise success as well as pick up the schools that are not doing so well. My hon. Friend was right not to be complacent in that regard. He has many outstanding schools in his constituency, including Great Berry primary school, Lee Chapel primary school and the children’s support centre at Langdon Hills, which are all rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. However, 16, or 44%, of the schools in his constituency are in the “requires improvement” category, which used to be “satisfactory”.

My hon. Friend is right that Ofsted is sending out a clear signal, for the reasons that he gave. We no longer accept that satisfactory is good enough. Most young people get only one chance at education, so it has to be high-quality. Therefore, where schools could be doing better and require improvement, we should be challenging and supporting them to do so in exactly the way that he described, and that is also why we have introduced some changes today, which I will outline shortly.

I commend not only the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency but the excellent work of schools and school leaders right across the country. Those leaders have been turning around schools with their commitment, dedication and unrelenting focus on pupil outcomes. Leading a school is a very challenging role to take on, but it is also absolutely critical. It is very rare to find an outstanding school that does not have outstanding leadership.

Great school leaders can transform schools, but they cannot do so alone. They need their staff to engage in the pursuit of educational excellence, and of course part of a school leader’s job is to motivate and inspire staff and to recruit high-quality staff. That is why great school leaders are at the heart of this Government’s education reform programme.

Our schools White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, put schools and school leaders in the driving seat of our reforms and gave them more powers and more support. It set out our vision for a self-improving school system whereby our best schools and leaders drive improvement from within, working together to spread best practice, knowledge and experience, to the benefit of all schools.

We have made good progress on that agenda and we should celebrate the incredible achievements of schools, teachers and pupils, not only in my hon. Friend’s constituency but across the country. Schools in England are now performing better than ever before. Ofsted figures show that 83% of schools in England have achieved good or outstanding ratings for leadership and management, with 80% of schools in England now judged to be good or outstanding overall.

The sophistication and diversity of school leadership across England has also grown and matured over many years, with new approaches emerging in multi-academy trusts and elsewhere. For example, sponsored academy chains are pioneering new kinds of leadership development. Schools everywhere can learn a good deal from the approach taken by chains of three or more sponsored academies, whereby they can grow their own leadership. In this type of school, middle and senior leaders enjoy more opportunities for both internal and external coaching and mentoring. These chains also tend to have a chief executive who is actively engaged with developing leaders, establishing a culture of ambition and success for staff.

At a national level, the Government have invested in professional qualifications for middle leadership, senior leadership and aspiring heads. Since some of these programmes were launched in March 2013, more than 5,200 participants have commenced the middle leader programme, and more than 5,400 participants have commenced the senior leader programme. In addition, more than 2,300 aspirant head teachers have commenced the headship programme since its relaunch in autumn 2012, with a further 640 commencing the programme this autumn. Feedback from participants shows that these programmes help to prepare our school leaders of the future and enable them to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence that they need to thrive in their schools.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about ensuring that we have head teachers in place who are fully equipped to carry out the role successfully and to support all pupils in their care. That is why excellent school governance, which he also spoke about, is paramount. It is essential that school governors have the right skills and knowledge to support and challenge the performance of head teachers, which is why we are also investing in more effective school governance. Our national leaders of governance programme identifies highly effective chairs of governors, who use their skills and experience to support chairs of governors in other schools and academies, to increase leadership capacity and improve school performance.

Of course, we need many thousands of governors right across the country, which is a huge recruitment challenge, not least, as the right hon. Member for Oxford East indicated, in more disadvantaged communities, where we have to ensure that the quality of governance is very high. He was quite right to say that we need to call on businesses, other professional groups and other groups with people who have high aspirations who are willing to become governors and chairs of governors in these areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock may have seen that we have also convened a review group made up of highly respected professionals to review head teacher standards, to ensure that those standards set out the behaviour, qualities and knowledge expected of modern head teachers.

The Government also recognise that some schools face particularly challenging circumstances. This is why we are funding the Teaching Leaders charity and the Future Leaders Trust, so that they can work closely with staff in schools serving disadvantaged communities. Teaching Leaders identifies and develops middle leaders, such as heads of department or year, to improve teaching in the most challenging schools and for the pupils who will benefit most from such improvement. Owing to the impact that the programme has demonstrated, we recently expanded its provision in secondary schools so that more children can benefit from it. From this month, a new Teaching Leaders programme for the primary sector starts, which will benefit some 160,000 children by developing the skills of their middle leaders.

By funding the Future Leaders Trust, we are also developing the skills of aspiring head teachers who want to work in some of the most challenging schools in the country. So far, 85 participants in the Future Leaders programme have gone on to become head teachers in these challenging schools, many of which are outside London and in areas where other school improvement initiatives in the past have been less prevalent.

We are going even further than that, which is why I am particularly delighted that we have this debate today. Only this morning, we launched the new Talented Leaders programme, which is designed to transform the life chances of pupils in the areas of greatest need across the country, where we do not have enough outstanding schools or enough outstanding head teachers.

This new programme will recruit 100 outstanding deputy heads and heads to lead schools in some of the most challenging communities, where there is a shortage of good leadership. We are starting recruitment today, and the first placements will start in September 2015 and September 2016. Those placements are designed to be voluntary—we will engage the parts of the country that most need them—and to be long-term initiatives, not short-term initiatives, to grow the leaders in the schools that we put them into.

I urge hon. Friends and hon. Members who think that their constituencies are in parts of the country that have a shortage of outstanding leadership to consider applying for their areas to be part of this programme, so that we can get some of these outstanding leaders to the parts of the country where they are most needed.

Another reason why we have this close focus on school leadership is the impact that such leadership has on driving better outcomes for our most vulnerable children and young people. Great school leaders achieve great outcomes for all their pupils, whatever their background. To do that, they close the gap in achievement between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. This issue is close to my heart and the heart of the Government, which is why we are very proud to have helped to introduce the pupil premium. It was introduced in 2011 and has now risen to £2.5 billion per year, providing a massive amount of resources in schools with disadvantage, to ensure that all those schools have the money they need to try to close that gap.

The recent Ofsted report on the use of the pupil premium highlighted increasingly good practice in the schools that are using this money very effectively, to close the gap between them and other schools. We are committed to giving schools freedom in how they use the pupil premium; but through the Ofsted process, we will hold them to account, to ensure that the gap is closed. Our best school leaders are now driving improvements, which can be seen not only in the expansion of academies and free schools but in the increase in the number of schools across the country that are supporting other schools.

Teaching schools were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart). They are outstanding schools that have a strong track record of working with other schools to bring about improvement. They are the principal network through which support and development for middle and senior leadership is now being offered. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education announced the 600th teaching school in England, which is a fantastic milestone in a programme that is less than four years old.

As part of this morning’s announcement, which I referred to earlier, we recognised the achievements of both the national leaders of education programme and the national support schools programme. The fantastic success of those programmes comes down to the excellent school leaders who have come forward to take on roles in them, collaborating with and supporting staff in other schools that require improvement or that are in special measures, to try to help them to improve.

Today, I announced our intention to increase the number of NLEs from the present figure of 1,000 to 1,400 by March 2016, to ensure that more schools and more parts of the country can benefit from NLEs, because at the moment—sadly—there are too few of them in large parts of the country, and consequently schools and local authorities in those areas that need more support find it difficult to identify those individuals.

We also announced today a new school-to-school support fund, which will be worth £13 million over the next two years and which will help to fund those NLE deployments, so that the schools that have NLEs will receive money to help them to support other schools.

I note that Susan Jackson and her staff at the Lee Chapel primary school, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock, work in their roles as an NLE national support school and teaching school, collaborating with other schools to drive pupil outcomes. I am very grateful to teaching schools across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which are doing this excellent work.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is not only very important for his constituents but very timely, given the actions that the Government are taking. I hope that in the future we can build on this strategy across the country, including in his constituency, so that even more schools can achieve good and outstanding ratings.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).