Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

It takes two...

Ed Balls

Secretary of State Ed Balls told delegates at the ASCL annual conference that he has just two priorities for the education system. In this excerpt from his speech, he tells how he plans to work with ASCL members to achieve them.

I only have two priorities. First, I want us to work together to continue to raise standards in all your schools and colleges - so that people in every community can have a choice of good local schools.

Second, I want to do everything we can to break the link between deprivation and poor attainment that has scarred our country for so many decades - so that every child and young person can fulfil their potential. That's it. These are my priorities.

First, over the past decade, standards have risen dramatically in our schools. Today:

  • over 100,000 more children now leave primary school secure in English and maths at level 4 than a decade ago.

  • almost half of young people now achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths compared to just over a third in 1997.

  • the number of secondary schools below our basic benchmark of at least 30 per cent of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and maths has gone from over half in 1997 to one in seven today.

The idea that you have to look at private schools teaching the iGCSE if you want to see pupils being really stretched isn't just out of touch with the reality of our education system, but it also undermines the brilliant work being done by many of our best school leaders.

Instead of knocking schools, let's congratulate our best independent and state schools for their hard work, their dedication and their success.

We do know of course that there is still further to go until:

  • every child is secure in the basics when they leave primary school

  • every young person gets the qualifications and skills they need

  • every school is a good school

  • deprivation isn't a barrier to any child or young person achieving their potential

To get there, we have to do more to support our best school and college leaders and put them to work across the schools system. We have to intensify our focus on personalised learning and tracking the progress of every child.

We must ensure that the accountability system recognises and rewards all of the work that schools do to help children and young people achieve their potential. And finally we need to focus on the schools that need the most support.

And this is what we are doing; by enabling greater collaboration between schools by expanding our National Leaders in Education programme to 500 schools and with our new National Challenge Trusts; with our one-to-one tuition and catch-up programmes and the greater focus that schools can now place on progress in years 7 and 8; and by ensuring that our best school and college leaders get the rewards they deserve; and that the accountability system focuses on stretching the brightest pupils, giving extra support to those who have fallen behind or have special educational needs and encouraging schools to collaborate.

These are big ambitions. And that does mean that we have to be uncompromising.

I refuse to stand back and watch low attainment get entrenched. That was why - controversially I know - we launched our National Challenge programme last summer.

I know some of you will have seen some of the headlines and thought: why isn't this like the London Challenge where there was lots of extra support?

But as I have been told by our schools director-general many times, the Evening Standard headline on the day that London Challenge was launched was '50 London schools set to close'.

And like London Challenge, National Challenge isn't about school closures. At least a third of the schools below our benchmark have great leadership, are already improving and will get above the target with very little extra support.

A further third will get there with some support - and that's what we are providing through the £400 million we are investing in National Challenge schools. We have now agreed plans in all areas of the country where there are National Challenge schools - including where more radical solutions are needed.

But and at the heart of our whole approach are, again, our great school leaders. Because as you have shown over the past decade, with strong leadership and with the right support, it is possible to overcome even the most difficult circumstances and help all young people to achieve.

When some people say it just isn't possible to raise standards in some schools in some communities, when they say that this is all you can expect from young people from around here; or when some young people are simply written off as social misfits; I say that is totally unacceptable.

And I certainly don't see any real school leaders doing that.

Which brings us to my second priority, breaking the link between deprivation and attainment.

Our new Breaking the Link evidence report shows that over the past ten years, at the area level, faster progress has been made by the most deprived areas: of the 20 local authorities making the most progress, nine are in the most deprived areas of the country.

And at the school level the most deprived schools - those with more than 50 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals - have seen a 19 per cent rise in pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths, compared to a 10 per cent rise in the least deprived schools.

Therefore, at the area level and at the school level, we are clearly breaking the link between deprivation and attainment. But it is at the individual level that the challenge is the greatest.

Our evidence report also shows that over a quarter of all free school meal pupils are in secondary schools with below average levels of deprivation.

So breaking the link really is everybody's business, and that means schools in urban and rural areas, in disadvantaged areas but also those in relatively affluent areas.

Indeed as our report shows, the greatest challenge of all is actually in schools where average results are good and there are fewer free school meal pupils but where the attainment gap is the biggest of all.

To really narrow the gap we need to have a stronger pupil focus. As my department prepares to publish our white paper on 21st century schools, this is a challenge to me to do more to support you.

You have made - and will continue to make - the biggest difference. It's my job to support you in what I believe is our shared moral purpose of excellence and opportunity for all, not just the few.

SoS: Your questions to the secretary of state

In the question and answer session following the secretary of state's speech Carin Taylor, principal of Soham Village College, asked: "If you have only two priorities, why are you burdening schools with so many additional initiatives? We have the implementation of diplomas, A level and GCSE changes, wellbeing, community cohesion and much, much more. We can barely cope. With the ever-growing list, how do you expect school leaders to keep their focus on the main priority of raising standards?"

The secretary of state said in response: "There is certainly a challenge to us to stay focused - you are right about that. I told John Dunford that I would stick to the agenda in the Children's Plan and I intend to do that. I welcome John's challenge, and your challenge, to keep to that agenda."

As a follow-up question, Alan Chambers, head of North Manchester School for Boys, said: "Whilst we all want to raise standards in our schools and welcome the additional funding that National Challenge brings, how can you justify the totally arbitrary 30 per cent five A*-C cut-off point which has suddenly and very publicly labelled as failures many good schools which have improving GCSE results, excellent CVA and good Ofsted reports?"

The secretary of state said: "I appreciate that some schools felt that the way the National Challenge played out in the media was unfair. But I am clear that we must set uncompromising objectives and do all we can to support schools to get there. I am convinced that this is the right thing to do."

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