If, as looks likely, the Labour Party is elected to government this year, Bridget Phillipson will become the Secretary of State for Education.
I recently met Bridget at the House of Commons to discuss the future of Ofsted and the whole system of inspection and accountability in the English Education system.
Following that meeting, Bridget was kind enough to invite me, a few days later, to listen to her speech on education recovery at the Centre for Social Justice
The speech was clear and forceful and it was heartening to hear her emphasise that, if elected, she would be unrelenting in her demand for high expectations for all children and young people.
My first impressions of this new politician are entirely positive and I have no doubt that Bridget will be a transformational Education Secretary.
I think she will bring energy and ideas to the job as well as providing stability of leadership to a Department of Education which has seen such a rapid and, in my view, unhealthy turnover of ministers in the last ten years.
Bridget is committed to renewing the relationship with the teaching profession so that a productive partnership can be forged to tackle the education and training challenges of the 21st century. This is so important because confidence needs to return to a profession which is struggling to recruit staff at all key stages and phases.
Head teachers, in particular, will welcome a Secretary of State who can empathise with their problems but will also be able, through a reformed accountability system, to challenge them to raise standards for all children and young people.
Indeed, Bridget, an Oxford graduate from a poor, working class background in the NE of England, is the product of a state education. I know she wants the same opportunities for all young people and will be demanding of those in our education system, charged with providing them.
I sense an inner steel and determination in Bridget which will serve her well when confronting the inevitable opposition from those in the education establishment who are too often content with the status-quo and mediocre standards in our schools. Bridget will be no pushover!!
OFSTED, England’s Inspectorate and the principal arbiter of national standards will, therefore, have to step up and reform. It has lost the confidence and trust of too many teachers and school leaders, not only because of the tragic case of Ruth Perry but also because the inspectorate is seen as an impediment to school improvement rather than its facilitator.
Bridget has made it clear that she believes the present one word grading system is unfit for purpose because it provides too little information to parents and masks too many weaknesses which would otherwise be identified in a longer and more detailed report card.
I agree with her!
Even in a school that is judged to be “Good” (and Ofsted states that nearly 90% of schools are “Good”) there will be areas for development which need to be highlighted to parents and addressed by the head teacher and leadership group of the school.
The danger of a blunt “Good” one word summary judgement is that parents can easily be misled that everything is fine in a school when that is often far from the case. Weaknesses in the school can be “glossed-over” and school leaders not properly held to account. In other words, a one word judgement can lead to complacency and, ironically, act as an impediment to school improvement.
Of course, the judgements of “Requires Improvement” and “Special Measures” are devastating to a school community and make it much harder to recruit students and high-quality staff. As a result, the cycle of underperformance and failure can go on much longer than is really necessary.
The new Chief Inspector will need to work closely with Bridget and her team to restore confidence in the Inspectorate and to develop an evaluation system which not only provides more information to parents on the performance of a school but also clearly identifies those institutions which require some form of intervention and support.
I’m sure Bridget will insist that the Inspectorate reports more regularly and comprehensively on student attendance both regionally and at school level. The Covid legacy of persistent absenteeism by too many students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, is now a crisis for our schools and our education system. Standards will not rise until and unless this is urgently addressed.
There are no easy answers but the correlation between absenteeism and disengagement from the curriculum-offer that we present to many of our students can no longer be ignored. A knowledge-rich curriculum and one which equips our young people for the world of work should not be mutually exclusive aspirations.
We have ignored the needs of the ‘forgotten third’ of students who see themselves as failures in our education system, for far too long. The result is not only persistent absenteeism from our schools but also increasing levels of disruption and poor student behaviour particularly in the 14-19 age range.
I know Bridget is keen to initiate a wide-ranging curriculum review to ensure every school and educational institution offers a balanced and high-quality curriculum for the many and not the few. This is long overdue. If successful, the review can help to shape the long-term future for our education system so that it can be seen as internationally competitive and inclusive.
I wish Bridget well in this manifesto for change and reform.
Sir Michael Wilshaw