Ofsted chief links divide in education to ‘malaise’ behind Brexit vote


Schoolchildren receive their GCSE results

The head of the schools watchdog has linked the Brexit vote to the failure to raise education standards in parts of England.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, speaking before the publication of the Ofsted annual report on Thursday, highlighted the continuing geographical divide in education, with schools in the north and east Midlands continuing to lag behind those in London and the south.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the failure to improve schools in some areas may have contributed to the feeling of alienation and a sense of a “divided nation” that was exposed by the referendum vote to leave the EU earlier this year.

He also made clear he believed that schools should not be used as a border control by the Home Office. Commenting on a report based on documents leaked to the BBC showing that the Home Office wanted to “deprioritise” the children of parents unlawfully in the UK for school places, Wilshaw said: “I’m amazed and shocked by it. Schools should not be used for border control.”

Wilshaw, whose term at the school inspectorate ends later this month, said standards were rising overall, with almost 90% of primary schools doing “phenomenally well” across the country.

Some secondary schools were still struggling, however, and because of the geographical divide in educational standards, parents in Manchester, Liverpool and towns in the north of England were less likely to see their children get a good job or go on to university than those in London.

One in three schools in Manchester and almost 50% in Liverpool were “not good”, and he said the inequality of provision was “feeding into a wider malaise” and a “sense of alienation” that people were feeling in parts of the country.

In an earlier interview with the BBC during a visit to Manchester, he said: “The situation is very, very serious. It’s feeding into a sense that the people of Liverpool, Manchester and the north are not being treated fairly – that their children have less of a chance of educational success than people south of the Wash.

“And that’s feeding into a wider malaise that I sense with the Brexit vote, that actually this wasn’t just about leaving Europe, it’s about ‘our needs being neglected, our children are not getting as good a deal as elsewhere’.

“Parents want to see their children doing well; they want to see them going off to university; they want to see them getting a good job. Well, they have less of a chance of that in this city [Manchester], in Liverpool and elsewhere, and that feeds into this sense of discontent in the north and in the Midlands.”

Wilshaw also flagged up the crisis in teacher recruitment, saying it should be the first priority of the Department for Education to make sure there are enough teachers in classrooms and enough people training to become teachers.

He also reiterated his opposition to government plans to extend grammar schools, saying that as a former headteacher he knew that had a grammar school opened up down the road, taking the top 15-20% of children, he would have been unable to raise standards for all children in his school. He said he was “totally against” the idea.

Commenting on the Ofsted annual report, Brett Wigdortz, chief executive and founder of Teach First, said: “It’s hugely welcome that standards are increasing overall, but we must not take our eye off the ball and see disadvantaged areas fall behind.

“Teach First is committed to helping the areas with the greatest need – the north, Midlands and coastal areas – by recruiting many more great teachers to increase the attainment and unlock the aspirations of pupils from all backgrounds.

“Schools, government and communities need to work together to ensure teaching remains an attractive, viable choice for top talent across the country.”