Dismayed and appalled: Kit Malthouse attacked for 'constant pressure' threat

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pressure point: Education secretary Kit Malthouse has signalled his intention to keep schools under 'constant pressure'...

The education secretary is facing a backlash from school leaders “dismayed and appalled” at comments made during his speech to the Conservative Party annual conference.

On Wednesday (October 5), the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) wrote to Kit Malthouse to reject his view that the school system needed “constant attention and constant pressure” in order to “drive it forward”.

Mr Malthouse had made the comments when he addressed the Tory conference in Birmingham a day earlier.

The speech came with no policy announcements but did signal Mr Malthouse’s intention to be “much more assertive about intervention and standards”.

He further angered school leaders when he said: “We need to reflect on the fact that there is nothing quite as persistent as people hanging on to mediocrity. Finding, challenging, working with teachers, bringing all schools up to the standard of the best will be a key part of our mission.”

ASCL represents around 22,000 school leaders and the letter was signed by general secretary Geoff Barton and president Evelyn Forde.

It states: “We were frankly appalled to hear you talk about people leading and working in our schools and colleges as ‘hanging on to mediocrity’ and claim that education needs ‘constant attention and constant pressure’ in order to ‘drive it forward’.

“We completely reject your premise that any school or college is 'hanging on to mediocrity'. As you rightly recognised in your speech, the vast majority of schools – close to 90%, in fact – are currently rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding.”

The letter warns that extreme pressure from government is already responsible for driving people from the profession, pointing to recent ASCL research showing that exhaustion/fatigue, unsustainable workload/working hours were the top reasons for school leaders wanting to quit (cited by two-thirds of respondents to the survey).

It also signposts recent research showing that schools rated less than good by Ofsted often face a combination of “unusually challenging circumstances”, including high teacher turnover, high pupil mobility, more disadvantaged pupils, being located in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and having higher levels of pupils with SEND.

The letter continues: “We strongly refute your suggestion that the answer to improving outcomes in these schools lies in 'constant pressure' from government. On the contrary, the extreme pressure already felt by leaders, teachers and support staff is one of the main drivers of the current exodus of staff from our schools and colleges.”

Mr Barton and Ms Forde said they are concerned about what the education secretary’s comments “might presage”. The letter concludes: “Rather than raising the stakes even higher and taking cheap shots at a profession already on its knees, your department should be moving heaven and earth to provide schools and colleges with the funding they need to keep their doors open, the support they need to provide education and care to children and young people with increasingly complex needs, and a functioning pipeline of teachers to staff their organisations. Anything else is mere posturing.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, had also found Mr Malthouse’s speech wanting: "Teachers deserve better than rhetoric about ‘intervention’ at this critical juncture. We are relieved that the challenge on teacher retention was identified but not reassured with the lack of concrete pledges to address the reasons teachers are leaving.”

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