Full transcript of Laidlaw Foundation CEO Susanna V. Kempe’s speech for Learnit Live.

Originally aired on March 9th, 2021.

I have 6 nephews, a niece (who yes, I would spoil outrageously but for fear of being severely reprimanded by her mother – who is a fabulous, no-messing year 6 teacher), 7 godchildren and numerous adopted godchildren (siblings of my actual godchildren and a random assortment of children of other dear friends).

I have seen a lot of school plays. And music evenings. And talent competitions. And sports days.

I have read a lot of school reports and been fascinated by the differences in what is reported, how and when. I always love reading the one that grades my niece and her brother on the school’s values: excellence, perseverance, courage, and respect. These are given as much weight as their predicted grades. And I can see the evidence of their impact.

I have joined in the angst around school places and later exam results, university applications and now, with my oldest nephew, the publication of his PhD thesis.

There is a 23 year age gap between the youngest and oldest of these young people whom I adore.

There are also five countries and three continents. And what is intriguing to me is that while education in the UK is, at its core, remarkably unchanged across decades, schooling between countries has some marked differences that are equally entrenched.

What we accept as norms from school uniforms, to the length of summer holidays, to repeating school years, to vocational qualifications, to apprenticeships, to university applications, to digital access, to what it means to be a successful, responsible citizen, is not the same across the continents.

My godson Toby and his siblings in Adelaide have hats as part of their school uniform; they are not allowed out into the playground if they don’t have them – because skin cancer is a risk and the Australian schools take healthcare seriously.

In China, 1 in 5 children is overweight or obese, and it has concerned the government so much that they have initiated a massive physical exercise drive, including tests. They are rolling out reforms which will make PE fitness a condition of pupils graduating from secondary school. They take health seriously too.

In the UK, 1 in 5 children is also overweight or obese. Only 47% of children and young people meet the Chief Medical Officer’s Physical Activity Guidelines – and that was before lockdown. And yet, since 2010, the government has approved the sale of 215 school playing fields. And the GCSE in physical education is 60% a written exam.

It took a remarkable young woman Christina Adane, Youth Board Co-Chair at BiteBack 2030 (a charity whose goal is to reduce childhood obesity by 50% in the next ten years), mobilising over 430,000 people to sign a petition, to start a conversation here on Free School Meals.

The Good Law Project joined her fight and sued the government. Finally – thanks to the intervention of Marcus Rashford – the government, the BBC and the mainstream media at large, all of whom really should have done better, paid attention. What does it tell us, though, about the seriousness with which our institutions take the issues of nutrition and poverty if they will only act when a famous footballer gets involved? And what does it tell us about society’s willingness to let a man take credit for a woman’s ideas still that I would be willing to bet that a lot of you thought this was Marcus’s campaign, not Christina’s?

Back to schools.

My nephew Linus who went to school in Switzerland always thought it faintly absurd – if highly entertaining – that his English cousins had and have to wear blazers and ties to school. Until he spent his gap year living with me in London, working as a data researcher at a big media company, wearing the same black trousers, rotating through 5 white shirts every day and realising the benefit of a uniform – he could sleep an extra 30 minutes every morning by not having to decide which jeans, hoodie and trainers he would wear that day.

There are other good arguments for school uniform. Our tri-lingual, omni-talented, marketing manager at the Foundation, Nikol, who received a scholarship to a private school, argues that a uniform ensures that pupils are on an equal playing field – that children from poorer backgrounds don’t have to worry about not being able to afford designer clothes or the latest trends. Mind you, she also has quite a lot to say on the subject of how expensive school uniform is when you have to buy it from a specific school shop.

Are we really sure though that it is the best use of our teachers’ valuable time with pupils to spend it on telling them to do their top button up? Or that their skirt is too short? 

Why in the UK do we equate smart uniform and dress conformity with outstanding schools? At St. Paul’s Girls’ School, one of the top-performing schools in the country, one of my goddaughters never had to wear school uniform. For a number of years, in fact, she seemed to live in her PE kit.

Another nephew, the one with a PhD in international law, went to primary school in Germany. They start there at the age of 6. Certainly, in his case, it doesn’t seem to have held him back.

US summer holidays are astonishingly long by our standards. The children of my US friends are already at summer camp when their English counterparts are still taking their summer exams.

Yet the US, Germany and the UK vie with each other for position in the OECD’s PISA tables. What if they each started to question the parts of their education system that appear sacrosanct but are out of step with other countries?

On January 2nd, two years ago, four rather hungover Swiss students sat at my kitchen table, logged onto their university lectures. It was already completely normal for them to access their lectures from wherever, a full year before the Covid lockdown here forced Universities to pivot at speed. I was deeply envious, remembering all the times that I had hurtled out of bed to get to a lecture or borrowed by more responsible friends notes. Our default position here has been that digital is bad and a pale imitation of the real in-person lecture hall experience.

Despite being the same age, the Swiss gang were at different stages in their academic lives. Because it was completely normal for one to skip a year of school and for another to repeat a year. No judgement.

Yet here we are looking for Covid catch up remedies from Tutors to summer schools when the blindingly obvious solution for those who have just missed too much school is to repeat a year.

Yes, it would play havoc with timetabling. Yes, we’d need to think through the logistics, but surely better than accepting that one in six children may never catch up after Covid school closures? We could find a way to accommodate a 17% increase within a year group.

Differences between norms abound. Those same Swiss teenagers were taking half their lectures in English. In the UK, we have a long-term decline in the number of pupils taking modern languages at KS4, with fewer than a third of those aged 16 – 30 able to speak or read in another language.

In Switzerland, they also pay practically nothing to go to university – whereas my American friends started saving the moment their children were born for university fees, they are so eye-wateringly high. Most Swiss university students live at home. In the UK, leaving home is what it is all about.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Switzerland and the UK is that Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world where vocational education and training (VET) is held in equal esteem to academic education, as the RSA pointed out in a blog on social mobility two years ago.

Switzerland may be small, but it is an economic powerhouse. It ranks first in the Global Innovation Index and third in the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index. Like here, it has a liberalised economy; unlike here, the Swiss economy is one of the most inclusive in the world. Its vocational and technical education and skills system is widely cited as a key driver of its economic success.

Two-thirds of people choose to go down the vocational route.

Productivity and wage growth in the UK since the 2008 recession have been at their lowest levels for over two hundred years, while in-work poverty has become accepted as a feature of our labour market. Throughout the pandemic, it has become increasingly clear that the disadvantaged have been and will continue to be the worst hit. Yet throughout our education system, where the most disadvantaged start with a 4 million word gap (or 30 million depending which research you prefer) to the failure of successive governments to address the lack of effective vocational qualifications, we are not doing enough to create systemic change for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

2 years ago, I became Chair of Laidlaw Schools Trust – a multi-academy Trust in the North East of England primarily serving disadvantaged communities. On pretty much every marker of disadvantage, we have double the national average. Free School Meals, Pupil Premium, SENDs, EAL (we have 53 languages spoken in our schools), mobility, community unemployment – we tick every box.

The Laidlaw Foundation, of which I am the CEO, is the sponsor. We have been contributing financially to the Trust since we set up our first Academy in 2008 – unlike, I discovered to my surprise, most other sponsors. Not only do we subsidise the central office costs so that schools can pay a reduced top slice, we give additional funding per pupil – to ensure that our schools have the same level of funding as London borough schools and that we can invest strategically in school improvement: looking at education-based, community-based, CPD and people-led interventions and initiatives to ensure that we fulfil our purpose: to transform lives through inspirational education.

My background is in business. I was CMO of IIR and Informa, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer of Emap; Global group content and marketing partner of Brunswick, and CEO of Emap Networks and WGSN. So my default position is to look at the return on any investment. And to do so by looking at the data.

It didn’t paint a great picture. In fact, when I first looked, knowing the millions we had given each year, and having heard about all the good work we were doing from the previous Chair, I thought I must have misread it. I showed the data to my niece’s mother, hoping that I had misunderstood it. Her reply, “Ouch, that’s not pretty”, suggested I hadn’t.

Neither in progress or attainment were our results at primary or secondary in a good place.

The explanations that I was given all made sense: culturally biased tests, parental disengagement, no belief in education, huge in year mobility, teacher vacancies, leadership turnover etc. In the space of five years, we had added five schools, two of them in special measures, and there was a great deal left to fix.

I wanted to understand more, though. So I asked more questions. An example of biased tests: a reading comprehension which talked about Piccadilly Circus – which is all fine and well if you know the insanely busy traffic junction in London. If you have never ventured outside your community in the Westend of Newcastle, or if you have just arrived from Romania, you would be forgiven for thinking that something with a big tent and clowns and elephants was being referred to. Reading is a lot harder if the context is completely alien.

So, where were we spending the money? Well, on minibuses to pick up children to go to school because if they aren’t in school you can’t teach them; and on International New Arrivals programmes to help our EAL children be able to integrate faster; and on welfare programmes because what social services used to provide now appears to have become the responsibility of schools; and on smaller class sizes. The list goes on. As funding in real terms has reduced, so have the responsibilities of, and challenges faced by schools like ours, increased.

One of our heads (of an all-through to KS4) told me that she was heartbroken because though she had achieved 97% of her year 11 pupils going on to FE, 95% had then dropped out by Christmas. Her pupils needed the structure and continuity of school, where sometimes the teacher was the most constant adult in the child’s life, to stay committed to education.

It made me start thinking about transition. We had brought a number of feeder primary schools into our Trust and yet so many Year 7 pupils had worse reading than they had had at Year 6. We were working so hard to get our pupils solid GCSE results but then they were dropping out of FE anyway. Our sixth formers were not going to the universities that they were academically strong enough to go to and our vocational courses weren’t providing jobs at the end of them. We needed to start thinking about all the connections and transitions on the journey to become healthy, happy, respectful, kind global citizens.

It has taken Herculean efforts by our school leaders, but our core data is much better now with reading, maths and combined scores their best for three years. At secondary, too, our English and Maths pass rate percentages are better than ever, Progress 8 scores have turned around, and we have a new Teaching and Learning methodology put in place by Dave Davies, ex-head of the outstanding Sedgefield Community College, which has now joined the Trust, and who is now Director of LST Secondaries. It is called Inevitable Progress and delivers just that.

Only 3 pupils dropped out of FE college last year thanks to an initiative to bridge the transition our redoubtable Academy 360 Head Rachel Donohue put in place with the local FE college.

Our A Level value-add has improved significantly, thanks to our new head of sixth form, Gareth Smith. All of our sixth formers were accepted by their first choice of university this year, despite all the Covid challenges.

To paraphrase Edward de Bono, this is excellent but not enough.

Our new CEO, the incomparable Ian Simpson, was not a big fan of school as a child. In fact, he would probably have not so bothered to turn up at all if it wasn’t for the fact that he was a big sportsman. He was selected for every team. And he shone there. Sport gave him an arena, quite literally, in which to be a success. The self-esteem built from that gave him the confidence to move on and up.

This is what matters.

It matters that in every school, in every class, we find the single thing for each and every child where they can shine. So they feel good about themselves, confident that they are valued and are worthy of value. Creative and technical subjects need to have equal weight and respect as traditional academic subjects both because we must nurture and value all types of intelligence; and also from a careers perspective. The creative industries in the UK are worth over £100bn to the UK economy – greater than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined.

It matters that our pupils leave school physically healthy – with absolutely embedded good food and fitness habits. So we are working with BiteBack on two pilot programmes to promote health and well-being: a School Food Governors progamme and an iWill, Young Food Heroes initiative.

It matters that our pupils leave school mentally robust – with the confidence, resilience and courage to overcome the hardships that life will throw at them. As our schools return to in-person teaching, we’re putting in place the “incredible 5-point scale emotional regulation framework”, a methodology for regulating emotions which allows both staff and pupils to separate their emotional responses to a problem from the thinking needed to resolve it.

It matters that our pupils are ethically resilient – that they can differentiate between right and wrong, that they can recognise when they are being lied to, that they don’t feed off of hate or spread disinformation. Which is why, thanks to Charlotte De Oliveria, head of Primary at Excelsior Academy, our graduate goals, include being brave, curious, kind, respectful and independent. They start at nursery, are encapsulated in promises and home agreements, and are embedded, reinforced and developed through every year group.

It matters that our pupils understand the impact of climate change and make smart consumer choices – so we already have water only schools and are assembling a cross-Trust team including pupils and staff to develop our green goals.

It matters that our pupils leave school with strong oracy and literacy. Study after study has shown the importance of literacy across every facet of social and economic equality – not just in terms of social mobility and career opportunities but shockingly even in areas as fundamental as life expectancy.

Our secondaries now build on the extensive work that Keeley Wood, our Executive Principal Primaries has embedded in the primary phase. Dave Davies, has taken the EEF guidance framework to make literacy an inherent, inescapable part of how we teach across all our secondaries. Literacy is not something left to the English department. His four building blocks of:

  • vocabulary building and spelling;
  • writing in detail and with accuracy;
  • reading for understanding and pleasure and
  • developing oracy skills

are embedded throughout the entire curriculum.

It matters that all our pupils have passed their Maths GCSE, because, without that, too many doors are closed in their face. If it takes 3 years, not two, to ensure that happens, so be it.

It matters that our pupils are digitally savvy. That is why at LST, remote learning wasn’t just a response to lockdown – although the Foundation funded devices and dongles and earphones for all learners who needed them – because it is pretty difficult to do remote learning if you can’t log on and you can’t pay attention because of the noise around you.

Digital is an integral part of our vision for change. We are planning for at least 20% of the curriculum to be delivered digitally by 2023, extending the reach of exceptional teachers and enabling student success by creating individual learning pathways, improving engagement of pupils and families and ensuring that both our AP and HA cohorts thrive.

It matters that they have qualifications – academic or vocational – that will allow them to pursue a fulfilling and economically stable career. So, for the last two years, we focused our additional funding on performance improvement: especially for reading and exam prep.

It matters that pupils know what career opportunities there are. That is why at LST we embed careers into every part of the school day curriculum from the age of 3. The youngest pupils pick figurines out of a bag and talk about what they do. There are posters in our primary schools showing a career, airline pilots, biochemists, electricians, musicians and so on, each has the salary range that someone could earn doing it, and the skills they will learn at school to enable them to follow that career path. Pupils dress up as their dream job. Professionals, from architects to police officers, come into the schools to talk about their roles. Yrs 5 and 6 attend career fairs. Employer engagement is built into the curriculum of every year group.

It is why we have Project-Based Learning, and a meaningful work experience programme. We are partnering with Newcastle UXL to offer apprenticeships to our sixth formers. Our annual Careers Education Information Advice and Guidance Day runs academy-wide across all key phases. We were one of the earliest adopters of Global Bridge which enables young people to showcase their talents to educational institutions and industry.

Our mission is to unlock economic, social and cultural opportunities for our pupils. Which is why we have our Laidlaw Scholars from the Undergraduate Research and Leadership programme that we fund at 12 of the top universities globally, run summer schools and inspire our pupils, with the art of the possible.

Because most of all, it matters that our pupils leave school with dreams to follow. And that they have the ambition, resilience and skillsets to make them a reality. 

Progress 8 league tables and exams which test knowledge retention do not measure any of those things.

Ian Simpson, likes to say that today: not everything that is counted matters.

And not everything that matters is counted.

It is time we changed that.

It is time to re-think the outcomes that really matter.

It is time we listened more to our teachers.

It is time we were braver and ditched the “norms” that are just habit.

It is time we did better for our pupils – particularly those in our most disadvantaged areas.

Thank you.