CEO's address to National Conference 2020

28 February 2020

Our CEO Dr Kate Chhatwal spoke to school leaders at our National Conference and shared these thoughts and provocations on Inclusive Excellence

The idea for this year’s national conference was born at last year’s, at the end of Charles Hazelwood’s speech when he noted that people don’t often put excellence and disability together - but perhaps they should. He demonstrated this by showing the film of the British Paraorchestra he led in 2012 performing True Colours, which brought a tear to many eyes - including mine. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson will exemplify the same point at the end of the day today, when she shares with us her many incredible achievements in sport and beyond.

At last year’s conference we talked about pushing the boundaries. This year we want to make clear that we are pushing the boundaries for all - that excellence can and must be inclusive. Having read our next speaker, Matthew Syed’s, latest book, I’m pretty sure that he will argue that the inclusion of diverse ideas, experience and perspectives makes us collectively more excellent - though I expect he will say so more eloquently. It links to a point I make in the introduction to this year’s annual report - which we’re launching today - about the fact that excellence doesn’t have to be exclusive or elitist; it’s not a zero-sum game and by working together - collaborating, as we do in Challenge Partners - we can all be better than any of us could alone.

The challenge we face as a sector and a society is great - too many of our children and young people are written off by an education system that doesn’t give them the best chance to achieve, to develop and demonstrate their unique talents and brilliance. And the children who face the greatest challenges - whether because of their socio-economic status or additional needs - too often suffer the most. And what we are doing to address this challenge isn't really working.

You will probably be familiar with the sigmoid curve. What it teaches us is that improvements in the current paradigm will only take us so far. If we want to continue improving, we need to shift the paradigm, to do something different.

Signoid curve

I am wondering if we are reaching that point now - or indeed if we are already past that point - particularly when we think about the educational disadvantage gap, where we need to do something different before we go into terminal decline. When we analysed the DfE’s own KS2 and KS4 data for our annual report, it suggested that we have tipped over the top of the curve and the gap is beginning to widen once more. Even if it is a blip (which seems doubtful when the gap is widening in both primary and secondary schools), we know that even when the gap was closing, it was closing too slowly, that the gap was narrowing at glacial pace.

So maybe we do need to shift the paradigm

Perhaps it is time we started reimagining education to rebalance the scales between universal standards (which are important) and valuing the unique talents of each child. Perhaps we need to find new ways to unlock learning, to light fires, to unleash excellence and assess it. Perhaps we need to think more creatively about how we connect real learners with the curricula we are so carefully designing and sequencing, remembering that we are - as Professor Mark Priestly put it when he addressed our Senior Partners last year - educators and not milkmen, that our job is to light a fire through engaging pedagogy, not fill a pail through curriculum content delivery.

Continuing to eke out marginal gains isn’t enough

Rising to the challenge of achieving inclusive excellence will require creativity and disciplined innovation, but it is not impossible. If you haven’t seen the short film by 12yo Jonathan Bryan, a child with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities, who wrote the script with his eyes, then I would urge you to do so. I’m grateful to Lead Reviewer Jeremy Bird for sharing it with me when I went along to a QA Review he was leading at Greenside School in Stevenage. It challenged my (mis)conceptions of children with PMLD and the true excellence they can achieve - IF we enable them to do so 12yo Jonathan was able to write a book - which isn’t something I’ve managed to do at nearly 44.

I was reminded of this when I visited Apple at the start of the year as part of a delegation that included Senior Partners Rob Carpenter and John Camp. In Cupertino, we explored some of the hard- and soft-ware that has the POTENTIAL to transform the way children learn and achieve. I say potential, because that potential is not yet proven (and in fact technology didn’t work in Jonathan’s case because it couldn’t accurately read his eye movements). You only have to look at my battered Samsung A3 to know I’m not the kind of person who has ever been excited by technology, but I was excited by the idea that the near-ubiquitous technology, the phones in our pockets that have 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that put man on the moon, could - COULD - provide a way of unlocking learning and achievement for children who are not well served by traditional book learning, who disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have additional needs.

I know some of you are already exploring that potential in your schools and I was fortunate to visit Wingfield Primary School in our Inspire Partnership hub earlier this month to see how they are using iPads to enhance engagement and learning. Using technology isn’t about dumbing down, it isn’t about suggesting that if you can google everything you don’t need to know or remember anything. On the contrary, making use of that information at our fingertips could be a way of raising the bar, of expecting students to demonstrate deeper understanding and greater application of the knowledge they can so readily access.

Of course technology isn’t a panacea and there are many challenges that need to be overcome to realise the potential it holds
It is only one example of something we could explore to shift the paradigm to realise more inclusive excellence. To shift the paradigm, we will need to draw on and combine the diverse ideas Matthew will talk about and which we are fortunate to have in abundance in our broad and diverse network - indeed I think it is a great strength that Challenge Partners is home to such diversity of phases, school types and geography and that’s even before we get to the cognitive diversity of the unique, thoughtful, resourceful, challenging - and sometimes idiosyncratic! - leaders across our 480 schools.

To shift the paradigm, we will need to challenge ourselves and each other - something we, you in Challenge Partners are good at - especially through our QA Reviews. We will need to have uncomfortable and courageous conversations in the interest of children
We will need collaboration - as they say at Apple - to be a contact sport. Though we will need to do this in a way that avoids the macho, gendered notions that phrase (and this image) might conjure up.

We need challenge to feel safe

As they also say at Apple, we will need to put our diverse ideas, experiences and perspectives into a rock tumbler, so we can co-create better, shinier ideas and practices than we might alone. If any of you are wondering what a rock tumbler is at this point, you’re probably not alone. I hadn’t heard of one before I went to California and let me tell you it is a far cry from the slick tech of Silicon Valley. It’s a bit like one of those tombola things you often have at school fairs, but instead of putting raffle tickets inside, you put rocks, with grit and water. After turning for a while, the rocks come out shiny gems.

In our rock tumbler of diverse ideas and perspectives, the challenge we give each other provides the all-important grit. We also need to bring in ideas and grit from outside the sector - and we will continue to find ways to do this, with non-education expertise already having been an important feature of Senior Partner and Hub Manager meetings, as well as both our Growing the Top and Getting Ahead London programmes. Because only by bringing together the best of what is thought, said, practiced and researched - in education and beyond - and by innovating, with discipline, can we hope to secure inclusive excellence for everyone


Before I hand over to Matthew, I’d like to end with some provocations for you to take with you and reflect on as you gather different ideas and inputs from the people you hear from and meet throughout the day: 

  • How does your curriculum and the way it is taught encourage excellence and equity for every child in your school?
  • How do you ensure your teachers are educators, not milkmen, connecting children to the curriculum in a way that resonates with them and the world they are growing up in?
  • How do you capture and celebrate the unique brilliance and achievements of all learners?
  • Within your schools, hubs and across the network, how will you mine and polish diverse ideas, and ensure collaboration is a (safe) contact sport?