25th March 2022

Ambition for all – our vision for a school system that works for all children

“People don’t realise how much education is important for life in general. […] if they don’t learn in school, they might not be able to enjoy life to the fullest” – Girl, 14

“In reality the existence of school is for education and great opportunities” – Boy, 14

Foreword from the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza DBE

As Children’s Commissioner for England, my mission is to make England the best place to grow up in the world. This means the ambitions of every child being matched by the support around them – by their family, school and, where needed, being able to access brilliant mental health and social care services and support for Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND). Wherever a child grows up, whichever school they attend, every child deserves a world class education which is as ambitious for them, as they are for themselves.

I say this because there is no shortage of aspiration amongst England’s children. Last year, I conducted the largest ever survey of children, The Big Ask, and the overwhelming message I got back from over half a million responses was that today’s generation are bright, outward looking, and aspirational, in every corner of England. The majority are happy. They like school, and its absence over lockdown meant they relished the chance to be back. Where children needed additional support, and received it quickly and locally, they were happier than the overall cohort.

At the same time, I heard too many stories from children who felt that their ambitions were not being matched by those around them. This meant they could not see themselves realising the opportunities available. Grown-ups’ ambitions were too often lower for those who would be classed are disadvantaged or vulnerable. These are not words children use to describe themselves, but they can unwittingly become labels which change the level of ambition we have for a child. We must have the same aspirations and ambitions for all our children, because overwhelmingly they have it for themselves – they uniformly want a fantastic education, a good job, a happy family.

Schools can transform the way children see themselves in the world and help turn aspirations into tangible opportunities and outcomes. What separates out the very best schools is the level of belief they have for each and every one of their pupils. This is what I want for every child in England, wherever they live, whatever their background.

That is why I want to place ambition at the heart of our school system, and the forthcoming Schools White Paper. I want us to strive for:

  • Every child to be able to read and write by the end of primary school; and,
  • Every child to obtain a Level-2 qualification by the end of secondary school.

Many will say this is not possible, but this misses the point. We need to strive for every child in every school, because if there is one thing I learnt in more than 30 years of education, it is that all children can do amazing things, and every child deserves to be at a school that believes in them. No child should start off in a system which sees their labels before them, or thinks ‘they can’t do this because of where they are from’.

This is the cause to which I have devoted my career, so this is personal as well as professional. Having worked in many of the most ‘challenging’ schools, taught many of the children we label as ‘disadvantaged’, and turned around schools we’d written off as ‘failing’, I know what children can achieve, if children’s potential is matched by our ambition. In writing this document I’m motivated by all the children I’ve worked with and spurred on by those I’ve spoken to in the year since I took up post, particularly the most vulnerable.

And I know it can be done. I have been part of the school reform movement in England since it began over 20 years ago. The motivations for reform were simple: too many children in England were having their life chances limited by inadequate schooling, and many schools were stuck in a cycle of low-ambition and complacency, both for themselves and their pupils. Over the past 20 years thousands of schools across England have been transformed, in turn improving the life chances of millions of children. The school system is unrecognisable – for the better. And now, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to reignite that reformist ambition. Not least because if we can draw any hope or positives from the last two years, it’s that we can do the unthinkable, that the impossible is possible; if we all coalesce around shared goals – we need to apply that spirit to children’s services now.

There are some major reforms underway which need to be joined up to ensure effective support for children, and their families: the SEND Review, Health and Care Bill and the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. It is vital we don’t think of these reforms in isolation, but as part of a wider ambition we have for how schools can truly deliver the best possible outcomes for children and young people and support our professionals to work in ways that they can be most effective.

New analysis from my office shows both how important this is, because it is the children who are facing the biggest ‘disadvantages’ who benefit the most from a great school, and yet are least likely to be attending one:

  • If you are a child who gets free school meals and has had support from children’s services in the past five years you are 30% more likely to pass Maths and English GCSE if you are attending a school which is rated good or outstanding; yet
  • If you are a child receiving free school meals, you are 1.4 times more likely to be going to a school that is less than good. If you are a child with a social worker, then you are 1.2 times more likely to be going to a school that is less than good.[1]

In short, children who most need to be at a good school are the least likely to be going to one. And this is why we need to re-double our efforts to make sure every school in England is not just good, but brilliant in the education it provides, the belief it instils in its pupils and the wider support it offers. One thing we have learnt from over 20 years of school reform is that brilliant schools take many forms, but all provide a stimulating, broad and knowledge rich curriculum, they focus on high-quality teaching and allow teachers to focus on what they do best by providing the wider support through a wider family of schools and they provide an environment that engages their pupils and promotes learning.

There is lots to be celebrated in England’s school system, but we need to share this promise with even more children so that we deliver for every child. In this paper we explain what children have told us they want; what the data tells us about those who are missing out and what reforms we think would be helpful in bringing about a whole education system that delivers for children.

The pandemic has confirmed what I already knew – schools, and the people who work in them, are vital. They are the place where children learn, where they make friends, where they find things they are passionate about and talented at. A place that is safe, with adults around them who care about their lives and that provides routine, structure, and discipline. And I want to pay testament to everyone working with children for all their hard work and commitment to improving children’s lives and outcomes.

The time is now to shift the dial, and if all of us working with children commit to doing just that, we can deliver for all of England’s children – that means every child, in every school, in every corner of England, receiving the world class education they deserve, to set them up for life.

[1] All statistics are drawn from Children’s Commissioner’s Office analysis of the National Pupil Database, unless otherwise stated.