‘Teachers... I have your back’

8th July 2016 at 00:00
Sir Kevan Collins has helped make the Education Endowment Foundation a world-leading research organisation – an achievement that saw him touted by many to become the next chief inspector of Ofsted. In fact, he didn’t even apply for the job. Why? As he tells Jon Severs, his goal isn’t to ‘sit back and report on’ the school system, but to improve it for teachers everywhere

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), chooses his words carefully in public. In private, among his closest friends, he admits to being loose-tongued enough to be labelled a “gobshite”. But with a wider audience he’s a little more selective about the views that he is willing to share and the frequency with which he is willing to air them.

As a result, he’s not the most well-known of education names. And that’s the way he likes it.

“There is this huge cacophony of people just chatting about education all the time, particularly in London,” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to be one of those people.”

What he cares about is not column inches, but impact. Sir Kevan wants to make a difference in education, not a difference to Sir Kevan – which makes a decision that he made a few months ago appear, at first, to be a strange one.

Members of education’s incestuous inner circle were looking for a candidate to champion for Sir Michael Wilshaw’s soon-to-be available job as chief inspector of Ofsted – and Sir Kevan was top of quite a few of the lists. There were even whispers among his supporters that he would be too strong a candidate for the government to turn down.

Considering that it is impact Sir Kevan wants, and that the Ofsted job is one where, in his words, you have a “hand on the tiller of education”, he couldn’t say no, surely?

But he didn’t even apply. Instead, he celebrated the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the EEF and looked on as Amanda Spielman was recommended for the job. He chooses not to make the reasons for that decision explicit. However, judging by his views on Ofsted, on leadership and on how you make real changes within education systems, one can make a pretty good guess at why he opted to stick where he was.

Sir Kevan thinks that schools in England fail large numbers of children and he wants to fix that problem. At the EEF, he says, he can help do that. But it seems that he’s not convinced he could say the same thing if he were chief inspector.

Teacher first

When you list all of the top jobs he has had and all the plaudits he has received, the one thing that genuinely seems to make Sir Kevan proud is when you tell him that people say he has maintained a real understanding of what it is like to be a teacher in a classroom.

His face breaks in such a way – a release of tension, a blush of the cheeks – that you sense this information comes as a relief to him. “That really matters to me,” he says.

He taught right across the primary phase, starting in Tower Hamlets in 1984. “People used to say to me ‘What do you teach?’ and I used to say ‘children’.” He laughs. “They expect you to say a subject, because the perspective of teaching is secondary-led. But Reception teaching is where you really learn about how children learn.”

But you can only have an impact on around 30 pupils a year as a classroom primary teacher. Sir Kevan wanted more influence, so he sought out more responsibility. He was on the verge of making the move to headship, before being tempted away to set up a Reading Recovery literacy programme in Bradford – a school-based intervention and tutoring scheme aimed at the area’s lowest-achieving Year 1 pupils. It was a role that enabled him to pursue his passion for literacy and, as he says, work in a field “that fascinated me and continues to engage me more than any other area of learning.”

In 1998, he carried on that passion by working on the primary literacy strategy and, in 2003, he became its national director. “It’s worth noting that my approach called for ‘high standards through a rich, varied and exciting curriculum’,” he says. He gives no further elaboration, but you get the impression that he wants you to follow that little thread to the present day and draw your own conclusions.

That stage of his career gave him a foundation of leadership skills that were tested to the full in his next role. In 2005, Sir Kevan became director of children’s services in Tower Hamlets and, in 2009, he moved up to become chief executive of the council.

This was a borough that, in 1998, was ranked by Ofsted as the lowest-performing local authority in the country. In 2010, it was the seventh most deprived area in England (today it is the tenth most deprived). For a man looking to make an impact, there was quite a bit of scope.

“When I joined [the council], the primary schools were making good progress, but secondary results were lagging, particularly in English and maths” he says. “The borough’s results were over 10 per cent below the national average.”

Today it is one of the top-performing boroughs in the country (64.6 per cent of pupils achieved five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths, in 2015) and Sir Kevan is credited as one of the major forces in that turnaround.

He’s not comfortable with that praise, but Sir Alasdair MacDonald, former headteacher at Tower Hamlets’ Morpeth School, says that Sir Kevan’s desire to improve outcomes was pivotal. “He does not accept low aspirations or expectations from teachers and schools,” he explains. “I would go as far as to say he is intolerant of them. Every headteacher in Tower Hamlets was very aware of this. He took no excuses from us.”

It was around the time that Sir Kevan was making a name for himself in East London that Michael Gove, then secretary of state for education, was looking to establish an education endowment foundation to raise standards in challenging schools. In 2011, that idea came to fruition in the form of the EEF, an organisation founded by The Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust and backed with £125 million of Department for Education cash. The role of the EEF was to find out what schools could do to improve the achievement of disadvantaged children.

The new organisation needed a chief executive, and Sir Alasdair, now a close friend of his former boss, says that it was the perfect job at the perfect time for Sir Kevan.

“He was ready to move on, partly as a result of the politics involved in the chief-executive role, but more because he missed education,” he says. “He wanted to be more directly involved in schools and the job at the EEF could have been written for him. It was perfect for his creativity, his skills and what he wants to achieve.”

Having an impact

In five years, the EEF has committed £75 million to education research projects. It has funded 125 trials, involving more than 7,000 schools. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit is its highest profile product: two-thirds of school leaders say that they use it, according to an independent survey by the National Audit Office (you can access the toolkit at bit.ly/EEFtoolkit).

In a very short time, the organisation has managed to become highly influential. It is deserving of that position, according to Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education and a leading education researcher and author.

“I was sceptical when the EEF was first announced, but I [now] think it may be the best thing that the last administration did in education,” he says. “The research that they are funding is highly practical. Separating evaluation from intervention produces much more credible findings, and their approach to experimental design, with rigorous power analyses before work is funded, is state-of-the-art. The work that the EEF is doing is world-leading, in terms of impact and value for money.”

Alex Quigley, director of research and learning at Huntington School in York, agrees, and adds that the EEF has given power back to teachers.

“At a rather tumultuous time, the EEF is helping support and engage thousands of teachers to be better informed than any before about learning and that has to be good for our profession,” he says.

Sir Kevan is careful not to take any personal credit for all this. He deflects praise to others and instead wishes to focus on where the EEF needs to improve: mainly in how it empowers heads and teachers to become more active and questioning users of evidence rather than passive receptacles for it (see box, “Five years of the Education Endowment Foundation”, left).

That does not stop others in the profession pushing the credit on to him, of course.

“Having Kevan as CEO was a stroke of genius,” says Wiliam. “His credibility as a former CEO of Tower Hamlets, combined with his manner and his deep understanding of the issues, made him a perfect choice, and I can’t imagine anyone doing the job better.”

Graham Stuart MP, former chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, goes further. “I’d say that Kevan Collins is one of the most impressive and likeable people in the education world,” he says – high praise, considering most of that world has sat in front of the MP at some point.

Such praise delivered in person to the man himself would be greeted, you suspect, with deep, painful embarrassment. Being the second youngest of six brothers (he is a twin – one of two sets in his family) breeds immunity to ego, he explains. When he got his knighthood, the family threw him a party, but also told him not to forget where he came from. “I like that. I like having people keep my feet on the ground,” he says.

Yet, just because he finds it awkward being spoken of in such terms, does not mean that word does not get around. And so it was unsurprising when he was mooted as a contender for the soon-to-be-vacant chief inspector job at Ofsted. He has the track record, he clearly has the respect and, Sir Alasdair says, he has the right personality for the job, too.

“If something comes along that challenges either his own view or the current received wisdom, and there is evidence to show that it has the potential to make a difference, he will back it,” says Sir Alasdair. “He loves lateral thinking and creativity, especially when it challenges the status quo. There are not many people, particularly in positions of power and influence, who embrace innovation so readily.”


Ofsted would have been a natural next step: Sir Kevan’s CV (see box, page 27) reveals a clear ambition and a persistent pursuit of influence. Yes, he is modest, but he is not short of confidence in his own ability. The job would not have intimidated him.

And he is surgical in his assessment of the problems that need to be addressed.

“One of the issues with English education is the long tail [of underachievement],” Sir Kevan explains. “We find it very hard to move the kids together as a group. By the time you get to Year 6 or 7, you have this huge disparity between levels of student achievement.

“In some countries, you have a culture of serial intervention. They watch for those students just slipping off the pace and they come in behind and give them another chance. These safety nets, these second and third waves of intervention, hold the group together. We want to get as many children as we can to a certain threshold. I think we do this better than we were, but we are not doing it enough or as widely.”

He talks extensively like this across numerous topics, making deep incisions into everything from the “missed” disadvantaged (those not eligible for free school meals but with little home support) to the increasing presence in schools of “no excuses” behaviour management (“You have to have compassion,” he says, “to know when the boundaries are inappropriate”).

And he sums it all up with the following: “The focus of much of my work in education has been how we can create a more reliable system for everybody”.

He sounds like a chief inspector. Clearly, he is desperate to have the influence that should come with being a chief inspector. And a number of education’s clandestine kingmakers wanted him to do it. So why didn’t he go for the job?

“When people moot or suggest a job like that, you cannot help but be honoured. It stops you in your tracks and forces you to think about it. But I quickly realised that, at this time, it was not for me,” he says.

“Not for me” can, of course, mean many things. He doesn’t explain explicitly, but he does talk about what Ofsted appears to have become. Slowly, you begin to understand why he – a man intent on impact alone – felt that his face did not fit.

“I have never thought Ofsted’s position should be to sit back in some quasi-independent way and report on the system,” he says. “The responsibility on all of us is to try to improve the system, and Ofsted has a fantastic potential role to play in that. They have a great data collection that they can use to help move teaching forwards. I like the insight reports that they put out. But at the moment, people almost freeze any learning as they are overwhelmed by the risk to their school and their own personal wellbeing. The stakes are so high.”

He warms to the theme. “Are we running a system based on compliance or one based on professional trust?” he asks. “You can get a long way with compliance. I can get everyone to mark or plan in a certain way and that could signal that I was an effective head. I could even get everyone to do it in two or three schools or more. Ofsted wants to see that, and you get rewarded for being someone who can create compliance.

“But that is not the same as the leaders who build professional trust through demonstrating that they know what the issues are; that they look far and wide for solutions; that they resource and equip the changes well; that they evaluate the impact of what they do. It is the same outcome, but with forced compliance you get a tick-box compliance – with professional compliance you get a deeper buy-in.”

To create great schools, he says you need the latter, not the former. But, he argues, it’s not just Ofsted’s fault that leaders feel they can’t create that deeper buy-in – if it were, you suspect he might have believed he could change things. Rather, the problems are at government level, too.

“I am really clear that you can’t have a system behaving one way at the government or inspection level, but then hit the classroom and expect it to be different,” he says. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day of the week. And culture is the culture of the system, not the individual institutions. People look for role models, judge how they are treated and how others are, and they judge the culture of the system on that.”

Turning things around

Could an Ofsted chief inspector change the approach of a government? Perhaps, but not one without considerable influence within that government. Sir Kevan perhaps guessed he would not have that.

It turns out he was probably right. “I suspect Kevan is a bit too far left for this government,” confirms a source close to the DfE. Sir Kevan proved that the approach he advocates worked in Tower Hamlets, though, and he will not completely rule out the option of proving that it can work nationally with him as chief inspector one day.

“Never say never,” he says. “I am only 55 and I still really like getting involved in systems.”

He insists that he would be on the teachers’ side if he ever did get the job. “We should all start with a mutual respect for each other. When someone decides to spend their life teaching children, I have your back,” he says.

But there is a belief among many that he may be better staying where he is for the long term, whoever is in power. The EEF, they argue, has the potential to be a vehicle of quite considerable power: it’s working in schools, steadily changing how teachers teach and how leaders lead. It will keep growing. And Sir Kevan is able to be his own man, to direct things from the top without the pressure to conform to an ideology beyond that of ensuring every child achieves.

If it is impact Sir Kevan wants above all else, they argue, then the EEF might be a better organisation through which to achieve that than Ofsted.

“The EEF may be low-visibility, but it could have the potential to be far more influential than any amount of ministerial initiatives,” says a close friend, one at the centre of education policy. “As a result, I strongly suspect he will be the greatest chief inspector we’ll never have.”

Sir Kevan Collins: CV


8 December 1960

Academic achievements


BA in economics and politics from Lancaster University


Doctorate focused on literacy development from Leeds University

First job


Classroom teacher, Malmesbury Primary School, Tower Hamlets, London

Other jobs of note


National director for primary literacy strategy


Director of children’s services, Tower Hamlets


Chief executive of Tower Hamlets council

Year appointed chief executive of the EEF


Five years of the Education Endowment Foundation

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was established in 2011. Since then, it has committed £75 million to education research projects. Below, the organisation has picked out three areas of its work it is particularly proud of. Find out more at educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk.

1. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit

This was commissioned by Sutton Trust chief executive Dr Lee Elliot Major, and was originally authored by Professor Steve Higgins in 2011 as the Pupil Premium Toolkit. Today, five years later, it is a tool used by two-thirds of school leaders and is credited by leading academics as being world-leading in its research.

It summarises education research and breaks it down into 34 topics, which it rates according to three measures: cost, strength of evidence and impact on attainment (in months of progress).

2. Testing evidence-based innovation through partnerships

The EEF partners with numerous organisations. A good example of how this works is the partnership with the Wellcome Trust, which invested £6 million in developing, evaluating and communicating the impact of education interventions grounded in neuroscience research. After commissioning a review that identified gaps in the existing research base, the EEF funded randomised controlled trials of six different projects that will test whether promising learning strategies such as spaced learning or regular physical exercise can improve attainment.

3. Putting evidence to work in schools

The EEF wants to helps teachers act on evidence, so has set about providing more guidance. A good example is its campaign on the effective use of teaching assistants. The EEF published a document that was sent to every school in the country, which included seven evidence-based suggestions that they could act on to improve the impact of TAs (bit.ly/EEFTAreport).

Sir Kevan on EEF Toolkit criticisms

Critics of the EEF are relatively few and far between, but some have taken issue with the way that the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, in particular, can seem to purport to be the final word on evidence and is used by school leaders as a way of forcing teachers to teach in a certain way or lead them to assume that any intervention given high scores will be the solution, rather than be a part of one.

Sir Kevan says that this is not how the tool should be used. “The only people who really know your children are you, so you have to take responsibility for every one of them and you have to ask yourself, ‘How do I make them better and what decisions should I take to ensure that they all achieve?’” he says. “We are desperately trying to not tell people what to do, rather we want to say here is some information that could inform your decision.”

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