Jonny Uttley, chief executive, The Education Alliance

The CEO on a moral mission to make schools inclusive again

‘I hope over the next few years we have the courage to transform the system’

Jonny Uttley, chief executive of The Education Alliance (TEAL) academy trust, recently asked his headteachers to write down all they ways they could “game” the progress 8 performance measure.

They came up with eight actions – including moving pupils into internal alternative provision and off their roll, and targeting certain pupils for exclusion.

Uttley has no plans to implement any such “immoral” gaming. Instead, he’s trying to put an end to it.

He’s been tasked by the Centre for Young Lives think tank to put together an “aspirational vision for inclusive schools”.

Run by former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, the organisation is thought to be influential in the Labour’s party thinking on education.

Uttley said the exercise with his heads was to show in the “zero sum game” of school accountability, “those incentives exist”.

His trust, which runs 12 schools in East Yorkshire, has direct experience. He cites examples of exclusions being “misused” by schools in the area, who tell families “we can’t meet [the SEND] need, but the school down the road can”.

He says some schools in East Yorkshire have just one per cent of pupils with an education, health and care plan, while others have seven per cent.

Each of TEAL’s year 7 cohorts start off at roughly two per cent of pupils with EHCPs, but this more than doubles by year 11 after “in-year transfers [of pupils] from the same few schools”, Uttley adds.

One of his schools took on a pupil whose parents believed they had been permanently excluded.

But, in fact, the former school had issued a permanent exclusion and then “paused” a governor’s hearing for two weeks, “during which time the parent is encouraged to find another school”.

After they had left, the exclusion was rescinded – so it didn’t appear on the school’s books.

Uttley said that, while the vast majority do it right, “we know not everybody else does.

“A system of accountability has developed that is so perverse that some schools see some young people as more valuable to them and other young people as too difficult to deal with,” he recently wrote.

Jonny Uttley at his desk at TEALs offices in East Yorkshire

How to be more inclusive

The current government has the issue on its agenda, admitting there are “too many examples” of mainstream schools not being inclusive enough.

Just last month, children’s minister David Johnston said it’s an issue his department is actively “looking into”.

But finding a solution has proved tricky. A proposed plan to make data on how many SEND pupils attend a school more “prominent” in league tables drew “mixed feedback”.

There were concerns it “risks generating perverse incentives”, with inconsistency across schools around how SEND is identified.

But Uttley suggests Ofsted could do an annual audit – where an inspector could choose five children from a school who are in elective home education, phone their parents and ask them to “talk through their experience” to gauge whether it was a move they really wanted.

He says Ofsted only going in to schools every five years means some can “game it for three years, then have a year off gaming when Ofsted comes in”.

National or regional protocols for the managed moved process would also help, as well as implementing the long-promised register of children in home education.

Meanwhile, he says the next step for academy commissioning is to “get really serious about the metrics” so that only trusts that are “genuinely inclusive [are] allowed to grow”. He says the same should apply to trusts with terrible teacher retention rates.

Jonny Uttley in the US as a young man

Running with Clinton

Uttley says his team “take the mickey” out of him all the time about his constant focus on purpose, but adds: “A CEO can never talk about it enough”.

Much of his inspiration comes from former US Democratic presidents. Pictures of JFK and Barack Obama adorn TEAL’s head office walls.

During his degree in American history and politics from the University of East Anglia, Uttley spent a year at Washington’s Georgetown University.

In the 1991-92 election years, he volunteered on Bill Clinton’s successful election campaign.

Uttley was tasked with deploying his English charm to call up and woo potential donors – in return for free pizzas.

He said the buzz in the Senate office sometimes resembled the depictions in TV show The West Wing (which Uttley “absolutely loved watching” when it aired a decade later).

He also met Clinton three times, once joining him for a run with TV cameras rolling to show voters the then presidential hopeful was “young and fit”.

Uttley got to quiz his idol on British politics, but was “struggling to keep up” on the three-mile jog (he adds he’s a much better runner now).

The opportunity gave him a self-confidence he later harnessed in his education career.

His other great source of inspiration is his mum. After their dad died when Uttley was five, she raised him and his two siblings. In 1994, she became one of the first women in the country to be ordained as a Church of England priest.

He recalls intense political debates at family dinners, and being taken on Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches in his pre-teens.

His decision to enter teaching was also inspired (somewhat) by his mum.

Uttley had quit a fully funded postgraduate course at Syracuse University, in New York and needed a reason to return home that would appease her.

Sat in an Irish bar with pals mulling possible careers she’d approve of, he settled on teaching.

Jonny Uttley who played cricket as a boy and his brother

Close-knit culture

He worked as a teaching assistant in Leeds first (where pupil behaviour “was even more challenging than now”), before completing a PGCE in history.

TEAL’s own school-centred initial teaching training (SCITT) is now seeking to develop degree-level courses for teaching assistants to become teachers, so they go into the role with “eyes wide open” – as Uttley did.

His first teaching job was at St Peter’s School in Huntingdon, which was like the TV show Teachers, with “Thursday night pub trips that people don’t do any more”.

He started teaching politics A-level, and persuaded local MP John Major, who’d recently left office, to visit his class. Uttley found Major “incredibly charismatic” – contrary to popular depictions.

He went on to teach politics at Huntington School in York – then led by renowned educationalist John Tomsett. It became the second most popular A-level, which he puts down to the annual trip to Washington he organised.

The visit in 2008 coincided with the Obama versus Clinton Democrat primaries, giving students a taste of US election fever up close.

He’s particularly proud that, during the 2010 UK election, his politics students successfully persuaded every eligible sixth former to vote.

Jonny Uttley and his phenomenal mum

A product of who you’ve worked for

In 2011, Uttley became deputy head at the newly academised South Hunsley School in East Riding, led by Chris Abbott. His focus turned to helping Abbott establish TEAL, then grow it.

He said the trust “went into schools that others wouldn’t touch… there were moments when we were pushing the limits of our capacity.”

He “feels incredibly fortunate” to have worked under Abbott and Tomsett, who both “understood the power of purpose.

“When I interview for jobs, I see that people are often the product of who they’ve worked with.”

He took over as chief executive in 2018, the same year a book he authored with Tomsett, titled Putting Staff First, was published..

The book talks about the idea that, if you prioritise staff wellbeing, children will be happy too, pointing out that just focusing on pupil happiness can leave staff exhausted.

“If you burn staff out for short-term gain for young people, the long-term effect is negative on everyone,” Uttley adds, saying some trusts are “burning through teachers” with “too many toxic cultures [prompting] talented people to quit”. 

Jonny Uttley

Staff incentives

Uttley jokes about “no-one ever leaving his trust”.

He takes inspiration from The Timpson Group around staff incentives. For instance, TEAL now pays all staff prescriptions of up to £7,000 a year.

While most trusts’ special leave policies only give bereaved staff five paid days off, those at TEAL are told to “come back when you’re ready”.

It “sends a really powerful message to staff about being cared for.” He says it costs roughly just over £100 per person a year.

He’s also purged some burdensome administrative tasks. In 2019, he “swept away the rubbish” of performance-related pay and target performance management systems. Teachers automatically get pay rises.

This year, 19 per cent of staff surveyed said their workload was unmanageable, compared to a national average of 61 per cent.

Meanwhile the trust’s ‘outstanding’ SCITT is training 54 new teachers this year – with all recent trainees still teaching two years after qualifying (compared to 79 per cent nationally).

TEAL also pioneered its own future teachers programme for sixth formers. It forms part of their careers programme, and gives them some “classroom experience and basic pedagogy”.

The Obama image at Jonny Uttleys office

Regional directors get ‘unfair flak’

Since 2022, Uttley has sat on DfE’s Yorkshire and Humber advisory board.

He believes there’s more scrutiny around academisation than people probably realise.  DfE’s regions team “takes some unfair flak”, but Uttley defends it as “full of really hard-working civil servants with strong moral compasses”.

He’s unsure why the education department “maybe hasn’t been as transparent as it might be”, because “there’s not really a lot to hide”.

However, he does feel lucky to be a second-generation trust boss.

Leaders prior to 2016 faced a lack of regulation and had to be “very entrepreneurial because there was no blueprint”, with some disasters arising from “in some cases, a lack of morality”.

If Uttley can put that moral purpose front and centre of the schools system again, he’ll feel he has delivered on (at least one) of his purposes.

He gestures to the Obama quote on his wall: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time… we are the change that we seek.

Uttley adds: “I hope, over the next few years, we have the courage to transform the system.”

Latest education roles from

Procurement Officer

Procurement Officer

RNN Group

Director of Marketing and Student Recruitment

Director of Marketing and Student Recruitment

Barnet and Southgate College

Professional Practice (TLA) Lead

Professional Practice (TLA) Lead

RNN Group

Health & Care Coordinator

Health & Care Coordinator

MidKent College

HR Assistant

HR Assistant

MidKent College

Principal, Cedar Mount Academy Bright Futures Educational Trust

Principal, Cedar Mount Academy Bright Futures Educational Trust

Satis Education

More Profiles

‘She makes me feel hopeful for the profession’

It’s a dream come true for any teacher to have a pupil go on to make a powerful impact...

Jessica Hill

 The rise of parent activism

“Would you enter a burning building, just to meet a government target?” The question flashed up on screen during...

Jessica Hill

‘You need a sense of pride to turn schools around’

Becks Boomer-Clark recalls pulling into the car park of Oasis Academy Bristol for a job interview as vice principal....

Jessica Hill

More from this theme

Quick-fix school buildings hazards that could be next RAAC scandal

Timber rooves held together with ‘glue and panel pins’ and materials that turn to ‘fragile Weetabix’ when wet are...

Jessica Hill

Head turned sci fi novelist and teacher trainer Alex Prior

Alex Prior well knows how painful it can be as a headteacher to pour your energy into a school, only for it...

Jessica Hill

Living with RAAC: How one school is still coping with crisis

Nine months after the RAAC crisis hit, the issue no longer dominates the news agenda but its fallout still...

Jessica Hill

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment

  1. Matt Tate

    Two things would make a significant difference and I think would have little negative impact.

    1) Make Contextual Value Added a prominent measure (or the only measure)
    2) Include a conversation with the local authority as part of the Ofsted visits, this conversation should be about admissions practices, off-rolling, EHE and inclusion. If there is evidence of gaming then this should be reflected in the judgement

    These measure would have no cost but would make a difference.