Being in opposition is a nightmare. You don’t have the resources of the DfE at your disposal to research ideas; it’s a shoestring affair. If you float policies too early, they’ll be shredded before you can cost them or get them started as a pilot OR they’ll be stolen and you lose political traction. If you leave it too late, or leave out key details, you get slammed for not having credible policies or ones that are well thought out. And of course, ideas are just ghosts and empty air unless you get elected – and that’s a dirty business; it’s not for the faint-hearted or for idealists.
So, with 17 months to go to the election, Tristram Hunt has broken cover: the germ of a policy idea has been announced – and is fighting for air amongst the multi-sensory media mishmash (a McDonald’s Daily Deli Deal) and the pre-emptive barbs from an impatient profession, swift to launch their twitter tirades.
Fortunately, to get some perspective, I’ve already read three thoughtful blogs this weekend that have given some balance and perspective, evaluating the idea of teacher licensing as featured in Tristram Hunt’s announcement
There will be lots of others too.
For me, the most important positive aspect of the idea is that it focuses on teaching – not exams, school structures or the curriculum. The second aspect is that it isn’t an announcement of a policy as such – it is a declaration of a desire to engage with the profession in dialogue about the whole issue around improving the quality of teaching. The ‘Teacher MOT’ tagline is just part of the horrible low-level discourse that surrounds us. It is obvious (to me at least) that the MOT or re-licensing itself is not the central aspect of this policy: it is the process of ensuring that all teachers attain and sustain a high level of professional learning throughout their career, such that re-licensing would flow naturally as a badge of credibility.
There are obviously lots of hurdles to overcome – some technical, some presentational, some financial. But this is a good place to start – if we take time to listen and discuss. A key point to stress is that governments can’t directly improve schools or teach children; they have three tools: to make up regulations, to control where public money goes and to use rhetoric to influence attitudes and patterns of behaviour. In practice, teachers and school leaders have to do the leg-work.
With that in mind, it is worth thinking about how a government might successfully improve the standards of teaching in this country. The current government focuses almost entirely on end-point outcome-driven incentives, with ‘freedoms’ and ‘powers’ for Heads, (outcome restriction to use Tim Oates’ concept), largely relying on the fact that Headteachers (and to some extent their Governors) will do whatever is necessary to make themselves and their schools look as good as possible. As we are seeing, this has all kinds of limiting and narrowing consequences.
The alternative is to apply restriction to the inputs: the quality of teachers on entry and the quality of their training thereafter. This is where Labour has placed itself. The question for a Labour government will be: how do we make things happen in schools? It won’t work to simply say ‘off you go, get on with it, all you lovely professional teachers and headteachers, we have total faith in you’. This won’t wash politically; it isn’t a winnable election strategy. Also it is an abdication of the democratic responsibility for taking on schools and teachers who aren’t performing well enough. The idea of a (Royal) College of Teaching is one of those ideas that sounds great on paper – great to rally around; bottom-up, profession-led; etc. In reality, it will need serious political government-driven support and leadership to gain the powers it would need to address the serious weaknesses in the system. It won’t happen otherwise in any case.
If the embryonic Labour policy provides incentives and structures that compel schools and teachers to engage with world class best-practice in the professional development of teachers, that will be a good thing. Surely? That’s the goal so let’s hear them out. Let’s give them time to get the ideas through before we add to the barrage or barracking that could kill any good policy stone dead before it has a chance to fly.
The speech Tristram Hunt gave on Wednesday was a good one in my view. It shows the difference between what someone wants to say and what is reported. I’ll sign up to most of this – with caveats about the tech revolution ‘liberating us from the yoke of marking exercise books’. I think it’s unwise to talk that talk on many levels.