Unleashing Greatness? Education Reform in Action

” You can mandate adequacy … greatness has to be unleashed”  Joel Klein – via Sir Michael Barber

Ever since I attended the London Festival of Education at the IoE in November 2012, I’ve had a sense that education reform was there for the taking – it’s just a case of people getting organised and learning to express ideas coherently.  Although it is possible to feel powerless in the system – especially one in which the Secretary of State and OfSTED have so much individual and institutional power respectively – there are lots of channels for making direct contact with policy makers.   Through all the conferences and festivals and the connecting power of social media and blogs, the path towards a profession-led system is getting clearer; the policy makers are less remote and it is possible to make them listen – even if they don’t often do what you want them to.

In my post after the IoE event, ‘Building a Trust Culture; It’s not all hugs‘, I suggested that we already have more freedom than we know what to do with’. I believe that’s true for teachers and Headteachers. The problem is that the accountability regime has held us back. The tension between autonomy and accountability has been the theme of a lot of recent policy talk that I’ve been engaged with; finding the moment when we stop mandating and start unleashing.

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Education Reform Summit launch at Lancaster House.

On July 9th-10th, the Education Foundation, run by co-founders Ty Goddard & Ian Fordham, hosted a fascinating event in partnership with the DFE. Billed as the first Education Reform Summit, the event was an attempt to orchestrate a gathering of significance; some kind of marker signalling that we’re entering a new era, building capacity and consensus as we shift towards a profession-led system. It was quite a coup to secure the support of the DFE and the main parties for an event like this. The line-up included a range of international contributors, school leaders, teachers, union leaders, politicians and the Mayor of London.

Those invited were people the Education Foundation consider to be contributing to the reform process; all of my colleagues in the Headteachers’ Roundtable were asked to attend and we were delighted to be there. I’d like to have seen Chris Husbands, David Weston,  Sue Williamson and Mike Cladingbowl there to complete the line-up but I was impressed by EF’s cross-phase, cross-sector guest list with a healthy presence of bloggers and twitter-folk.

On his @tes blog, Tom Bennett has done a superb job capturing the spirit of both parts of the summit – witty and wise as always.  I’d recommend both parts:   Part 1  and Part 2 

For me, there were a few key highlights:

Sir Michael Barber.

Sir Michael Barber at #EdReform14
Sir Michael Barber at #EdReform14

His presentation was hugely impressive. The slides are here.  I think we miss his intelligent, principled drive in the current policy machinery. Using this slide he talked about the profession and government developing a principled strategic partnership, with the government allowing greater autonomy in return for greater, evidence-driven consistency in outcomes.  He suggested that 2014 should mark a bringing together of provision, accountability, standards  and autonomy that have taken their turn as the focus of different key regimes since 1944.  Essentially he was urging school leaders to seize the opportunity they have to make the system great – and not to wait for someone else to do it.

Dutch Minister: Sander Dekker

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The International Panel. The theme was that autonomy and liberalisation within a clear assessment framework lead to strong performance

Mr Dekker provided an analysis of the Dutch system which continues to underperform in terms of PISA rankings relative to the investment that is made in education in the Netherlands.  He suggested that they had successfully tackled a range of equity issues but that their best fell short of the best elsewhere. He called this ‘tall poppy syndrome’; the system doesn’t allow for variation that exceeds the average – it holds it back.  The challenge for Holland is to allow greater autonomy in the system so that real excellence could emerge – for tall poppies to thrive.  I like the analogy.  Are we comfortable with beacons of excellence – or do we shrink back because of equity concerns?

Dame Sally Coates

Sally spoke at the launch event.  I don’t agree with everything she says – (for example we disagree about PRP and the inherent value of academies over maintained schools) but I admire her drive and the spirit of doing things the way she thinks they should be done.  She’s principled about equality issues and achievement and has delivered the goods in her school(s).  If every Head was as effective as Sally Coates, we’d be in a much better place; sadly that’s not the case.  It was fascinating to hear her set out her view of the system in a serious and robust way  – especially after hearing BoJo do his bluff and bluster act.

Doug Lemov

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Teach Like A Champion. Doug Lemov with Charlie Taylor

Doug Lemov was also hugely impressive. (I’ve used that phrase twice now –  there were some big hitters at this event!) He speaks with conviction about his moral purpose and makes huge sense talking about the way to engage teachers in improving their practice.  In particular I liked his reference to sportspeople and surgeons who practise their skills away from the theatre of performance, before they ‘go out into the game’.  He suggested that this was how teacher CPD should be – not just expecting people to hone their skills as they use them for real, but giving them opportunities to practise in the safety of teacher meetings and workshops beforehand.   I like this idea a lot.  I’m going to re-read Teach Like A Champion now I know what Doug sounds like – very humble, intelligent and grounded in experience.

Contributing to the Workshops

The discussions that move things on.
The discussions that move things on.

As Tom Bennett describes in his post, there’s a lot of time pressure on these sessions but we managed to have our say.  Tom set out the ResearchEd stall and its origins as the educational antidote to the Bad Science of too many initiatives in the past.  He’s a brilliant advocate for this mission and I’m excited to learn that the whole enterprise is set to develop significantly in the next year.

When I got my three minutes, I tried to give a feel for the Heads Roundtable manifesto . There were three things I wanted to stress.  1) The fact that we’d formed a think tank spontaneously and voluntarily and were getting our ideas listened to. 2) That we’re trying to put ideas forward, not just critique the policies we’re presented with  – our Manifesto has 10 proposals and I read them all out; 3) That we’re also trying to put one key idea into action regardless of  policy with our Baccalaureate model.

The Heads Roundtable Education Manifesto Proposals
The Heads Roundtable Education Manifesto Proposals

ResearchEd and Heads’ Roundtable are good examples of system leadership; people proactively seeking to change things rather than sit back waiting for it to happen.  The table discussions gave us time to explore some of these issues.  On our table we found ourselves focused on the microcosm of school level accountability versus the autonomy of teachers.  Grading lessons and the SLT-teacher relationship has parallels with the system level relationship between DFE/OfSTED and schools.  Can we set people free – to unleash greatness? Can we do the same for schools? And if so, how do we manage the problems with underperformance and variation at each level?

As an aside, it’s worth reflecting on just how difficult people can find it to turn ideas into policies.  Working with the Labour Skills Task Force and Heads’ Roundtable, I’ve had the experience of trying to think of solutions to problems and then trying to articulate them in policy terms. You can’t simply wish schools to behave in certain ways – you have to force them or incentivise them. You can’t wish for a policy that takes decisions in a certain area away from government and simultaneously expect the government to sort out the problems in that area for you.  It’s also important to consider costs and the likelihood of ideas gaining support – otherwise, you’re wasting your time.  Often people have a sense of the change they’d like to see but can’t work through the policy steps needed.  If you don’t like how things are, you need better ideas – but it’s harder than people think.  There are no easy answers.

The Networking

Of course,  a key aspect to an event like this is the networking.  It’s a horrible word and often people characterise this as some kind of dark art – insider palm-greasing for mutual gain.  But actually, it is the conversations and relationships formed in between all the formal speech making that allow people to shape their ideas and to influence others.  I’ve often felt that events are over-full with input; you always wish you had more of the in-between time.  Personally I found the networking at the summit very useful.  Amongst many quick chats, I grabbed two minutes with Tristram Hunt for a conversation about the National Bacc and Labour’s policy timeline;  I met Vicky Beer, Chair of the Teaching Schools Council and I had the briefest of exchanges with Russell Hobby from the NAHT – a chance to commit to working together in the future.  These things are very informal but better than an email exchange by miles.

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AQA Policy  Workshop

Assessment and Accountability. An AQA Gathering
Assessment and Accountability. An AQA Gathering

The day before the Reform Summit, I had a chance to attend a policy-forming event organised by AQA’s Dale Bassett. It was another evening of talking that, for me, blended with the Reform Summit completely.  We are discussing how public exams could serve as meaningful assessments of students’ learning as well as contributing to the accountability framework for schools.  It’s a tough nut to crack.  We explored issues around different modes of assessment for different subjects, the new Scottish system and the potential benefits of a Bacc model ( hence the reason I was invited).    There were no firm conclusions but the discussions were all part of the dialogue that we are now having across the system.  I was glad to see Brian Lightman from ASCL at both of these events.  We’re all trying to move the agenda forward.


Taking Education Reform Forward

Events like these are excellent opportunities for bringing the profession together with policy makers. I’m grateful to the Education Foundation and AQA for inviting me.   It’s exciting to be able to contribute and everyone involved seemed to feel the same.  However, the key to making these things significant is for them to gain traction beyond the events themselves.  However wide the net is cast, the participants are a tiny sample of people who are active in the system.  For too long schools have looked to OfSTED and the DFE as the sources of authority to guide how they function;  if we’re going to guide ourselves and aspire to unleash greatness as Michael Barber was suggesting, we need to engage a lot more people in this dialogue.  It’s a real challenge.  Any gathering is self-selecting or selective and there are lots of school leaders who are disengaged from the discourse of system-leadership; they’re too busy keeping their school going day-to-day and are often content to reside within local networks that provide them with the support they need.

However, those networks are unlikely to influence National policy in the way that we need.  No doubt ASCL,  NAHT , SSAT and other national organisations  have a significant role to play  in reaching out beyond the social media bubble but even with their help, there’s massive system inertia to overcome.  The Stockholm Syndrome that keeps leaders and teachers from expressing themselves fully is strong and it will take a while to dissipate. If the next Government is serious about unleashing greatness, they’d do well to spread the message that it’s OK to come out of the cage!  (As an example, it‘s ironic that some schools will continue grading lessons with ‘OfSTED criteria’ long after this practice has been totally debunked, perhaps until OfSTED itself makes the practice of grading a trigger for failing an inspection on the basis of weak leadership! ).  

Despite the challenges, I think things are moving forward.  Hopefully the Education Reform Summit and other events like it will be catalysts for a genuine profession-led Reform Movement that governments and government agencies follow rather than lead; that’s the greatness we could unleash in time if we stick at it and join in wherever we can.





  1. Hi Tom, Thanks for this informative and positive blog post on what looks like an important event. I’m writing this after Gove has gone, and it makes me think that possibly there’s a subtext in your post that teachers were marginalised when you and Tom with his Research Ed movement, and NTEN, not being the centre stage you should have been. Possibly that’s unfair, but I really feel Gove/BoJo know nothing about teaching and yet are clearly swanning around like kings at the feast. I have my doubts about Barber, who was the brains/architect of much that was disastrous in the New Labour regime: the National Strategies, the overly prescriptive A Levels etc. And now is working for Pearson, which like the politicians and the exam boards (Edexcel being Pearson’s I think) will make immense profits from “test-leveraged” reform, when we know what works is what you’ve been saying for a while; great CPD for teachers on what actually works (http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/07/what-is-good-teaching-and-how-can-we-encourage-it/) and really good formative, low-stakes assessment, which is constantly pushing students’ on with their learning, motivating them to learn more etc.


  2. […] Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Education. It’s a pity, perhaps, that the timing of your appointment means that you missed last week’s excellent Education Reform Summit run jointly by the Education Foundation and the DfE. Still, there have been excellent write-ups by great edu-bloggers including Tom Bennett and Tom Sherrington. […]


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