Everyone who works in the school system wants the best for the children – let’s start with that assumption. Politicians do too; it’s just that their instinct to ‘do something’ can be woefully misjudged. Here are some thoughts.
A fundamental paradox in the school improvement process is that deep-rooted change that constitutes bona fide transformation of educational standards takes longer than almost anyone can bear to wait. There are good reasons for the impatience – every day that real children are receiving a poor education is a day too many. There are also bad reasons – ie that the electoral cycle only gives politicians a few years to work with: two to implement change and, at most, three to show the improvement needed to prove how good their ideas were. That’s not really long enough to demonstrate cause and effect for any educational policy; too often minor indications of positive progress are blown up into cast iron proof of success.
In my opinion, educational politics has side-stepped the issue of real school improvement from all sides of the political arena. We’ve entered a world where performance measures rule – looking good in the data tables matters more than having well-educated children. This started way back under Labour, accelerated with the introduction of methodologically dubious floor targets and the hidden judgement-limiting OfSTED algorithms that treated ‘gaps’ measured by sub-levels of progress as if they were precisely definable physical entities. Once National Strategies fizzled out, it feels to me that we stopped even trying to have a national discusson about how to improve schools; it was just that we had to, somehow. I’m sure it could be argued that some failing schools were dealt with under the New Stick Era (nothing is ever all bad) but the distorting effect of macro school performance pressure on the broader, deeper educational mission has been significant. Ed Balls has got a lot to answer for in my book. Under his watch, aided by extraordinary artificial GCSE equivalences and a spiralling re-sit culture, school improvement was more akin to gerrymandering than teaching; smoke and mirrors and posturing. There – I said it. Still now, with exams being pulled back into a more stable form over the next few years, people are looking around for loopholes to scrape whatever they can out of the system. (Example : PiXL promoting a three-day IT course for an extra GCSE. Nevermind the underlying educational value, play the system!)
We’ve been through the years of ‘turn around’ miracles, with dramatic improvements in results in individual schools, most of which I’ve been deeply suspicious of; many of which have had their bubbles burst by the changes to GCSEs and performance tables. It was always an illusion in terms of underlying educational improvement. Politicians have fuelled a culture that has rewarded and motivated Heads to play the game; a game that does not equate to teaching children to know and understand more. Grade inflation was real and I’m glad that this has been stopped. To me, tackling grade inflation hasn’t denigrated students’ and teachers’ achievements and endeavours – it has saved them from being devalued. Qualifications should mean something – and it doesn’t help anyone to diminish them.
Another dimension of side-stepping has been the focus on structures. The current Free School and academisation agenda and the opposition to it are, to my mind, all about politics (ideology?) and very little to do with school improvement. Despite the fact that Free Schools are so new, all kinds of claims are made about how successful they are, not only in themselves but in the impact they have on other schools. It’s all nonsense – because it’s way too soon. For a start, where secondary Free Schools start with Year 7 and grow it takes five years to get GCSE results to examine. We don’t have many of those yet. Are there any? Even then, you’d need to see three years of results to know what the real trends and impacts were compared to local schools. It’s a long game. The analysis of outcomes in the Policy Exchange report seems the most desperate attempt to squeeze a positive spin out of a very small, unclear, premature data set. Read this account or this account and decide for yourself. And yet,this has become a ‘truth’. Free Schools Work. At the same time, blanket opposition to academisation and the opening of any new school that is technically a Free School, isn’t helpful either. It astonishes me when people who work in Free Schools and Academies are treated with contempt by others simply for that fact.
To me, schools are schools and in the end, they’ll look identical. There are now so many academies that any attempt to suggest that academies as a group are better or worse than maintained schools is ridiculous. For a start, the early waves of academy conversions were limited to Outstanding schools. In Chelmsford, where I used to work, nearly all the 14 secondary schools converted to academy status. They were the SAME SCHOOLS – and we worked more closely with the Local Authority than ever. Nothing about how effective or ineffective these schools were derived from their designation. I know lots of people in sponsored academies. Some feel the sponsor’s presence; some don’t. Some speak highly of the benefits that their particular chain brings; others are deeply critical. This is the same for any local authority. In Islington, with central operations stripped down to a minimum, I’d say that the difference between being maintained or being an academy is negligible. If we all became academies tomorrow, nothing of any substance that affected children would happen. We’re all accountable to the market of prospective parents, to our existing parents, to our governors and to the public via OfSTED. We’re already hugely autonomous in what we do every day. None of that would change.
I’ve never bought the idea that local democratic control of schools has any real impact – because in practice it doesn’t. Not in Haringey; Not in Essex; Not in Islington. Once you’ve appointed a Headteacher and given them a budget, it’s out of the politicians’ hands whichever party they represent. LAs and Chains can offer services and leadership of a kind but not at the level where the designation makes a difference. There are benefits to being part of a local community of schools with shared responsibilities – but that happened in Essex too, even where most schools were academies. Do I want my current school to become an academy? No. Why? Because, apart from the fact that it’s not up to me, it would be a massive waste of energy. Locally, people associate the community of schools with the Local Authority and that’s fine with me. But that’s not a principle – it’s just pragmatism; what works best for the children.
A key element of the side-stepping with Free Schools and academies – and this is what annoys me – is the lack of acknowledgement that the New School phase or Change phase is inherently short-lived. This is the same effect as bringing in a new manager to a football club – but we all know how that pans out in the long-term. It’s a piece of cake to set up a new school compared to raising standards in an existing one – perhaps that’s the key reason for the government’s enthusiasm for Free Schools. They are NEW; shiny, untainted, fresh. It’s all about possibilities and optimism. But, surely, you can’t argue that Free Schools are a school improvement strategy, not in the long term. At the same time, if the SoS was simply talking excitedly about a New School strategy – mostly in basic need areas – I’m sure we’d get a lot less oppositional froth. Over time, schools will change, growing and shrinking to match demographic shifts and that’s Ok. Arguably, any school that is deeply worried about a new school opening nearby should be worried. My attitude is ‘bring it on’. It’s my job to make my school so good, anyone would choose it – and it seems sensible to embrace the presence of another great school nearby for all the kids that can’t get into mine. Of course, I might also argue for a local middle tier with planning and coordinating powers – but that’s just way too sensible!
If we all accept that Academy conversion is 100% a red herring, forced academisation is another side-stepping manoeuvre . Again, the strategy is not to worry about the precise problems or work out how to solve them; it’s just to get new people in to tackle them. Side-step. This comes with the tough talk rhetoric that we’re so accustomed to nowadays. ‘We simply WILL NOT tolerate low standards – (we’ve no idea how to raise them but that’s not our problem – we simply won’t tolerate them.)’ I wonder if I should run my school like that? Instead of working with teachers to help them improve and creating a culture of mutual trust and high challenge, I could just walk in and tell everyone that I won’t tolerate low standards and that the weakest teachers will be replaced – decisively. Of course that doesn’t work. I tackle underperformance robustly but intelligently, not in a way that makes everyone feel they have a gun to their head. I was raging about this in an article for the TES last week after the Queen’s Speech.
I hope that, in the long run, we can move the discourse away from structures and accountability measures, moving towards a collective process of problem solving around tackling underachievement, more intensive teacher development and better support for emerging leaders. It would help if politicians checked their pronouncements more thoroughly with a range of educators before making them. We don’t need a new school-business initiative (they already exist, occupying that icing on the cake domain); we don’t need a teacher oath; we don’t need to turn a sensible teacher CPD entitlement into a ‘teachers’ MOT’. Labour needs to do better in opposition to sell a bigger vision instead of tinkering around the edges or peddling blind opposition to ideas they wish they’d had in the first place. John Blake and Ros McMullen have both written about this recently.
As I look at my school improvement priorities for next year, as I’ve described here, I can’t think of too many things a politician has said or done to make this easier for me (apart from getting rid of NC Levels to catalyse our work on assessment; I’m a huge fan of that.) I suppose that’s ok, as long as they let us get on with it and give us the time and resources we need. Let’s hope. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to reading something of a grand vision for education from Labour before too long. I just hope they ask a few teachers to read it before it gets published.