Dear Justine. Some thoughts…

greeningDear Justine

Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State.  I’m quietly optimistic and looking forward to seeing how education policy develops under your leadership.  You’ve got a genuine opportunity to create a significant legacy; without question, there is plenty to do!

I wrote to Nicky Morgan from this blog twice last year – you might find these letters of interest.

Firstly, (Dear Nicky..) on her re-appointment after the election in 2015, where I was keen to stress the folly  of ‘gun-to-the-head’ rhetoric.  You’ve got an opportunity to eliminate the ludicrous tough-talk; the ‘do better or else’ tone that has emanated from the DfE in recent years.  As if Headteachers and teachers are not trying hard enough to wrestle with difficult problems or will respond positively to even more job insecurity.

You’ve got a chance to set out a new mode of engagement showing that you understand some of the complexities of raising standards, some of the challenges certain schools face more than others and that you are there to support, to champion and, of course, to challenge, in the right measure and spirit.  (Take a look at NM’s  official DFE black screen message to primary Heads earlier this year where she talks to them about the new SATs as if they’re a group of Y4s who have been terribly naughty – and resolve never to talk to professionals in that tone!)

Secondly (Nicky Morgan vs The Bell Curve) after the publication of the coasting schools paper where I expressed my views (fairly strongly) about the definitions and the rhetoric of ‘schools below average are failing’.  Linked to this, your predecessor’s greatest mistake, in my view, was to label GCSE grades 5-9 as ‘good passes’, effectively condemning grades 1-4 to being ‘bad passes’ despite OfQual’s well-publicised (and well-founded) moves to eliminate grade inflation from the system.  About 40% of students have to get grades 1-4 by definition however hard they try as a consequence of the norm-referenced grade award system.  I really hope you will develop an understanding of these matters, unlike NM who absolutely refused to engage.

For what it is worth, I have written my own blueprint for education reform in this blog post.   I’d love to know your views.  Please also look out for the forthcoming alternative white paper from the Headteacher’s Roundtable.  We’ve got some good ideas about school structures, accountability and the recruitment and retention of staff.  (You may want to see our manifesto from last year to get an idea of how we think.)

We’ve got our hands full implementing curriculum reform but there are other things you should look into with some urgency:

Safety Net Arrangements: As the system becomes ever more fragmented with MATs breaking away from community roots, there are all kinds of issues with admissions, SEND provision and, crucially, alternative provision for excluded students.  Surely every school, regardless of their designation (faith, grammar, academy, free school etc…) should share responsibilities for safety net provision in the communities they serve? (Assuming we can still talk in terms of schools serving communities?)

Funding Cuts. I’d welcome some honesty in this area.  If we accept reduced funding as an inevitability for some schools in the shake-out from the national funding formula, can you be very clear that you recognise that schools will, therefore, be providing fewer services, teaching in bigger classes and asking teachers to teach more hours in the week?  Please, please don’t make us all pretend that we can do the same for less. Be big enough to accept responsibility for the impact funding cuts have. (Let’s not mess around with the ‘flat cash’ mirage either.)

Equalities. With your wider role, please do whatever you can to promote a stronger system-wide stance on promoting LGBT issues. Take a look at the Prevent strategy which is hugely problematic at school level. Also, making PSHE compulsory would be a good move. Make your mark!  

Finally, and much more positively, I want to draw your attention to the National Baccalaureate for England, a curriculum framework being promoted by the recently formed National Baccalaureate Trust .  If you were to get involved with what we’re doing and supported the development of this model, you (and the Prime Minister) would have the opportunity to leave  a very significant legacy.  Imagine if you could be responsible for establishing the National Baccalaureate for England, allowing learners in all settings to gain recognition for their educational achievements of all kinds, motivating them to pursue a rounded education, linking academic and technical learning and personal development in an inclusive all-embracing framework?!  Now, that would be quite something.  It’s there for the taking, linking beautifully with your portfolio that now includes Higher Education.   And it won’t cost much. Let’s talk!

Good luck and sincere best wishes.

Tom Sherrington





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