Where is Education now? Hope vs Despair


Things that make me despair:

Visionless policy-making. There’s no overall vision for education from any party.  No joined up thinking; no coherent strategy.  It’s piecemeal bits and pieces, stabbing around for election hits.  Tory Grammars was the most head-in-sand example but Jeremy Corbyn needs to stop talking about kids learning things by heart as if this is a terrible thing; it’s the wrong debate to have about SATs.  He also needs to stop talking about LAs as if they are the answer. Show me a school that is excellent because of local democratic control.

DFE Manipulation via Output Control – in the hole where leadership should be:  I’m fed up with the way government seeks to engineer changes via outcome measures.  EBacc, P8, Ofsted criteria, coasting schools definitions… it goes on. This generates perpetual gaming, dressing up and hubristic facade building, the cult of Outstanding – instead of deep-rooted system-wide quality based on secure inputs.  The whole culture needs to change.

Heads on Sticks. Allied to the remote control is the culture of talking about schools as failing instead of struggling.  There are very few examples of schools that have been “turned around” (hate that phrase) permanently with the same students  – without closing the school and starting a new one.  There are lots of flashes in the pan.  Instead of taking a system view of supporting schools in high challenge situation, we put guns to the leader’s heads and say: sort it out or else.  The high stakes nature of our accountability system is an absolute disgrace.

Ofsted’s refusal to acknowledge that it is the main source of the high stakes heads-on-sticks culture whilst pumping out the myth-busting PR, as if they’re really the good guys.  All this whilst running inspection processes in secondary schools that have NEVER been subjected to ANY form of independent reliability trials.

Averaged data measures.  Why are we not able to cope with the complexity that underpins the notion of performance and progress in student attainment?    We present data at a level below the standard expected for GCSE maths.  Averages are terrible measures.  We’re deeply wedded to the idea that we should capture aspects of school performance in one letter or number.  Average Grade C-.  Progress 8 +0.15.  It’s absolutely balmy.

The pathetic vision of the Ebacc married to the half-hearted approach to making it happen.   I’ll just leave that there.

Curriculum expectations overload— there’s only so much time in the week and we’ve just dialed up pressure on Maths and English to 11…. but schools must tackle mental health, Prevent, character education, SRE, careers, Ebacc, “no reason to downgrade the arts”.  AS IF!

Perverse infuriating contradictory rhetoric from people promoting character Education (Nicky Morgan) and curriculum breadth (HMCI) at the same time as enforcing gun to head pressures that drive schools to change their curriculum to achieve exactly the opposite.  The rise of the two-year KS3 is something that nobody decided from the perspective of a vision for education – it’s the product of relentless pressure on results at the expense of everything else.

Overblown claimsAND hysterical conspiracy theories about academisation, MATs and free schools.  We’ve spent a lot of time and money in creating new structures – some MATs, some new schools are fabulous and exciting and innovative; some are not.  The same was true of LAs.  The system has changed completely in the last 10 years but is our population better educated as a result? Not really, no.  A few gems here and there do not make a better system – especially if they’ve taken a disproportionate share of the resources.   But it’s no conspiracy.  Everybody means well; we’re mostly trying to do good things. The few who have lost their moral compass paying themselves the £200K+ mega-bucks are not the norm.  And the genie is out of the bottle.  I’m all for a full MAT system now… it’s the quickest way to re-engineer something approximating to ‘an education system’.

Squeamish attitudes to routine features of good behaviour management – given how desperately needed this is in places.  It’s actually damaging, in my view, inhibiting schools from taking the required steps to maintain the standards that are needed.

Lack of recognition for the intolerable pressures schools face in relation to inclusion and SEND safety nets – and the fairly outrageous fact that not every school has to play its part; this vital element of a school system is effectively left to the good will of schools, inspection pressures and market forces: not good enough.

Party-political curriculum debate where people suggest a powerful knowledge curriculum and traditional teaching belong to Gove and the right wing.  Why has Labour managed to give up the territory of educational rigour, cultural capital and the idea that all children need and deserve an academic education for the longest possible time. How is this a Tory standpoint and not a rallying-call to tackle social injustice?

Things that give me hope:

There’s a slow awakening around perceived Ofsted compliance. Lesson grading is widely recognised as bunkum; the need for lesson plans, a certain marking frequency, a certain type of teaching – with minimal teacher talk – all of that compliance nonsense has GONE. At least it is on the way out; it’s just a matter of time.

We’ve started on an assessment paradigm shift.  Marking has lost its untouchable status and we’re starting to get into low stakes testing and proper ‘AfL’ – ie responsive teaching –  instead.  The God of Data has been exposed – Wizard of Oz style.  The curtain has been pulled back….  The news just needs to spread a little further.

The knowledge debate is moving on: we’re talking about curriculum more; generic pedagogy less.  This is exciting.  For God’s sake Labour – get with it! With the curriculum change period nearing an end, we’ll soon be in a stable-state phase where we can start to really bed it in, get some decent text books and focus on the details – the enacted curriculum. That’s exciting.

The developing culture around evidence-informed practice gives me hope.  Findings from research are working their way into our thinking.  The current level of engagement between teachers and researchers is exciting; the extent to which ideas from research are having direct influence at school level is exciting; the debate and the opportunity to have it via ResearchEd and various other channels and forums – is exciting. Lightyears from where we were 10 years ago.

The system has shown that it can stand up for itself:  Resistance on Ebacc, pressure on funding, changes to Progress 8.  The fact that we have people like Becky Allen at Datalab, Geoff Barton at ASCL and journalists like Laura McInerney asking the important questions, gives me hope.

Finally, but most importantly, it’s the people in schools and colleges all over the country:   this is really the source of all hope. I’ve visited a lot of schools and colleges and met teachers from many more.  Everywhere I go, I meet teachers and leaders who are absolutely inspirational: committed, passionate, dedicated, determined; powered by a sense of mission to transform students’ lives.  Despite all the challenges and the teacher-turnover, the whole education community feels vibrant: the school-level debates, the festivals, the conferences and teachmeets, twitter, the forum provided by SchoolsWeek and TES, the plethora of teachers’s books by teachers… it’s buzzing.  As a profession, we are ALIVE and KICKING.   That’s what gives me hope.  And in the end, sense will prevail and we will win….!





  1. I couldn’t agree me, I write all the time on my blog about ‘initiatives’. Too often contradictory knee-jerk policies are enacted simply to appear busy. I yearn for the days of back of a fag packet policy making, at least someone remembered to bring a pen. Nowadays back of a cab en route to a key note speech seems to be the way policy is decided…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So right! Output control is really a serious issue; the marketisation of schools is leading to more repetition of social class, negating the idea that education can be a tool for social mobility! At least that’s what I think anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Agree with all of your points of despair. These are all major problems for the system. No-one seems to have an answer to how we fix these problems and more importantly how we prevent politicians just creating more of the same. Unless we fix the latter point we will keep going round in circles, with each new Secretary of State for Education having to prove they are the dog’s goolies in order to stay in the cabinet.

    The answer is NOT going to come from politicians because none of them will give away power. They have to be seen to be doing something to get elected.

    The answer must come from Headteacher organisations. They have public respect but are currently saying too little about how the system should be improved. When they say nothing it is equivalent to condoning the problems. When the government hears nothing it does not need to respond.

    Thank you for the good work of telling it how it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Tom. As always, I am filled with hope. To borrow a phrase from a certain edublogger, my teaching battleground is between optimism and cynicism!

    I am absolutely certain that every individual makes a difference to the system as a whole by the choices they make, the values they prioritise and most of all the language they use day to day. For good or ill.

    If we get enough people bringing a positive, self-aware, courageous, determined growth mindset into the spaces where education happens, the future is as bright as ever!

    Stay hopeful, Tom.

    Liked by 1 person

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