What I’ve learned about education policy and what I’m learning about what is now needed

We all want every child to go to a good school.  We all want every child to reach their full potential.  And we all know that this is not currently happening. 

During the time I have been leading schools (in many roles over the last 23 years) I have seen four distinct policy periods, which I am beginning to define in the following ways:

  1. No More Excuses. This period was defined by the growing importance of OFSTED; the publication of performance data; the beginnings of the removal of under-performing headteachers, teachers and schools, and targeted intervention.
  2. Brave New World. This period was largely defined by the beginning of the academies movement and later by an attempt to join up various elements of provision for young people and their families – characterised in the renaming of the department as the Department for Children, Schools and Families
  3. Redrawing the Map. This period saw the massive expansion of multi-academy trusts; the desire that ‘every school will become an academy’; the promotion of ‘system leadership’, and the removal of any form of contextualisation as this was seen as ‘excuses’.
  4. Living in the Chaos. This period is defined by attempts to bring coherence through much more centralised control; the failures of some multi-academy trusts; crisis in teacher recruitment and austerity.

Whereas the first two of these periods saw increased funding for schools, the latter two have largely taken place during periods of shrinking resources for schools.

Education has always been a ‘political football’ – at school as a student during the 1970s, I vividly remember the highly charged and passionate debates about grammar schools and comprehensives – but now is a time when policy makers need to recognise that the turbulence has to stop.

In each of these periods good things happened and in each of them mistakes have been made.  What is important is that we fully understand the lessons learned and in attempting to bring coherence we must avoid ideology and a return to any golden age which frankly never existed.

Many on the left have fallen into a trap of believing that the increasing accountability load in schools, the demise of local political control, the continuing disparity in the quality of our schools, the creeping loss of autonomy for school leaders in providing for their communities, and the dubious behaviour of some of the multi-academy trusts and their leaders mean that a return to local authorities running the system is a key part of the policy solution.  It isn’t – indeed if the local authorities had been the solution to ensuring that every child went to a good school and that there was equity across the system then they would still be doing the job; similarly if total autonomy and independence for school leaders was the solution then we would not be seeing the increasing central control.  There is a need for a debate about control and accountability of our schools but it cannot be framed in the ideas of the past: we need to look at the lessons we have learned from the recent past and use them to shape the parameters of the debate.

So what have we really learned?

Firstly we are in a place where we need to recognise that structures are neither the problem nor the solution: there are excellent schools and there are poor schools and the structure of control is not what makes the difference.  There are both excellent and poor local authority schools, stand-alone academies, and schools within multi-academy trusts.  Our debate, therefore, must be very careful to ensure that it is not about structures.

Secondly, we know that the leadership of schools makes a critical difference and that the best school leaders bring an incredible premium and therefore need growing and need investing in. Leaders want to be free to run their schools for the benefit of their communities and they want all their children to succeed.  We know that when we have the best leaders and we give them autonomy to do so, their schools flourish; unfortunately we also know that poor leadership does the opposite.  Our debate needs to be clear about how we grow and support great leaders and how we attract them into our most challenging communities.

Thirdly, we know that schools do not work in isolation and, while the evidence has been there for many years, the British class system is far more pervasive in determining educational outcomes than we previously knew or than it is in other jurisdictions: all the evidence shows that in schools with predominantly white indigenous working-class populations the aspirations and attainments of young people are depressed.  This is not as simple as poverty being the problem – feeding hungry kids, buying their books and uniforms, providing extra classes etc. with pupil premium money would have worked if it were.  The cultural isolation, under-aspiration, feeling of ‘being left behind’ and antipathy to formal schooling (for many complex reasons) in our most challenging communities is a very serious problem.  It is not possible, therefore, to develop policy about improving schools without seeing it as part of a package which addresses all the other problems within our most challenging communities.

Fourthly, money can be wasted in assuming that enhanced provision in buildings, resources and staffing will address all the problems.  The value placed on education by aspirational communities is high and we have seen what can happen to previously ‘mixed communities’ when a school is seen to be improved.  The often-cited joke of a headteacher being ‘so successful that Aldi moved out and was replaced by Waitrose’ may well be apocryphal, but we have seen ‘gentrification’ in which the school system has played its part and the marginalised become more marginalised in the poorer schools whose problems are then increased.

Fifthly, as a result of the above, we now know that increasing the accountability pressures on those schools attempting to serve the most challenging communities is self-defeating, as they then face the ‘triple-whammy’: a very difficult marginalised community; publicity which demonises and isolates them, and, crucially a failure to attract the best teachers and leaders as this is basically playing Russian roulette with their careers.

In the four periods I described above of policy development there has overall been an improvement in the quality of our schools but it has always failed to address the under-lying serious inequity at the heart of our system.  Most recently the added layers of accountability, the increasing marginalisation of the most challenging communities as a result of years of austerity and other social factors, and the continuous tinkering with both school structures and examination frameworks are all working to create further inequity.  We know that there are ‘missing children’ simply not in the school system and this number is increasing; meanwhile we are facing a recruitment crisis into the profession which is unprecedented and applications for senior leadership roles in challenging schools are at an all-time low, often with a failure to recruit at headship level.

These are the facts which need to frame the policy debate and new, not old, solutions need to be considered.

A good place to start would be to decide that the ‘low trust and high accountability’ model needs to be replaced with one which recognises the expertise within our schools.  The inspection model needs a fundamental reappraisal as it is now part of the overall problem and cannot be considered as part of any solution to address these inequities.  A ‘high trust’ model of simply auditing whether schools are meeting their statutory responsibilities and then continuing to publish student performance data for information should suffice.

There is much noise in the system about ensuring that all children receive an equitable amount of funding through the introduction of the national funding formula and then disadvantaged students receiving the additional pupil premium for which schools are made accountable for ‘closing the gap’.  (The ‘gap’ is not closing as the problems causing it are not located in education) It would, therefore, be sensible to consider the national funding formula as the basic entitlement for every child and school, remove pupil premium and instead look to additional funding for the most challenging communities which is located with headteachers of schools in our most challenging communities.  In this way headteachers can construct, commission and deploy services which are either currently non-existent or are not calibrated to address the under-lying causes of under-aspiration and achievement.

Finally, those of us actively involved in leading in schools would like three things above all: some time, some space, and our expertise to be used to inform the policy debate.

This blog first appeared as an article in Progress magazine in July 2018





About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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