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There is a general election looming in case you hadn’t noticed – 114 days away to be precise. But the big education idea has yet to reveal itself. What will it be?
My prediction is that “choice” and its twin sister, “diversity”, will finally fade into the distance. Not just because they suddenly seem very last century, but because the evidence is now incontrovertible; pure choice is impossible. School places aren’t tins of baked beans on a supermarket shelf, to be expanded and contracted at will, and simply inventing new types of schools isn’t a golden bullet when it comes to raising standards.
Report after report comes tumbling into the public domain, all pointing to the same conclusions. Four out of five free schools that opened this year can’t fill their places. One school opened in a building that cost £18m with only 17 pupils. And don’t forget that this absurd gimmick was the revolutionary big idea in the run-up to the 2010 election.
The latest chief inspector’s report from Ofsted states that free schools are no better or worse than any others. They succeed or fail for broadly the same reasons as the rest.
The progress of secondaries (over half of which are now academies) has stalled, whereas that of primaries (most of which remain maintained) is impressive.
Academy chains have turned out to be no different from the local authorities they replaced. The National Audit Office reports that the Department for Education, which now in effect line-manages thousands of schools, hasn’t really got a clue what is going on in many of them.
And research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on young people and poverty could find no robust evidence that one particular school structure or type was superior when it comes to raising attainment for poorer children.
This is important hard evidence. We may need it in case any politician is foolish enough to put the continuation of this whole wasteful experiment up in lights again, when they should be getting back to what really matters.
And what matters is equally incontestable and quite simple. A good education depends on good teachers and leaders. So why can’t we have that as our big idea? An outstanding headteacher for every local school, leading excellent teachers. I’d vote for that.
It probably isn’t deemed newsworthy enough for the cut and thrust of a general election campaign; too supply-side, not enough “best for my child”, middle-class hand-wringing about Latin and Oxbridge for the sort of education human interest many commentators (wrongly) believe motivates the public.
Meanwhile, teacher recruitment now appears to be a market-led free for all. There will be almost a million more school children in a decade. That will require many more teachers and heads, yet the number of entrants into teacher training has dropped by 16% since 2010, which doesn’t augur well.
But this isn’t just about attracting good people into the profession; it is about inspiring them to progress.
The downgrading of the National College of School Leadership to a minor government agency, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, has dismayed many existing school leaders, who feel it is neither independent, motivating, or leading the profession.
But I think the deeper problem is one of trust. A recent Sutton Trust report on What Makes Great Teaching flagged up the importance of school cultures in which trust is blended with challenge to get the best out of staff and pupils.
But what about the culture of trust between government and the professionals? For all the talk of autonomy, central government micromanagement and (often misused) accountability measures suggest that there isn’t really trust in the professionals.
It doesn’t matter which party is in power, the politics of education is still dominated by a deeply held subconscious belief that most professionals are prone to fail unless the heavy (and we now know incompetent) hand of government steps in to improve them.
This insidious culture seeps into schools. Perhaps the greatest irony is that the chief inspector’s annual report notes that one of the problems in secondary schools is that middle leaders aren’t trusted enough to lead learning. Yet Ofsted is probably one of the most feared and mistrusted elements of a negative climate that can only deter, rather than encourage, aspiration to senior positions and headship.
Leadership and trust may not have the same seductive ring as choice and diversity but they are, in fact, what we need.
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