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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

Are the Best of Times or the Worst of Times Ahead?

I was asked by Schools Week to pen a few hundred words on “What a Conservative Government Means for England” and whilst I have no more idea than the next man or women I was happy to oblige.  As ever I struggled to stick to the word count and so this is a slightly more extended article than the one that appeared on the 14th May 2015.

Schools Week

With 500 free schools opening, an extra 17,500 Maths & Physics teachers to be trained, schools “requiring improvement” to find new head teachers and failing & coasting secondary schools to become academies it looks like a busy five years for the reappointed Nicky Morgan MP, Secretary of State for Education.  The “stick” has been wielded during the election campaign with: primary head teachers whose pupils can’t do their times tables being removed; children retaking SATs at the beginning of their secondary school education and the E-Baccalaureate becoming mandatory or forget ever being considered an outstanding school.  Budgets will be tightened and Ofsted will be reformed.

The next five years may be the worst of times with cuts in budgets being rendered insignificant as there are simply not enough teachers to employ.  This is already becoming a reality for some schools and the four day school week for children may yet rear its ugly head before the end of this Parliament.  The baby boomers of the 1960s are heading for retirement and the improving economy and private sector may be seen as much more appealing to top graduates, than working all hours in a school, only to be continually berated and told you are not good enough.  Teachers want a life.  The leadership shortage could become a full blown crisis as the current pervading culture of mistrust and fear leads to a lack of people wanting to lead schools and a limited capacity for system leadership and peer to peer support.  All this may happen at a time that an extra five hundred thousand children and young people will enter our schools during the current parliament.

Photo Credit: Annalisa Turolla via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Annalisa Turolla via Flickr cc

For children who have been tested to within an inch of their lives, forced to follow a narrow restricted curriculum, schooling becomes something to endure rather than something which enriches their lives, supporting them to become the unique person which they are called to be.  Parents and employers become frustrated within an ever changing examination system which is incomprehensible and causes in-house chaos with a variable impact from school to school.  Free Schools, like any start up in the business world, take flight and bomb with equal measure having a devastating impact on some children’s life chances.  The Conservative Government’s capability to look after our public services is questioned like never before.

Dig beneath the robust rhetoric and you hear a different tone appearing, “We believe that teaching is a highly skilled profession … It’s about listening … rebuild bridges with the teaching profession …  tackling things like workload, Ofsted inspections, and building on all the lessons I’ve learned in the last 10 months.”

The next five years may be the best of times with the Department for Education, schools, professional associations & unions, local authorities and academy trusts all working to implement a school led system which takes collective responsibility for the goal of ensuring every child receives a good education.  The Secretary of State has in her grasp some key levers to head off a perfect storm which is beginning to gather.

Photo Credit: Lee Cullivan via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Lee Cullivan via Flickr cc

In seeking information about the workload challenges facing schools, prior to the election, Nicky Morgan MP is armed with the knowledge that: Ofsted needs extensive reform possibly being replaced with a far more intelligent validated peer to peer accountability system; the incoherent sequencing and pace of curriculum changes need to be rethought and school leaders need to take a step back and think about what will have a significant impact on children’s learning.  She has the opportunity to be one of the most admired Secretary of State for Education by actually doing less but doing it much, much better.  It would be ground breaking.  It may also come to pass that her natural Tory tendencies kick in and she sees schools and academies in the same way as small business are viewed; less regulation and less central direction.

Teacher supply and school places for children are the two massive challenges which face her over the coming years.  There is a commitment to extra capital funding to meet the growing demand for places but on teacher supply the detail is rather light.  More recruitment via TeachFirst may be a challenge, with an improving economy, and with respect to an extra 17,500 Maths & Physics teachers being recruited … well I’ll be so delighted I’d eat Paddy Ashdown’s hat and Alastair Campbell’s kilt if the government actually pull this off.

It’s a big ask unless we fundamentally reform the culture within the system and schools.  This starts with a different relationship between the Secretary of State for Education and the profession.  Early signs show promise and she may well be able to operate under the radar, protected from publicity by the small matter of an in/out of Europe election and constitutional change within the United Kingdom.

Photo Credit: Maria Antonletta via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Maria Antonletta via Flickr cc

Commentators are reflecting on how the election of 2015 has so many similarities of 1992.  The Conservative Government will be keen to avoid the memories of the 1997 election casting its dark, gloomy shadow over the final years of this administration.  There is a meltdown scenario beginning to appear for the Education System in some people’s minds but there are also the possibilities appearing of a system given the freedoms to be great.

BBC Newsroom

On Saturday I was contacted by BBC Breakfast.  Unfortunately I wasn’t available to appear on the Sunday morning show to provide a view on the latest announcement that more flogging and hanging of schools, their leaders and teachers would be contained within the Queen’s Speech, for the forthcoming Parliament, as a way of raising standards, morale and the standing of the profession.

This is a decades old, tired and ineffective rhetoric.  Parking the issue of actually accurately identifying failing and coasting schools, as opposed to simply pointing the finger at schools which work in the most socially challenging areas with some of the lowest attaining pupils on entry, where are the legions to caped Super Heads, wearing underwear over their trousers, flying into schools to magically sort them out?  Is it an effective school improvement strategy?

Tweet re. SuperHeads

We need to collectively resolve the issue of schools who are not offering the quality of education a child’s deserves as well as the failing and coasting children who can be found in all schools.  I’ve no argument with this at all.  However, these are profound, deep problems which will require equally profound, connected and long term action.  It’s the solution and aggressive tone I disagree with not the aspiration.

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