“Headteachers’ Round Table (HTRT) is like an inverted tardis”, explained John Tomsett the new Chair of the HTRT. From the outside it looks massive but on the inside it’s just a small group of activists.
After the obligatory hug with John “this much I know about the love in this room” Tomsett, the core team got down to business. It was our first meeting since the General Election and by the end of the day there was a renew sense of purpose and mission. The core team was joined by a number of other interested head teachers who really added to moving the debate forward.
Whilst HTRT is not a representative group, we don’t pretend to be, it is likely our collective lived experiences allow us to identify, with a degree of accuracy, the stresses and strains felt by many across the profession. Our purpose is to offer thoughts on current issues and potential solutions. We’re action orientated and want to make things happen. Undoubtedly the best illustration to date is the work on the National Baccalaureate Trust, a curriculum framework, led by Tom Sherrington and Liam Collins.
Not Long, Not Trusted So Lead by Consensus
A fascinating session by Jonathan Simmons, Head of Education at Policy Exchange, highlighted the challenges facing any politician and in particular a secretary of state. The average length of stay for a secretary of state is 12-18 months and your total tenure, before needing to be re-elected as a Member of Parliament, is five years. You want to make a positive impact, you’re in it for the right reasons but you’re one of the least trusted of all the professions.
It’s within this context that teachers and head teachers, amongst the most trusted professions, and HTRT must operate. If you want to influence someone it helps if you can empathise with them and a lot of the day was focussed on what impact we want and how best to achieve it.
My challenge to Jonathan was over a series of areas where I believe politicians have overstepped the mark in terms of micromanagement and dictating to the profession how to implement policy. Taking the example of the EBacc his perspective, which I consider reasonable, is there would be a range of views from the profession about what is an appropriate curriculum and politicians have every right to place their stake somewhere along that spectrum line. The problem is their stake is planted on my professional territory. I make better decisions then they can ever hope to over a student’s GCSE options and choices because I can engage with young people, their parents and teachers, about what is right, life giving and enriching for them as individuals. These decisions can occur within a much broader more accepted central government policy decision about what constitutes a core curriculum. The issue is essentially one of subsidiarity. What is the closest competent point to the situation that a decision should be made? This goes to the heart of autonomy.
I have been amazed this week to hear to people from the “Westminster bubble” state that politicians genuinely believe that they have given significant autonomy to the school system. Head teachers have just look at each other incredulously with a “What the …” kind of expression on their face. The structural autonomy presented to some parts of the system is not the same as the professional agency, autonomy carefully balanced with accountability, that the profession actually needs and I believe wants. It’s autonomy over areas such as curriculum, pedagogy and strategic deep partnerships which are most appropriate for the professionals to have. These are currently denied to too many schools and their leaders. Invariably those who choose to work in the most challenging circumstances have least autonomy and greatest cliff edged accountability. This issue of agency is at the heart of what HTRT seeks to address. My perspective is that we should seek to be on the edge of the outside, able to engage with government but not beholden or too close to them. It is from here we can have maximum impact due to both our independence of thought and ability to inform, nudge and agitate.
Sirens, Slow Burns and a Hot Potato
The next election is already less than five year away. Whilst a week may be a long time in politics, I sense the next five years are going to feel like an eternity in schools. A tweet out by Jon Chaloner, from the HTRT twitter account, brought in a deluge of responses with the most common concerns being: teacher recruitment, funding and budgets, the EBacc and phonics plus coasting schools and the inequality of the definition chosen.
One of the challenges for us all, including HTRT, is to differentiate between the screaming blue light issues and those which are more of a slow burn. Our approach needs to differentiate. For example, most schools will manage to produce a budget this year without going into deficit and whilst some schools have a shortage of teachers other don’t yet. We may look back on these years as the golden times, of this Parliament, as within a year or two or maybe three we will be in a full blown teacher shortage crisis and budgets will either go into deficit or services to children and families will be cut. I’m the first to accept we can’t wait two to three years to act and many school leaders are already looking at creative budget and staffing solutions now as the crisis may prove inexorable. A strategy for HTRT could be to produce well thought through early warning policy papers, with alternative actions and solutions, on these issues but save our more strident and alarmist calls, tweets and blogs until nearer the time.
A simple political reality is that there are many more voters who are parents (approximately 12 million) and you can probably add in many interested grandparents than there are teachers (about half a million) and others who work within the education system (nearly one and a half million). We may need to be more political with a small p and start lobbying MPs and writing to parents about specific issues we feel will have an adverse impact on our children, staff or schools.
The 2015 election itself was a bit of a non-event for education, though the ramifications of the result have been significant. If Vision 2040 <free download via this link> and the views of many around the HTRT and country are correct then the lead into the 2020 election will see education as one of the main battlegrounds of the next election. By then we could be in a quite chaotic situation and posts like, “This Much I Know About the 2020 Election and Education …” will ask, “Why didn’t you listen whilst there was still time?”
Please get involved with HTRT. A couple of dates for your diary, next year’s HTRT Meetings will be on the:
22nd January 2016 – Venue TBC
1st July 2016 – York
We also need two more members of the core group, preferably female and preferably primary.