Ambitious plans for the NAHT to step in to help struggling schools were announced by general secretary Russell Hobby in his conference speech.
In a wide-ranging address, Mr Hobby talked about four ways in which he hoped the association would develop in the future, including the idea of giving practical help for schools which found themselves in the new “requires improvement” category. The government has already agreed to provide match funding for the pilot project.
He wanted school leaders to take back the idea of “standards” so that instead of being used as a stick to beat the profession, it should be heads talking about their ambitions to improve the education system.
“We are uniquely placed to help our fellow members improve and develop their schools…our membership contains the talent, the ideas, the support and challenge; our role as a trade union gives us a unique perspective; and our partnerships with organisations like the National College and the Schools Network will give us tools and structures. So, how can we do more to help each other improve our schools?” he asked.
He continued: “The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule that Ofsted will apply to schools in the satisfactory category could affect thousands of our members. As a first step in our campaign to take back standards, I’d like NAHT to step into the gap and help those schools with a simple offer: we’ll help you get to good in three years.
“And here’s the key difference: we work with the existing leadership team. And, while they’re working with us, and making progress, they should be free from additional intervention and disruption. If they want to become academies, fine. But if they don’t, they should have the freedom to improve without being forced to become academies.
“Few unions have gone so far in offering this sort of protection to their members….There are very real limits and risks: this is new territory for us; we will need to start small, pilot and prove our methods, but I think we can grow over time. Nor do I think we will be able to reverse the processes of academisation where they have begun – but I do think we may be able to stop it getting that far in the future. The school will need to contribute funds, but I’m delighted to confirm that the government will match fund the initial pilot. As well as resources, I think this sends a vital signal that this is a credible school improvement project.”
While this would mean working within the “official definitions of success” not shared by all NAHT members, Mr Hobby said that would help “create the space to pursue our own greater visions of what education is for. By removing the immediate threats, we can focus on the creative curriculum and the wider contribution of schools to their communities.”
The other changes proposed by Mr Hobby in his speech were concerned with strengthening the association itself: to reinvigorate local branches “as a campaigner, a recruiter, and an ally;” and to think “more radically” about how to attract the next generation of leaders to the NAHT, including more use of new technology. “I therefore propose that, over the coming year, we explore the idea of a new section of NAHT aimed at newer leaders in education, explicitly using new technology and new techniques. We can experiment with new models of organising in affiliates and partnerships; and we can incorporate what works back into our mainstream practice.”
Mr Hobby also called for heads to work more closely with parents. “Our target must be public opinion. And, in our existing close relationship with parents and families… we have a massive opportunity. In this age of transparency and parent power, we need to put our case across both as individual leaders and as an association. In this age of choice, if we have a better vision of education, we can’t just deliver it, we must – for better or for worse – shout about it too. In this age of criticism of schools and the people who work in them, we need to blow our own trumpet and talk about the massive achievements we have made.
“If we used our trust and credibility, and started listening to parents about what they want, and talking to them about what we can do, I think we could make a formidable team.
Therefore, as you already do in your schools, NAHT itself must listen to and talk to parents and families, to champion their concerns as well as its own; to give them the information they need and treat them as partners – not merely consumers – in education.”
Mr Hobby also warned that if the phonics “screening check” was not used as a genuine diagnostic check, but as a stick to beat schools with “that would be the end of the screening check as far as the NAHT is concerned. “And we will happily work with our colleagues in other unions like NUT to frustrate its further application,” he added.
Mr Hobby’s speech also covered worries including forced academisation, and changes to Ofsted ratings. He said the association had worked successfully with several schools resisting becoming academies, and said he thought the vast majority of primary schools would retained their maintained status.
And he had a positive message for members. “More children than ever before are leaving our education system with the skills they need; and we’re reaching ever deeper into the communities and families that need us most. If the gaps sometimes seem bigger than ever, it is because our ambition exceeds our achievements.
“Parents and families share your pride in the education system. 85 per cent think their child’s school offers a good or outstanding quality of teaching; 90 per cent are impressed with behaviour and discipline. 93 per cent say they always feel welcome.
“If we remember these things, we’ll weather any crisis; which is why I think you’ll stick with it and why we must keep encouraging people to become school leaders. It is a good job. Put it this way: what if a genie had offered you a deal at the start of your career: ‘Every day you can change a life for the better, but every day someone who couldn’t do your job will snipe at you.’ I bet you’d still take that deal. In fact, sorry, but you did take that deal!
And what matters most are the unglamorous achievements, the ones that don’t find their way onto any press release or into any table. The things you do every day without even realising it; when a simple word can make a difference. It is those memories that stay with people.”