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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Character building

The things that matter are in the profession’s grasp – this attitude will see us through

The autumn conferences by the main political parties brought certain things to light. One is that, in terms of early years, it was only the Lib Dems who talked prominently about the skills of the workforce and the funding the sector receives.

We can also be sure that ‘character’, ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ will be high on the agenda. Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are keen to emphasise this is on top of a rigorous academic curriculum and all parties see extra-curricular activity as a route to deliver it. At least Labour noted the role of support staff in wider school life.

The trouble is, schools are managed on data. No one has yet found a convincing way to measure character and therefore schools will not be judged on it. And the day someone does find a way to measure character we should all give up anyway: I have a terrible fear of a GCSE in resilience.

Collaboration also features highly. I have always believed the current government got collaboration and autonomy the wrong way round. If they had encouraged strong collaboration, groups of schools would have demanded greater autonomy. Perhaps we will be able to address this in the future.

An interesting omission from most conferences was the role of the middle tier. It had been talked about but was notable by its absence from speeches. We should be very clear that the role of the local authority as a delivery agency is never coming back.

The Conservatives’ Nicky Morgan focused on workload – possibly a result of the clear feedback coming from union talks. The elephant in the room of workload is marking. Feedback to students is good; much of the late night and weekend marking demanded of teachers has limited impact. Yet Ofsted’s shift from lesson observation to work scrutiny suggests we may face even more compliance-driven marking.

Finally, most politicians are edging their way towards continuing professional development and teacher quality as key factors of improvement. They are right, but the sad fact is we don’t yet know enough about what works to direct investment intelligently. For this reason, the widely shared commitment to a college of teaching may be the best first step. Both Labour and the Lib Dems want to restore qualified teacher status and the coalition is working to reform initial teacher training. This is sensible but it is not going to transform education any time soon.

The troubling thing for those in charge of education is that the most powerful drivers of performance are largely beyond your reach. They are intangible, complex, voluntary and slow to change. In other words, they make awful election material. For this reason, we should not look for the salvation of education in the manifestos of politicians.

The things that matter are in the grasp of the profession and can only be changed when the profession takes back ownership of what belongs to it. Perhaps a period of peace in education politics, perhaps even a period of minority government, might create the space for this. One thing is for sure: if we miss the chance, then we will have earned another period of top-down change.

To borrow a phrase, NAHT is already working to become the change we want to see. Our school improvement work is tripling in scale. We are piloting our Ofsted alternative in the Midlands this term. We are strengthening the connections between the worlds of work and school, and we are campaigning on literacy. We even have our own manifesto. It says we should take back ownership of standards and take responsibility for each other. Whatever happens in May, this attitude should see us through.

14 November 2014

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