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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny

End of term blog – what NAHT wants for Christmas

Late December is fun but hectic in schools across the country, with nativities and concerts and fairs reminding us that a school is a positive force at the heart of many communities. School leaders may not be thinking much about next year during this whirl but, over the Christmas break, what will they be wishing for?

The first thing on their wish list will likely be getting enough teachers. You can’t keep high standards without the right number of qualified, trained and motivated teachers. It is getting harder to make sure every class is led by the right person. We hear of heads travelling during holidays to Commonwealth countries to recruit staff for the next term, and of handsome offers being made for maths and physics teachers. Our recent recruitment survey revealed that four out of five members had trouble filling their vacancies; the hardest roles to fill were the most senior - TLRs, UPSs and SENCOs.

Why are we struggling so? We need thousands more teachers to meet the rise in pupil numbers (half a million or so in the next five years) and teachers’ pay is falling behind those of other graduates now the economy is picking up again. You might expect a union leader to say that but the OECD says it too: English teachers’ salaries are well behind what they could earn with their skills in another sector. The answer to the recruitment issue is so simple as to be banal: pay people properly and treat them well.

Heads need to shoulder responsibility here as well: too much of what happens in schools is done from fear of what the inspector might say rather than what we know to be right. We need to have more confidence in our own expertise. Teachers marking work late into the night to please a potential inspector, for example, is as bad for students as it is for the teachers if we are sapping their energy.

Next on the wish list to fill the education policy stocking will be making sure that the money goes where it is needed. Education actually did okay in the Chancellor’s autumn review, but the way the money is distributed among schools is arcane and archaic. Two schools serving the same sort of pupils can get very different amounts of money. Let’s get this right this year; but let’s do it carefully. Increasing one school’s budget will almost certainly mean shrinking another’s. They will need time to adjust. Our survey in November revealed that two thirds of school budgets were within two years of reaching 'breaking point'.

School leaders wish for many things from parents – particularly that they will make sure their children attend regularly and that they will back them when it comes to discipline. A strong, even strict, policy on behaviour helps all children to thrive and creates the sort of school where creativity and individuality flourish. But we should also recognise that parents rightly wish for many things from schools too. Schools should know their child as a person, not a piece of data and they should communicate openly about changes and plans. Many schools do this well of course, but a good relationship between parents and teachers is essential to children’s success.

A dearly held hope for many school leaders would be that their school is judged in the round, on the basis of all the work they do with students, rather than a single number summing up results in a few subjects. We must get the basics right, academic achievement matters – literacy and numeracy are not going out of fashion in the digital age – but there are other things that matter too, including music, sport, arts and community service. Schools should be held to account but if you hold them to account for narrow numbers you will get a narrow education.

No Christmas list would be complete without a wish for peace and goodwill. The education world has seen massive change over the last few years, usually accompanied by criticism to help the medicine go down. But education works best in an atmosphere of calm and stability, where schools focus on teaching rather than administrative changes. Yet every cohort of children in secondary school today will face a different set of exams when they reach sixteen. This is too much. Let’s settle down in 2016 and get on with the main job. We will always need to adapt to the times, but could we perhaps have a limit of one major overhaul a term?

Our schools are not perfect; there are still children we fail to reach, still things we could do better. But we have come so far since the days when we were at school. Schools that today we judge to be average would have been leading lights ten years ago. And this is fine; this is progress. But we will get more out of teachers if we use the language of ambition rather than the language of failure – of inspiring people with what they could achieve next rather than making them feel ashamed of what they have done. For their part, teachers and leaders, when they disagree with government policy, could do more to paint an alternative picture – not just say things are wrong but suggest how it could be better. I like to think that NAHT have been doing just this, with our peer review project, Instead; with Aspire and our section for middle leaders, Edge; with our materials on life without levels and with our work on assessment.

These are our hopes for 2016.

17 December 2015