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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

#NAHT2015 – Our Vision for the Next Five Years in Education

Conference. Colleagues. We first met properly in this very room. Almost exactly five years ago and also a short time before a general election. It seems longer. And you cunningly got me signed up before the results were known.

I don’t know if you recall but, at that conference, many people’s plans had been disrupted by a sudden explosion of noise, confusion and heat. There was also a volcano erupting in Iceland.

So much has happened and we’ve always been in the thick of it. It seems right to take stock. To look back at the ghosts of education past and forward at the ghosts of education future.

Unfortunately it seems that Scrooge would be quite at home in the austere circumstances we face.

Speaking personally, I’ve had a chance to settle into the education scene. Meet over 5000 of our members. Eat cakes in Bath and drink Black Sheep in Harrogate. Take selfies in Leicestershire. Sing into the night in Wales. Fight brokers in Slough and dispute warning letters in Colchester. Start my day with John Humphrys and debate academies with Vanessa Feltz. Dispute restaurant bills in London. National Executive knows what I mean by that one. Perhaps best to stop there.

I’ve worked hard to secure my reputation as a spokesperson. I’ve worked hard to secure my reputation as a spokesperson. I was delighted to be quoted recently on an Australian website – until I read their translation of my name and title:

Russell Pastime, typical secretary of the Nationwide Affiliation of Head Lecturers. It seems our new branding wasn’t as successful as we had thought.

Still, even that has to beat this early caption from the BBC. Russell Hobby, ‘National Ass of Head Teachers.”

You can see why the beard became necessary.

These last five years have largely been spent on the road, with members. And it has been a privilege to meet and to represent so many school leaders.

Leaders who remain cheerful, committed and determined in the face of adversity. Leaders who never forget to put the children first.

Our research this week shows how schools anchor their communities, helping to hold families together. In the face of austerity, many schools have become the backbone of a new welfare state, providing food and clothing, shelter, advice, even healthcare to the most vulnerable.

This tells me two things.

There is no limit to the lengths teachers will go to protect and support their pupils. It is no credit to the government that, while schools and teachers were busy picking up the pieces of shattered lives, they also weathered such a storm of criticism.

But it also reminds me that every pound a school spends on welfare is a pound not spent on education; every hour a teacher devotes to social work is an hour not devoted to teaching. As schools tackle the symptoms of poverty we must not forget that this hinders them from eradicating the causes.

A good education, with the knowledge and confidence to make the right choices, is the ultimate safety net and the ultimate ladder of mobility.

Schools will step in and should step in. They cannot teach children who are hungry, distressed or scared and they will not stand by and let that happen. This is admirable and necessary.  But, although we can rely on schools to fill the breach, we would do better to help them get on with what they are good at: teaching.

It is time to stop talking about the education budget alone and focus on the share of our nation’s spending that goes to children and young people. When 70 per cent of schools are providing mental health services once offered through local authorities, claims of a protected budget are hollow.

An atomised education system, where schools are the only agents, competing in a market of provision is not a healthy system. It is not a realistic vision. Schools succeed when they play to their strengths in a well-balanced system. I strongly believe in a school-led system. We have been doing just that. But I do not believe in a schools-only system.

This does not mean centralised prescription. It is possible to combine high levels of autonomy within wider structures of support and co-ordination.

Yet the promise of autonomy and freedom feels unfulfilled. It is not just poverty that limits schools but bureaucracy and heavy handed measurement too.

It is hard to make the most of curriculum freedom when so much of what you do is constrained by the exam syllabus. It is hard to develop new approaches to teaching when the inspection team has its own ideas. It is hard to plot a long term course when the measures change every year.

I was sat next to two heads in Poole last week. They were excited about their plans for the future. Of course this was prefaced by the statement: “Now that the inspection is over we can get on with developing the curriculum.” I have heard this many times before. When it gets to this point, inspection is blocking not driving improvement.

Looking back on the last five years I think we will find that, far from delegating power and authority to school leaders, the Secretary of State has in fact delegated power to the Chief Inspector of Schools.

Schools must now spend too long guessing what the inspector wants instead of thinking about what their pupils need.

I have come to feel that one of the most pernicious aspects of our inspection regime is the ‘outstanding’ grade.

We have handed the definition of excellence to our regulator rather than owning it as profession.

Excellence – to which all schools should aspire – is individual and subjective. It is not captured by a checklist or framework. Worse than this, the pursuit of someone else’s definition of outstanding creates a compliant profession. It exerts a hold over those leaders who should be most self-confident and critical.

The outstanding grade tames the mavericks. When it underpins so many other opportunities and initiatives it introduces a dangerous fragility to the system.

Let me be explicit. I believe schools can and should be outstanding. I just don’t think we should let a regulator define it. We have had too many reforms over the last few years; but we need one more. Radical reform of inspection is overdue.

There is much more that we could dwell on from the past. But I don’t want to spend time on what has been done to us.

I want to talk about what we have done. And what we will do.

It is easy for a union to become responsive and defensive, to oppose rather than propose. But NAHT has not fallen into that trap.

We are a union of leaders. We have assets, powers and opportunities denied to others. We have a duty to lead. Over the last five years we have transformed our association to fulfil that duty, to rediscover our pride and confidence.

We have not waited to react; we have not sought permission. We have begun to build the system we want to see. We criticise when necessary but we are prepared to offer a credible alternative.

We don’t like inspection?

We have built our own approach to inspection. Our appropriately named Instead – which let’s face it, is worth doing for the name alone – has helped put peer review on the table as a credible alternative. Dozens of schools are piloting Instead in the Midlands.

Satisfactory is no longer satisfactory?

I have never met a school leader who wanted to be satisfactory.

We did not oppose the ambition but we rightly suggested that if you raise the bar you should help people get over it. And we created the Aspire project. Over half the schools in the first wave achieved good just eighteen months through the pilot. We will be working with 100 schools before the end of the year.

Levels have gone?

We look forward not back. The framework from the NAHT Commission on Assessment is now the most widely used replacement for levels. And widely praised. It provides a philosophy of assessment that looks first to teaching rather than accountability. It offers coherence in the face of fragmentation.

And if the government wants to transfer leadership of assessment from itself to the NAHT, who are we to complain?

League tables constantly changing?

We understand the value of transparency and external challenge but it is wrong to constantly manipulate the tables for political advantage.

It is also wrong, though, that we let that manipulation work by constantly responding to it.

So we worked with colleagues in United Learning, Pixl and ASCL to create our own performance tables, owned by the profession, free from meddling and available first to parents.

We can best challenge the political monopoly of measures by providing a diversity and abundance of information.

Careers education and advice is broken?

We have worked with the Education and Employers Taskforce to promote Inspiring the Future for secondary pupils and create Primary Futures. So that every young person can get a sight of the rewards of hard work at school.

I am delighted to announce at this conference that we are taking this one step further with Medics Month in October. Where we will work with the Medical Schools Council and other medical bodies to get a medical professional for every school in the country to talk about medical careers and how important their learning was in getting them there.

Such careers, offering satisfaction, status and meaning, should not be the preserve of the privileged.

Leadership is getting tougher?

We recognised our duty to the next generation of leaders and established Edge. A section of NAHT aimed at middle leaders. Offering protection and professional development.

Edge is now the fastest growing section of NAHT. Growing three times as fast as the last group we admitted to membership.

Edge is a pathfinder for a modern form of trade unionism, helping to explore today what NAHT itself might look like in 10 years time.

Lest you think we’ve come over all sweetness and light I should mention that, during this time of energy and achievement, we did not forget to fight the introduction of no notice inspection, twice, or the proposed ranking of 11 year olds across the country into 10 percent bands.

We fought the cuts to pensions and the turbulent changes to examinations. We went to the High Court on behalf of GCSE students. We challenged the ill-thought through guidance on disqualification by association and achieved significant changes. We won more money for school dinners. We kept SPAG out of the floor standards.

Fear not: we can still be cantankerous when necessary. Opposition is a tool best used sparingly but it is also a tool best kept to hand.

This approach – an approach, by the way, that has led to the largest growth in our membership in living memory, topping 29,000 for the first time – this approach embodies two principles.

That, as a union of leaders, we must take ownership of standards and take responsibility for each other.

When parents hear us talking openly and honestly about our vision for education they will remember that the people who really have their children’s interests at heart are the people who have dedicated their careers to working with them.

This involves some hard conversations about what is not working, but people will respect that.

At a time of austerity, challenge and stretch, it is not enough to tend our own backyard. Our formal accountability is for the schools we lead. Our moral accountability is to all the pupils in the system.

There is no glory in improving one school while harming another; there is no pride in raising results by shuffling pupils around. We must take some responsibility for each other and ensure that no school is left behind.

Take ownership of standards. Take responsibility for each other. It is simple as that. These principles will guide us through the next five years as they have in the last five.

What do the next five years hold for us? What do we expect and what will we do?

Much that we face will happen whoever gains power.

To paraphrase a famous note, there is still no money. We are merely halfway through austerity and half a million more pupils are coming our way. Expect tight budgets and make every penny count.

We may see a national funding formula but, if you want my guess, that will end up in the ‘too hard’ box. 

NAHT will press for a fair formula regardless.

We must also recognise our duty to ensure that we allocate funding fairly inside our schools – investing with an eye to the evidence of impact. This does not mean that school leaders become passive consumers of research. It is not just what is done but how it is done. We must be aware of context and seek to understand the detail of implementation beneath the beguiling headlines.

It is possible to make a good idea fail and, frankly, it is possible to make bad ideas succeed. You’ve proven that time and again in rescuing the government from its own mistakes.

Perhaps you should stop doing that. It only encourages the crazy schemes when you find a way to make them work.

We will see - we are seeing - recruitment challenges at every level, from NQT to head teacher. Years of pay freezes in a growing economy have brought crisis. The worst part of it is, we lack the accurate data to plan for it. 

It's not all bad news. We will see a fundamental reform of inspection. We will not see immediate radical change to qualifications and curriculum - with the possible exception of vocational education.

We will however see a growing debate about the competing demands of mastery and differentiation, of assessment for learning versus assessment for accountability, of steady attainment versus variable progress. A quiet revolution is coming our way on this front. I suggest we make ourselves part of it.

We are not at the end of structural change but the debate will move on from autonomy to collaboration. We may face a drive to see every school in a trust, but the simple assumption that this should be a MAT will face increasing challenge.

It should face challenge. The data suggests a more nuanced picture, with excellence found among both maintained and academy schools. The recent assertion, therefore, that all RI schools should be forcibly converted looks strangely out of touch.

Forced conversion is not the future of effective school improvement. We have shown that we are willing to tackle underperformance but we have fought knee jerk conversions. We will continue to fight them.

Whether they are called Regional Schools Commissioners or Directors of School Standards we will see a cadre of regional officials, accountable to the Secretary of State, taking control of intervention and school creation.

I expect that their remit will be extended to cover both maintained and academy schools. Indeed, the current balkanisation of our education system does no good at all.

Colleagues, as our debate has already recognised, our old organisational boundaries, mapped against the local authority borders, will be increasingly antiquated. I am pleased that we are ahead of the game and organising to meet the future rather than the past. We will match ourselves against these new structures in both partnership and challenge.

I will also dare to suggest that we will not be subject to the ideologies and frantic reforms of the last few years. We may face a period of constrained government and there is much consensus in the education manifestos.

Don't breathe a sigh of relief though. These things are cyclical.

It is our job in the next five years to build the bulwarks of professional leadership that crowd out political interference. Politics abhors a vacuum. So let's not leave one. We already have the recipe - take ownership of standards. Take responsibility for each other.

This is a description of the next five year - if we do nothing. But we will not do nothing. We have some ideas.

In recent years government has confused autonomy and collaboration; granting autonomy and expecting to find collaboration. It works better the other way round.

The major question of the next five years will be how schools work together.

We need NAHT to lead on a more inspirational response to this question. To build and promote a range of models, for schools that share a vision and values to come together, voluntarily but with purpose and commitment. There will be various forms. There will be MATs but there will be other sorts of trusts and federations. There will be small groups for raising standards and larger groups for procurement and services.

We say to government: help us make this happen rather than imposing an intervention that fails halfway through for lack of enthusiasm and money.

As we have debated in this hall, the demands placed on leadership have never been greater. We commit NAHT to restore leadership development to the centre stage:

First, by building a new leadership foundation with our colleagues in the professional associations representing leaders and governors; with government if at all possible but by the profession if not.

Our goal will be that this foundation assures and accredits rigorous leadership qualifications, sets meaningful leadership standards, challenges thinking and creates a forum for school leaders and policy makers to shape the future together.

And, second, I can also confirm today that, as we have long discussed, NAHT will guarantee a mentoring service for every new head teacher in the country.

This will help ensure their first years of headship are a genuine high point. We are one of the largest school leadership organisations in the world, with a wealth of talent and generosity in our membership. If we can’t do this, no one can.

There is so much to learn in the first few years that new colleagues often seem to disappear under the load.

No-one should make their decisions for them, that’s part of the privilege of leadership, but thousands of people have made the same journey and stand ready to help. This ethos lies at the heart of NAHT - let’s make sure we use it for prevention rather than just cure.

And I make some offers to whoever gains power next week because, of course, we envisage some small remaining role for government.

We face a leadership crisis that threatens our progress on standards.

This is particularly acute in our most challenging and vulnerable schools.

The issue is not one of reward but of risk. Work with us to create balance. Challenging schools can become attractive places to lead if you have a clear run at the task, straightforward reporting and the right mix of support and challenge. Just three clear years to make a difference would be enough. Leading a challenging school should be hard; help us ensure that it is not impossible.

We desperately need more teachers but they must be of the highest quality.

We think it was a mistake to end the requirement for QTS. If there were problems with the qualification we should have improved it, not ditched it. It is the hallmark of a high status, trusted profession that it possesses a rigorous entry qualification.

We also agree, though, that great teachers come from many walks of life and learn in different ways. Here’s our suggestion: restore the qualification but focus on the assessment and accreditation not the method of study. Let schools make the award but let them make it after more than a single year as a trainee.

The links between progress, attainment, assessment and accountability are badly damaged.

We can help you repair them with our proposed 'path of improvement'. This approach makes floor standards redundant, replacing them with an achievable ambition for every school. We could leave floor standards in the dust given the chance.

We suggest that, rather than measure either progress or raw attainment, we measure schools on their rate of improvement.

There are many conditions required to make this work, not least more balance in prior attainment.

The argument in favour of early intervention therefore has never been more urgent. We must get early years right to help get primary right to help get secondary right. The hierarchy of status, training and reward is upside down in education. And you cannot bluff people on status, just like you cannot fake parity of esteem on qualifications. Until we have full QTS available for early years professionals and access to the same pay scales, they will be right not to take government promises seriously.

Politicians on both sides talk about challenging coasting schools.

But, before you raise the bar again, before you turn RI into a category and impose more drastic intervention on those who have already borne so much, keep this in mind: we already have the answer. The Aspire model is shown to raise standards and is working at scale. It does so without the trauma and conflict of so many top-down interventions. Such conflict is an unaffordable luxury under austerity.

Support Aspire and we believe NAHT can work with school leaders to help transform a significant fraction of schools in the RI category.

Ofsted is ready for reform.

Look to our model of peer review for a sense of the possibilities of professionally-led inspection. We have already sketched out the most important changes to create an inspection system that is rigorous but which does not weigh disproportionately on practice in schools. Ditch the outstanding grade. Separate out safeguarding. Increase peer review. Improve the quality.

You are concerned about workload and about narrowing the gap.

Here’s an easy suggestion. End the demands on schools to register students for the Pupil Premium. Someone, somewhere in government knows who is eligible. Simply send schools a list and a cheque. In one step this will maximise funds and ensure the most equitable distribution.

You must act on safeguarding.

We understand that. And no-one cares more strongly about the safety of young people than teachers. It is indeed a disgrace to put the reputation of your institution ahead of the welfare of pupils. But mandatory reporting is not the answer. It does not protect more children.

We have expertise in this area. Work with us to avoid the mistakes of ‘disqualification by association’. We can find a set of regulations to punish wilful neglect without criminalising public service.

There are many challenges ahead but also, you can see an association of leaders ready with ideas and reasoned argument to tackle them.

We can make the story of the next five years so different from the last.

We have chosen the demanding path. It stretches us to the limit. We have to provide alternatives. We have to address evidence. We have to get out there and do things. All the while sustaining our traditional high levels of representation and advice.

But this is a path that is worthy of us - an association created to be a voice for one of the most challenging and important professions in the country. It gets results our members need and it gets results our students need.

Over the last five years we have delivered those results and we are stronger, more united and more ambitious than ever.

We are poised now in a moment of political uncertainty. That moment may extend further than we expect. I hope that our conference in Liverpool this year has given you confidence in two things: that, while a gap exists, we will fill it responsibly. And when the dust settles we will be fast off the blocks to engage and shape.

Colleagues, it has been a privilege to work with you and to see so many of you again this weekend. My thanks go to every official, every volunteer and all our dedicated staff.

I am almost tempted to say, go back to your schools and prepare for self-government.

Instead I will content myself with wishing you a safe journey home.



06 May 2015