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
NAHT’s end of term report
It has not been a summer of contentment in the education world. Despite promises of dialogue, stability, consolidation and respect both the pace and the rhetoric have continued. We have had declarations of war from the government, more provocative and imaginary statistics from the Chief Inspector, a new set of standards to trigger intervention, further change to qualifications, greater pressure on the Ebacc and, despite protestations, a narrowing of the curriculum as schools shift limited resources away from arts subjects.
It is all very familiar – almost all of these occurred or were mooted in 2010. If they didn’t produce the results then, why would they work now? Is it that we just didn’t push hard enough and far enough? Yet we already have extreme levels of autonomy and accountability compared to other (higher performing) education systems. It seems more a matter of faith than of evidence we need more of the same.
Indeed, we are also dwelling in the consequences of those choices from 2010. More and more talented leaders are taking a pause at deputy headship rather than face the full onslaught of accountability and scrutiny. There are difficulties in recruitment at every level, despite the invisibility of this issue to ministers. Yes, the data doesn’t show it: but the data is lagging and conceals the reality. Of course heads will fill a position, you can’t have an empty classroom. It doesn’t mean they are getting the people they need and want. We’re also gradually running out of money. It’s not the funding coming into schools (although that is unfairly distributed) so much as the growing expenditures they must make. The government is taking no account of pensions, national insurance, cost of living, increments, living wages and – crucially – the cost to schools of picking up on cuts to other public services.
A successful education system rests on three pillars: intelligent accountability, sensible autonomy and capacity – the skills, resources, knowledge and people to make good use of freedom and rise to the standards set. We are paying only lip service to capacity building. Probably because it is difficult, slow and expensive. Yet it works. Focusing only on autonomy and accountability is like looking for your keys under the streetlight; not because you dropped them there but because it would be easier to find them if they were there.
Take leadership development. It is melting away. We ask more and more of leaders in education but where is their back up? We hear plenty about the importance of leadership, it is almost a mantra, but this can often be an admission that we don’t actually know what works; but if we can only get good people in they’ll sort it out for us. We can set any goal we like if we have good leaders. Of course we need good leaders; we need people with ambition, energy, drive and a sure moral compass; we need to hold them to account for doing the right thing. But stopping there ignores every lesson of leadership. Take the armed services. One couldn’t argue that they don’t take leadership seriously, or believe in the importance of individual responsibility and skill. But they would also regard leaving a promising young officer to their own devices as a dereliction of duty. They provide training, guidance, doctrine, support and – above all – a culture of leadership that helps ordinary people do extraordinary things. We almost get it the other way round in education, creating a culture of isolation, indirection, criticism, churn, under-resourcing and punitive accountability that too often limits extraordinary people to doing ordinary things.
Coasting schools are another example. There is no clear vision – the criteria do not produce what most people would regard as a coasting school. There is no coherence – the criteria conflict with other forms of accountability like inspection outcomes. There is no stability – the measures are retrospective in part and ill-defined when they address the future. There is no resourced offer of concrete support for these schools; just ‘prove us wrong, work with this partner or lose your job’. The whole coasting initiative will be a massive distraction from the real and pressing problems of our education system, which is eliminating failure and helping every school narrow the gap. There is an opportunity cost to focusing resources on so called coasting schools, because we lack sufficient sponsors, partners and new head teachers even to address failure adequately. This looks good politically and works badly educationally.
These ‘politics of distraction’, to quote John Hattie, are a cause for concern but not for despair. It is often in the harshest crucible that the most promising ideas are born. The last few years have seen a new idea emerging: that, if the profession wants control of its own destiny, to own again what properly belongs to it, then opposition and complaint are not enough. They may even be self-defeating. The answer is to lead, to crowd out political interference with professional initiative. In NAHT we see it simply: take responsibility for each other and take ownership of standards. By this we mean that we take responsibility for all the students in the system, ensuring no school or colleague slips through the gap; not as a defeatist shield holding to the lowest common denominator, but using our resources to lift everybody up with this. We mean being honest and open about our vision for the education system, freely acknowledging where there is work still to be done without surrendering pride in our achievements so far. There is something liberating in saying ‘it’s good but it’s not good enough’, that we have proven through our achievements to date that we have the capacity to go so much further. Given the trust in which teachers are held, I think this conversation would be well received. It would also work better in raising standards than either constant criticism or constant defensiveness.
- We filled the gap created by requires improvement with Aspire, which is helping dozens of schools reach good. We will adapt it to support schools facing the coasting category
- We rose to the challenge of life after levels with our assessment commission: first off the blocks and widely used. We are just finishing new exemplification materials
- We challenged the domination of external adversarial inspection with Instead. This has put peer review on the agenda and is rolling out widely
- We met the decline of leadership support with our new section for middle leaders, NAHT Edge: our fastest growing category of membership. We have recently promised to provide a mentor for every new head who wants one
We know there are new challenges on funding and recruitment. As well as lobbying the government hard, we will continue to seek new ways to help our members rise to these challenges too.