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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

Never mind the manifestos, use the evidence

This week sees the publication of most of the parties’ full manifestos. The main outlines of their education polices are already clear. The Conservatives claim to be the ‘union for parents’, Labour says it’s sticking up for the forgotten fifty per cent and the Lib Dems are promising to pay for it. (I may have lost some nuance in that summary.)

Although the tone can be quite different, the substance is not always distinctive between the parties - there really is a political consensus (among the front benches at least) on education. It sometimes appears that they arrive at a similar position from different directions. Labour will fund education in line with inflation, the Conservatives in line with pupil numbers, but this amounts to a similar sum in the end. 

Conservatives are the standard bearers of autonomy but Labour (despite the fears of some heads expressed in a recent open letter) have promised to extend academy freedoms to all. Labour have made much of requiring qualified teachers - and it plays well with the public - but I suspect that Conservatives would like a more nuanced position on that topic too. Conservatives want more tests, but Tristram Hunt has also been hesitant to promise the removal of existing ones. 

Even the middle tier shows signs of agreement. It may be Regional Schools Commissioners on one side and Directors of School Standards on the other, but it seems likely these will converge on a similar framework: one or two dozen individuals, accountable to the Secretary of State for intervention and school creation across both the maintained and academy sectors. 

It's not all consensus of course. Labour have been bolder on Ofsted reform so far and more cautious on political interference. The Lib Dems see education more in the round and have reflected more thoroughly on their recent time in office. Free schools remain divisive and planning for new pupil places is a flashpoint. There may be more surprises to come. We haven't, for example, heard a clear line from anyone yet on school amalgamation and federation. Is the MAT the future?

Any administration after May could also be at the mercy of some powerful external forces: continued austerity; the exhaustion of the sector from constant change; returning recruitment challenges; possible political weakness. Together these will limit the opportunity for creativity, extravagance and hostile rhetoric. A less heroic age is coming. 

This is not an excuse to breathe a sigh of relief and return to normal. These things are cyclical. The task for the profession is to spend less time on other people’s manifestos and more time on its own plan for the future; to build a system that is held in greater public esteem and is more capable of regulating its own affairs, such that it crowds out some of the extremes of political interference and manipulation. 

What is our plan for austerity?

- We need to pay more attention to the evidence for what works. We also need to draw attention to the whole of public spending, not just schools’ budgets. 

How will we develop the generation of teachers?

- We need a proper plan for QTS and ITT. We need a College that wins the trust of the profession. We need leadership development. We don't need to wait around for other people’s solutions on these matters. 

 What is a sensible rate of change?

- It’s not zero. It’s about decent notice and consultation; and how about one major change a term? 

How will we address underperformance?

- Aspire and Instead provide NAHT’s share of the answer. We’re not waiting around on this one but testing new methods out. Peer review would be a hell of a prize to win. Can we also encourage government to focus on outcomes rather than inputs? But we must, must be serious about this as underperformance is the crack that permits the wedge of wider interference to enter. 

What is the glue that holds schools together? 

- We need alternative models of trust status so that every school can find a home that matches its values. There will be multiple, inter-locking clusters of schools for different purposes. 

I struggle to see any one of these policies making a good general election splash. That’s probably reassuring. We have always said that politics and education are a toxic mix. What works for one, fails the other. The ideal education announcement is tangible, quantified and short term. It involves things like buildings, staff employed, ring fenced funds, a qualification and so on. It needs either a misty eyed view of the future or a nostalgic longing for the last. These are very rarely the answers we need. They are, at best, triggers and symbols. It is the behaviour of people in classrooms and schools that makes a difference. It is time to assert our independence from these things. Not by demanding it but simply by living it. 

13 April 2015