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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

Primary Performance – there’s a link between stability and success

It is with some trepidation that we learn of the Chief Inspector's plan to issue a monthly commentary on the state of the education system; experience teaches us these can sometimes be somewhat bruising affairs. 

The first commentary concerns the performance of the primary phase and, if recent pronouncements are anything to go by, the Chief Inspector has been reasonably pleased with primary performance and leadership. This is shouldn’t surprise us, given sustained improvements in results and high levels of parental confidence. This praise has had an edge however: primary performance has sometimes been used to challenge secondary schools. So it is worth reflecting on the differences between the two sectors.  

I know this will make primary heads laugh in disbelief, but when I look across the two sectors it seems that secondaries have so far experienced the most change. Yes, primaries have seen more than their fair share of turbulence and last minute tinkering (like this year's late arrival of the interim framework for teacher assessment for example, or the current uncertainty on UIFSM) but everything is relative. 

Secondary schools are in the early phases of massive and ongoing changes to GCSEs - to the extent that every single year of students currently in secondary school faces a different structure of exams. It is not even clear if it is meaningful to compare the performance of secondaries year to year at the moment. 

Or, to take another example, fewer than 20% of primaries have made the major structural and constitutional changes required by academy conversion. More than 60% of secondaries have done so.  

The recruitment crisis seems to be biting worse at secondary, given the way subject specialisms fragment the labour market; and a smaller pupil premium has made a thinner cushion for mainstream funding cuts. 

Both primaries and secondaries have great leaders doing extraordinary things in difficult circumstances. The apparent correlation between primary success and primary stability should therefore give us pause for thought. 

But the most troubling part of this perspective is that the volume of change at primary is increasing. Just like at secondary, primaries now face tumultuous changes to assessment for the oldest and youngest children. (Did anyone else notice that the Conservative manifesto described the KS2 SATs as 'exams' by the way?) The funding crisis will sink deeply into schools with relatively little supportive infrastructure. The further decline of the local authority will erode what support remained. These two factors combined may hasten structural change and academisation. On top of this, the ill-judged decision to deny experienced heads of small schools a cost of living allowance will undermine leadership. 

Could it be that politicians' desire to look busy with reform could actually be one of the things standing in the way of a truly successful education system? It is notable, for instance, that the steady gains in literacy that we're seeing at the end of primary actually precede the introduction of the government's flagship phonics screening check.

The Chief Inspector could usefully draw attention to the price of excessive of change.

You can read Sir MIchael Wilshaw's comments on primary schools here.


27 October 2015