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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

We need a new vision of education policy from government

Ah, the age old pageantry of the British electoral process. It is, of course, a hallowed tradition of our politics that any new government begins by criticising teachers. This was fulfilled in classic style at the weekend by Nicky Morgan, with an attack on ‘coasting’ schools.

We should address under-performance. If you have led a school for many years without being able to deliver improvement then someone else should have a go. There, we said it.

The trouble is that, to win political capital, the government has made vague and generalised comments that will have every head looking over their shoulders, contributing a widespread atmosphere of fear. How does the government define a coasting school? What interventions do they plan? What is sufficient evidence of a plan of improvement? How many schools will be targeted? A government serious about rebuilding bridges with the profession would have answered these questions before making an announcement. Instead, we’re back to square one.

What worries me most is the lack of vision. The Conservative manifesto relies almost exclusively on high stakes accountability, testing and autonomy. It could have been written for 2010. But that is fighting the last war.

The drivers of autonomy and accountability have been pushed as far as they will go; indeed, they risk producing perverse results. The battles of the next five years almost exclusively concern capacity. How can we get enough quality school places to cope with half a million extra children? How can we restore morale and get and keep more talented teachers into the profession in the face of a recruitment crisis? How can we persuade great leaders to take on schools in challenging circumstances when the government keeps raising the stakes? How can we encourage schools to collaborate to make stretched budgets go further? Where, even, are the leaders who will take over these coasting and failing schools when their colleagues have been ousted?

In many ways, these challenges are the side effects of the strategy pursued since 2010, the price paid for the reforms. Yet there is no change of emphasis; we fight the last war. Are the weekend’s announcements, then, merely the education equivalent of the Maginot line?

We need a new vision of education policy from government, that preserves the gains made in autonomy and accountability but that switches emphasis to capacity building. But the profession should also be wary of fighting the last war. We need a new vision too. The debate in 2015 is not about academies and free schools per se. It is about recruitment, morale, funding and leadership development. These are difficult topics for governments to grapple with, but ones that the profession understands intimately. Let’s move on to this ground.

18 May 2015