Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.
Happy New Year! There are three traditions for writing at this time of year: wishes, predictions and resolutions. For the first of my blogs in 2015 I thought I’d kick off with a couple of each.
First off, some wishes
As we head towards the general election every political party should make a clear and honest commitment to protect school funding. This must be a full commitment, covering both revenue and capital, including both the early years and sixth form. It must cater for increasing numbers of pupils and include the vital services that schools rely on.
Given the state of pubic finances I don’t know if this is a promise that any party can actually make but we need some honesty. At the moment, politicians are either promising higher standards or claiming to have delivered them already. We certainly cannot have them heading into an election announcing ever more demands on schools while secretly planning to cut them off at the knees.
At election time, the promises tend to target the floating voters. We’ve already seen the major parties trying to halt the feared rush to UKIP at the ballot box. Given the typical demographics at play there, this may bias spending towards the interests of older voters.
I think we must focus keenly on how much is being invested in the young. And this does not just mean in schools: poverty in childhood is as serious a problem as poverty in old age, and certainly a barrier to education standards. Diverting spending away from the young is the ultimate false economy, although the price is not paid until long after the decisions are made. Not a good recipe for electoral politics, sadly, but a true test of the principles of our political leaders.
My second wish – and it’s back to honesty again - is for a long term plan for the changes asked of schools each year, and for this to be kept to a sensible minimum. Probably the only way we can trust that this will be so is for some form of self-denying ordnance, such as an Office of Education Responsibility, which NAHT has proposed previously. This could audit initiatives for evidence of impact, value for money, and capacity to deliver.
What about some predictions for 2015?
It is often hard to disentangle these from wishes but I do predict major change to inspection. To return to a previous theme, it is an obvious source of savings under tight budgets but it is also obvious that something is going wrong. Ofsted is no longer a regulator but really a director of the system. It cannot cope with such a role, and neither can schools. Nor is this the local autonomy school leaders were promised. One suggestion: give the definition of ‘Outstanding’ back to the profession via a system of peer review.
Sadly, I also predict recruitment difficulties; we are already seeing the early signs reported by head teachers across the country. This is a prediction that can be confounded however, with the right attention to funding and to inspection.
My third prediction is more tentative. Until recently I would have said that the three long term secular trends in education were more accountability, more austerity and more autonomy. I wonder now if autonomy is not on a shorter cycle? Will we see some attempts to reel back powers as policy makers realise they have few levers for change or that the wrong organisations have picked the powers up? I imagine educationalists will be watching Labour most closely for this, but the Lib Dems have shown some signs of wanting to strengthen local authorities and even the Conservatives have flirted with some eye catching edicts: creating a presumption for setting in subjects at secondary school for example. In education, we may have bemoaned the fragmentation and isolation of the last five years but history suggests freedoms are not lightly surrendered once they have been given.
The New Year wouldn’t be complete without resolutions
This matters because NAHT's philosophy is to spend less time asking things of government and more time just getting on with building a better education system – using some of that freedom while we have it.
I am sure we will be spending a lot of time on safeguarding and on assessment this year, but I wanted to single out two less traditional resolutions.
Firstly, I would like to see NAHT working with over 100 schools on our Aspire project. Aspire supports schools in the Requires Improvement category and helps them get to Good or better within three years without relying on structural change. Four terms in and over half of the first cohort of schools has got to Good already. Aspire is quietly showing a less dramatic but more sustainable form of school improvement. Part of the secret, if there is one, appears to lie in strengthening middle leadership. NAHT has made a strong start on support for this group with our new section NAHT Edge. 2015 may well be the year middle leaders finally find their voice.
Secondly, NAHT - with other associations and organisations - needs to step up its role in leadership development. There are strains and gaps in the field that would suit a professional rather than governmental response. For instance, there is little out there for serving head teachers – despite a tenure in the top job which easily spans a decade or more; nor is the support for new head teachers all it could be in every part of the country.
The best answers to the big questions in education are to be found within the profession. Politicians dance with voters, inspectors wrestle with data, journalists toy with headlines – and all the while teachers find the solutions. In this respect 2015 will not be so very different from the year just gone.
Addendum: between the writing and publishing of this blog, Labour have added their voice to calls for a major reform of Ofsted, meaning that both the largest parties have promised to address it. This makes at least one prediction more likely. Tristram Hunt has spoken about moving it away from pure data, which is a contrast to the Conservative proposals to make it more data driven. The 'trigger' for inspection will be one of the key decisions in reform. Tristram Hunt has also spoken of more freedom for school leaders. Great but, as noted above, real freedom is not just about the delegation of powers, it is about giving schools the space to focus on their work by reducing the volume of change.