Exactly a year ago I wrote an open letter to Stephen Twigg, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Education. By pure coincidence I noticed on twitter today an open invitation from Labour Education to do the same for Tristram Hunt the new incumbent of that important position. How could I resist. Perhaps this time I will get a response?
I have been a Headteacher for nearly 9 years. For nearly 7 of those years I have been leading an 11-16 mixed comprehensive. In that period we have moved from weak Ofsted judgements to consecutive Good inspections in 2009 and 2012 and 5A*-C inc in English and Maths have increased from 34% in 2008 to consistently above 55% in recent years in spite of intakes below national average at Key Stage 2. We are proud of our achievements but as a whole school we aspire to be even better, not least because almost 40% of our young people qualify for Pupil Premium and we want to make a lasting difference to their life chances. The nature of our school means that we feel sharply the impact of every educational policy change and the difference it will make to our school and our young people. We are not afraid of change, indeed we thrive on it, and we welcome external scrutiny and accountability but we are desperate for a Secretary of State who is willing to work in a genuine partnership with the profession. From my experience these are the areas where we need to start working together:
Curriculum and Qualifications
These decisions need to be taken out of the hands of an individual politician, whatever their political colour. An independent commision including educationalists, industrialists, cross party politicians and academics needs to be appointed with a clear brief to develop a curriculum and qualification framework which meets the needs of young people and our country. There must be a cross party agreement to accept the findings of the commission and that these findings will be binding for at least two parliaments to give a period of development, consolidation and understanding. We cannot have a situation where year on year young peoples’ qualifications are denigrated, undermined or simply swept away. Of course the commision should create a mechanism that protects standards but it must also finally create a qualification framework which recognises the value of academic skills and learning as well as the equal value of vocational pathways too. The work of the Headteachers Roundtable is an early indicator of what is possible and how ready headteachers are to engage with change.
The Quality of Teaching
When will politicians finally accept that we have the best ever generation of teachers in our schools? The determination to develop their skills and to make a difference for every young person is more embedded in the profession than at any time in my 32 years in education. I do not know a teacher who isn’t happy to be observed and supported to improve their practice but we have placed the profession in a strait jacket which has until now suggested that a one size fits all is the only way forward. The most recent comments from the Chief Inspector indicating that teaching can be effective in many different styles is to be welcomed. To judge teaching by the progress of pupils in the lesson and over time is also a positive development however the professional development of a teacher is not straightforward. Not everyone will be fully equipped after one year of training and an induction of twelve months. Teaching skills are honed by a variety of experiences, often gained by working in different schools. The obstacles to progress are those teachers who are unwilling to change and respond to guidance. Of course headteachers should be encouraged to remove these people from our profession. These individuals however are in a tiny minority. If we get our selection of trainees and their early professional development right we should be left with a profession that can be trusted to manage itself in a focussed but differentiated way. Use the measure of outcomes to hold leaders to account but allow them to work within their schools to develop their colleagues in a way which is best suited to their needs and those of the school. We must bring an end to training teachers to jump through externally created hoops.
The proposed changes to accountability measures offer a real chance of a sensible consensus for a way forward. It is absolutely unacceptable for any school to have low expectations for its young people but there must be a recognition of the starting point from which a school begins its journey with those pupils. My own experience as a headteacher makes me only too familiar with the inequities of the current performance measures. I am very happy to be compared to other schools who face the same journey as mine and we are actively seeking to learn from those colleagues who have made greater progress. It cannot be right however that I am judged by indicators that at any given time I cannot hope to match. Equally important however is that some of these indicators have allowed schools that have not made the same improvement journey as mine appear to be doing a much better job. So let us not have a system that is rigged to suit any particular group of schools but one that really does demonstrate the value that a given school adds to the life chances of its students. This accountability framework should rightly include publicly available performance tables but should also continue to include a regulatory inspection process. This process should however be triggered by the outcomes measured by the performance tables. It is surely common sense that if a school is clearly adding value by implication the teaching, support and leadership must be effective? Schools can still be required to make public their own self evaluation and future planning and these can be monitored by local authority, academy chain or partnership to which a school belongs and these bodies could call for a more formal inspection if concerns arise. These bodies can also be responsible for triggering school support where this has not already been identified.
The new models of school support being developed nationally are both exciting and demonstrating impact however any future government needs to ensure that high quality support is available to every school and not just based on the good luck of being part of a good local authority, chain, trust or Teaching School Alliance. The new models that have developed have in many cases been driven because of the consequences of the huge reducations in local authority budgets. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing but the proliferation of private providers that arrive in my inbox every day are not guaranteeing the high quality school support and CPD that individuals may need. Many areas of the country are developing formal Education Partnerships to provide a locally based forum for schools and other providers to work together to identify the needs of that area and to plan ways of delivering support. This does not have to be a return to Local Authorities for those who have already left but it should mean that whatever the status of a group of schools locally they have a legal obligation to work together in the interests of the wider community and not just their own organisation. This is potentially the most worrying aspect of where educational policy currently rests because there are many headteachers, often in challenging circumstances, who do not have the capacity to address these issues alone and it is imperative that the next government finds models of partnerships that protect the weakest as well as encouraging the strong.
My own school was fortunate enough to gain £13 million of investment in 2007. An amount of money that has transformed our learning environment and inspired pupils and colleagues in their improvement journey. A new building in itself does not guarantee improvement but there are still too many young people and too many teachers who are working in environments which are a disgrace. The investment in the fabric of schools must be reinvigorated. It makes economic sense and is an equality issue too. A new government needs to make specific unequivocal promises about the investment it will make and the timescales over which it will happen. Couple that investment with a policy of placing schools at the centre of their communities and you will reap the rewards several times over.
Lost in many of the educational debates addressed earlier in this letter is the simple fact that many of our lowest achieving pupils are faced with the often horrific consequences of the social changes that have taken place in our society. The economic turmoil in our poorer communities, the exponential increase in mental health problems, the consequences of alcohol and impact of new technologies for good and ill mean that for all of our schools to offer all of their students the best possible opportunities requires not only great teaching and learning but a high quality wider support for the health and emotional well being of their pupils and their families. We have made significant progress in these areas in recent years but we need a social policy that puts schools at the heart of their communties and with the resources to make a difference.
Tristram, I wish you every success in your new role.
further letters to Tristram Hunt can be seen at http://blogsync.edutronic.net/