Eighteen months ago I felt energised by the coalition’s approach to education policy. The White Paper had made some timely promises. The profession would become high status, Heads would be given more autonomy and the examination system itself would come under examination. The quality of teaching was identified correctly as the principle agent of improved outcomes and the funding largesse of the last Government was to be distributed more fairly among those who knew what to do with it. Headteachers would be listened to.
Notwithstanding change fatigue in the profession, these principles felt positive. Some of them have made a positive difference already. Academisation has been good to us, and many other schools like ours, it has encouraged a more enterprising financial and curricular culture.
Another bonus came with The National College’s survival from the “Bonfire of the Quangos”; what the College has learnt over the last twelve years has become an increasingly sharp instrument of our professional identity. With Steve Munby at the helm we can be confident of strong professional stewardship and the concept of System Leadership is compelling. It recognises and builds upon the networks of support that have existed heretofore and acknowledges that expertise within our schools will improve them more quickly than disembodied consultants and LA officers. The Teaching School agenda has the potential to provide a professional structure of learning and support from teacher training to headship and to assist other schools in their improvement journeys along the way.
The use of the past tense at the start of this piece prepares you for the “But”. Why do I feel disquieted? Yes, Free Schools grate in areas with surplus school places. Yes, austerity has bitten, the National funding formula discourse opens and closes like some flowering cacti and the debate over localised pay is set to rumble on in summer storms.
However, it is the two Michaels’ recent polemic leaving me cooler eighteen months on.
Attending the ASCL conference a few weeks ago gave me the chance to listen to the words of our masters. Steve Munby was inspirational. His evidence-led assertion that, “high accountability needs high levels of autonomy within the profession for success,” was credible and accurate. Steve Munby’s stewardship of the National College is critical
But then came The Two Michaels, Gove and Wilshaw – The Twa Corbies. They spoke well under the circumstances but in a poorly air-conditioned hall full of headteachers representing schools on the receiving end of the rhetoric of the last two years, the disquiet grew with the heat.
I will re-state my belief in Ofsted, a crucial office in the pursuit a world-class Education system. Sir Michael Wilshaw has been an outstanding headteacher and he knows the job. He is an unapologetic champion of raising standards but he is making some bad decisions. No-notice inspections do not build the trust required to work with the profession. Inspection teams too frequently demoralise and damage schools. A wider concern lay in the incredulous, belly-laughter of heads when Michael Gove asserted the independence of Ofsted from Government. Ofsted is a blunt instrument of DfE policy.
No-one, including parents, can understand what Outstanding provision means over time. Numerous adjustments to the Inspection framework render comparisons opaque.
Herein lies my most serious concern about the potential of the Teaching School mission, it feels fragile with the current Ofsted framework abroad.
Teaching Schools and National Leaders of Education are one inspection judgement away from de-designation. To align this important and noble agenda to the caprice and revisionism of Ofsted is a fault. Partnerships and Alliances predicated upon trust and personalities take time to build and, at present, moments to destroy.
Michael Gove did not endear himself to his audience either. Slick, charming words were not enough to convince. Govian curriculum rhetoric seems to be moving us towards an education that replicates his past. There are half-hearted nods for the need to develop a better technology curriculum but these feel as whimsical as a Music strategy band-aid unveiled to patch the EBacc driven leak of students away from Music courses. Gove’s call for an “acceleration of change” whilst tightening the seemingly arbitrary floor standards noose didn’t go down well either. Promised freedoms feel meaningless in the face of increased centralisation.
Michael Gove is making several false turns as we approach mid-term in this coalition government. In the guise of building our global educational competitiveness, could the “acceleration” be legacy building as higher office beckons? As one who saw the Diploma programme through from inception to dissection, I have had a dose of experience to temper my enthusiasm for noble intentions and grand plans when they are subject to the whim of education secretaries and the time constraints of Government terms of office.
I worry about these Twa Corbies. Steve Munby added a cautionary line to his keynote, “With increased autonomy comes a risk of greater isolationism, with schools failing to share expertise or high quality practice.” In my view, it won’t be autonomy that causes this risk but the potentially toxic interference of Government stifling the profession and the National College from supporting us.
Ironically, Sir Michael Wilshaw is a real knight. But I don’t believe he is the knight of this literary metaphor. The slain noble, deserted by those he supported and left to the crows is the quasi-chivalric principle of System Leadership, delivered by schools for schools.
Perhaps the future does lie in Chains?