Hope among a vision of “shreds and patches”

Hope among a vision of “shreds and patches”

 ASCL 2015 – “Trust to Transform”

Education seemed to be higher up the political priority list in the build up to the 2010 election. I remember the debate at ASCL 2010 between Laws, Gove and Coaker as a Titanic clash of educational ideology – a genteel cage-fight that only ASCL could have hosted.

We will never forget who won and what happened next. Michael Gove’s reform agenda has been tattooed on the system. And while the reform of standards and autonomy were laudable, the profession has suffered in the last five years.

The most subversive element of the coalition’s autonomy principle is that schools are actually more regulated than ever.

Their vision of “shreds and patches” has led to crises in assessment, recruitment, retention, funding and a pervading fear for the future and there was a lack of political vision for education at ASCL 2015 in this election year.

London Panorama

We were hearing slightly different versions of the same thing from all three main parties.

Picture ref

Tristram Hunt desperately wanted to say the right things and with teachers yearning for anything new and positive you felt that it should be the easiest of tasks to carry us with him. But his speech was riddled with cliches about 21st century education and “industrial revolutions”; this is a shadow education secretary repeatedly missing an open goal from a couple of yards out. He also dodged the question about a National Fair Funding Formula  in the Q&A session (to be fair, he wasn’t the only one).

David Laws reminded everyone, in what sounded like a valedictory speech, why he has been so highly respected as Schools Minister. He actually has delivered effective policy from heartfelt vision and, like the profession, has previously expressed frustration with political interference.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was unwell and Sean Harford, deputising and delivering a speech he probably hadn’t written, made it clear that Ofsted is still metamorphosing (see Steven Tierney’s post about the future model emerging); he also dodged the other significant question at conference about “comparable outcomes”, in which students’ achievements are pegged back so they cannot exceed previous cohorts’ standards.

Nicky Morgan was well-briefed and probably the most convincing of the education secretaries elect. She scored some points but then reminded us not to get our hopes up by answering incorrectly on funding and comparable outcomes. She also fell into that old Tory habit of unfavourably comparing results from two wholly different local authorities.

Brian Lightman confirmed that all three political representatives had received copies of his speech prior to their plenaries and it felt as if the politicians had done their homework in the taxi. Very disappointing.

Few answers and a great deal of confusion. I didn’t get the impression we were about to be “trusted to transform”, rather that we were going to be made entirely responsible for the mess we’re currently in.

ASCL has positioned itself to work with rather than against Government; whilst noble and decent it is an approach ultimately open to abuse and neglect. The ASCL blueprint is safe, sensible, wise and well put together. However, it is uncertain that its common sense will be free from dilution in the next parliament.

None of the problems inherent in our system received responses worth repeating:

  1. That only confident schools get to innovate and lead;
  2. The shameful inequities of national per-pupil funding and cuts to Post 16 allocations;
  3. Government’s addiction to reactionary leadership – e.g. patching in updates on how to lead on character and throwing funds at sexy policy tourism;
  4. The cap on national progress in the shape of “comparable outcomes”, (effective norm referencing) – success can only come at someone else’s failure;
  5. Schools and teachers have no time to develop the practice that will really transform outcomes; they are too busy reeling with system change and uncertainty. Risk-taking is minimal.

Add to this the fact that the profession is fractured into unions representing different phases, tiers and interests and we find that teachers have been easy to “pick off’ for too long. The College of Teaching is an idea that promises unity but is a long way from delivering.

In short, educational policy is in danger of driving away the joy of teaching and learning at the very time when young people need inspiration and direction more than ever. Young people need a profession that can deliver core knowledge, credible leadership and problem solving opportunities, in order that they may enjoy and contribute to the best in humanity throughout their lives. The vision for our nation isn’t visible enough or funded appropriately.

But there is hope.

First class plenaries and breakouts at ASCL, and events like it, give an opportunity for proper professional reflection; thinking space is an invaluable function of conferences.

Never has more been written about and shared within the profession. There are some seriously influential educationalists sharing expertise with anyone willing to engage and learn. Notwithstanding the nascent position of the College of Teaching, there is already a collective voice, an expression of the nobility of our profession. It can be spiky and adversarial but it is visible. You know where it is.

Brian Lightman’s touching speech about the re-visioning of the St Cyres school campus served as an effective metaphor for the work all school leaders are doing for their communities, often despite the system rather than because of it.

In what I hope will be a second term of office as General Secretary of ASCL, Brian and the team must bare their teeth at Government in bringing the blueprint to life.

School leaders work hard to provide a compelling vision for their schools. How powerful it would be if there were a compelling national vision for what education was in the UK, one that was consensual and long term, one the Government could promote and be proud of.

Imagine what could be achieved then.