‘What kind of education do we believe our children deserve?’

Now is the time that we should do the thinking, and not just be the passive enforcers of other people’s ideas – before it’s too late, says Geoff Barton
10th January 2019, 3:42pm


‘What kind of education do we believe our children deserve?’

League Tables, Disadvantage, Geoff Barton, Accountability, Dfe, Ofsted

Here’s a late-breaking new year’s resolution. Let’s make 2019 the year when we regain our ambition for our profession, and for our children and young people.

After all, if 2018 taught us anything, it’s that more of the same is merely likely to deliver more of the same. Take the publication in December of the Year 6 results. Here’s how the BBC reported them: “Primary school tables: poor pupils won’t catch up for 50 years.”

And just in case we hadn’t grasped the gist of the story from such a headline, the first sentence of the report hammered home its dispiriting message: “If the pace of change remains the same as it has done since 2011, poor pupils will not catch up until 2070.”

So, enough is enough. If we’re not careful we’ll look back to this era of convulsive social, political and technological change, and notice how there in the middle of it all, we stood, the teaching profession, allowing ambition to wither, with English education reduced to the platitudinous language of accountability and performance measures, the arts squeezed out of too many schools, the curriculum mechanistically narrowed.

It really doesn’t have to be like this.

And if, as I sense, there is a growing hunger for a new educational direction, then it may just be that the secretary of state has done us a favour. Freshly-appointed to the position, Damian Hinds announced at ASCL’s annual conference last year that there would be a moratorium on any further curriculum or qualification change for the lifetime of the parliament.

That, poignantly, was the era when parliamentary lifetimes were counted in years rather than hours. But let’s pretend we still live in normal times, and allow ourselves some thinking time to shape a new agenda around the kind of education we believe our children deserve, one that means more than league table positions and inspection grades.

And it’s quite possible to do this.

Back in 1996, Professor Michael Barber published his game-changing book about education The Learning Game: Arguments for an Education Revolution. It was described at the time as a “manifesto” for the next government and, sure enough, those Labour wilderness years spent listening and learning from education policy in the UK and overseas led to some genuinely ground-breaking ideas.  

For example, it introduced teaching assistants into our schools, other adults who could work alongside teachers to provide more directed teaching to small groups and individual pupils. It introduced limits on teacher workload and primary class sizes. We got national strategies for literacy and numeracy, a new National College for School Leadership, a professional qualification for headship and an annual award ceremony that would celebrate a maligned profession. Most important, symbolically at least, Barber’s work led to targeted funding to create brand new academies in communities that had long given up hope that education had any relevance to them. Enough, it was saying, was enough.

Similarly, when the Coalition government took power in 2010, Michael Gove and his education team brought with them years of rooting themselves in the ideas and practices that they believed would transform education - a new national curriculum rooted in Hirschian principles of knowledge and cultural literacy, the view that great schools and leaders should be given freedom from nanny state interventions, liberating those schools deemed outstanding from the need for routine inspection.

Now look, I’m not endorsing or rejecting any of those previous ideas. We can debate their merits another time. But undoubtedly both visions of education, when implemented, began a transformation of the education landscape. The thinking had been undertaken in readiness for the next political era.

And this should be our thinking time.

After all, there’s lots to think about. Here are eight starters:

  1. How will we lift education out of the political cycle, building a consensus with parents, employers and higher education about the skills and knowledge our young people need in a changing world, and then work to an implementation plan for 2030 and beyond?
  2. How will technology liberate young people who struggle with conventional learning approaches, and how can it transform the role of the teacher in the 21st century?
  3. How will we establish schools as community hubs that bring together services that are fragmenting - social care, mental health services, community policing, in recognition that the public services we need now are more complex than 30 years ago?
  4. How will we reinvent a currently atomised school system to incentivise collaboration over competition, and a lighter-touch form of accountability that has inclusion as its starting-point - what each of us is doing for children on the margins?
  5. What will we do about the shameful underbelly of underachievement at GCSE in English and maths - what we call the “forgotten third” - currently too easily written off as an acceptable form of collateral damage to demonstrate that our exam system has “rigour”? And, while we’re at it, when will we overhaul the GCSE itself, locked as it is in a different era when 16 was a legitimate end-point in studying for some young people and now given far too much credence in the way teachers, schools and the education system as a whole are measured?
  6. If we’re serious about social justice, how will we ensure that the arts, and creativity generally, are reinstated at the heart of every child’s experience throughout their school life, irrespective of background, and incentivise great teachers and leaders to commit to working longer-term in our most disadvantaged communities?
  7. How will we - as a profession - put accountability back in its box, developing rigorous self-evaluation across the 86 per cent of schools that are judged by Ofsted as “good” or “outstanding”, leaving inspectors to give more focused, constructive longer-term support to schools stuck in entrenched underperformance?
  8. How, in the age of the robots, will we ensure that our schools and colleges are the places where young people learn from the older generation what it is to be human - flexibility, courtesy, problem-solving, resilience, the power of human interactions, as well as the essential knowledge they’ll need to take their place as global citizens?

Of course, we could leave this to the thinktanks and other groups who are no longer working directly in classrooms. But if system leadership means anything it’s that we should do the thinking, and not just be the passive enforcers of other people’s ideas. We’ve had enough of that.

We have a Chartered College. We have social media to think collaboratively in a way that previous generations never had. What we need is thinking time between now and the next election. That - and a new sense of collective ambition.

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