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‘Dear Damian...Give some power back to the people’

In an open letter, Tim Brighouse sets out the new education secretary’s to-do list – and tells him that he needs to listen to the schools’ community to fix things

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In an open letter, Tim Brighouse sets out the new education secretary’s to-do list – and tells him that he needs to listen to the schools’ community to fix things

Dear Mr Hinds,

Five years ago, as a backbencher, you phoned me to ask about the London Challenge – “Why has it transformed outcomes in schools?” and “How can the lessons we have learned be applied elsewhere?”

Your encouraging, penetrative questioning and your listening skills made me think that you had missed your vocation and should have been a teacher.

Now that you are settling in as education secretary, let me repeat some of the key points in our conversation and suggest structural issues that you need to fix. It was one of New Labour’s main mistakes to coin the slogan “standards not structures”. After all, “structures” – academies/free schools or community schools; selective or comprehensive; admission policies; league tables of test and exam results; attendance and exclusions; inspection frameworks; funding formulae; curriculum – all affect pupil outcomes.

First a “recap” on London, with the proviso that what worked there won’t necessarily succeed in other places since each school has a unique context – of time, place and people. With that caution in mind, I would say that the London Challenge encouraged schools to improve each of the following daily processes – leadership; management; staff development; creating an environment “fit for learning”; reviewing; involving parents; engaging students in all aspects of school life; and of course, teaching, learning and assessing.

We used data to encourage focused inter-school visits, shone a bright light on what was working well and made sure that our language was relentlessly positive. Resources played a vital part, particularly a huge investment in recruiting and, crucially, retaining and developing teachers.

But so too did hope, partnership and a belief that all students could succeed if they met the right teacher, mentor or learning assistant. We created a climate in which it was more likely that school staff could weave their magic, knowing they were well-informed, energised, trusted and supported in their efforts to change our society for the better. If you use some of the same approaches, you won’t go far wrong.

Important though making an immediate difference is, there are six structural issues that damage the efforts of schools and parents, as well as students’ prospects of growing up confident, committed citizens. Two of these you can’t postpone.

Social mobility pipe dream

First is the funding formula. You will need to be at your persuasive best with the chancellor. Three times as much is spent on pupils in the private sector as on their peers in statemaintained schools. That gap, which narrowed for the decade before 2010, has widened every year since. I know you care about social mobility, but that remains a pipe dream while the children of the rich continue to have a disproportionate advantage in their schooling.Second is teacher recruitment. There is a crisis. Some years ago, one of your predecessors foolishly relinquished his legal duty “to secure a sufficient supply of suitably qualified teachers”, preferring to leave it to the market. The result is an acute shortage in some parts of the country and a glut in others. You need a set of regional plans. As for staff development, give the Chartered College of Teaching an endowment of £500 million to invest and spend the annual interest on CPD.

Four other structural issues – running sores if not yet fatal wounds – demand attention. One is admissions policies and practices: some schools, ignoring the code, choose pupils and parents rather than vice versa, tilting the playing field in their favour. Consequently, too many pupils are ferried to schools far from home while others, less biddable teenagers, are on urban streets. Admissions should not be organised by schools themselves.

Another issue is about accountability, examinations/tests and the curriculum. Exam and test league tables and high-stakes Ofsted inspections have reinforced a narrow interpretation of educational purposes. At best it celebrates the winners in a competition focusing on the measurable at the expense of the valuable; at worst it creates a climate of fear, bullying and failure.

Vital but narrow curriculum

Exams, run by private boards for profit at huge public expense, are taken by youngsters at predetermined ages rather than when ready. If we need people who are creative, able to solve interdisciplinary problems and work in teams, can handle social media, have good interpersonal skills and have the right attitudes and dispositions, you will look in vain for support from our examination and accountability arrangements. The curriculum focuses on a vital but too narrow range of knowledge and skills.

And then there’s the free school and academy question – in practice nationalised government schools – some in large chains with prescriptive practices making a mockery of school autonomy. There is the whiff of corruption about this unmanageable system.

That raises the final issue, the elephant in the room: governance and ministerial powers. You, as education secretary, have too many powers, more than 2,000 – in excess of any other Western developed country including Germany in 1939. In some places the local democratic voice and powers have all but disappeared, putting at risk local provisions for special educational needs, school place planning and other “beyond the school” services.

May I suggest a “cunning plan” to solve these four vital structural issues? Set up an independently chaired, cross-party commission to take evidence from all interested parties and make recommendations, which you include in a 2020 education Act. It would be a legacy to heal post-Brexit wounds and would mark a new age of hope, ambition and partnership.

Meanwhile, you can focus on school funding, teacher supply and all the other pressing demands from early years, further education and universities.

Yours sincerely,

Sir Tim Brighouse


Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London

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