Dear Dominic Cummings: So, you want radical thinking?

Fix the accountability system, trust teachers to do their jobs, and fund schools properly. Dominic, are these suggestions weird enough for you, asks Bernard Trafford

Man filling in job application on laptop

Dear Dominic Cummings,

I would like to apply for one of those jobs you’re advertising for weirdos and misfits to help run the country.

I believe I’m well-suited to join your team because, from the government’s point of view, I am indeed weird.

My field is education. I could provide some radical thinking there: my vision diverges wildly from current government policy. For a start, I believe perverse incentives should be foreseen and avoided before policies are enacted.

So we need to fix an accountability system where the stakes are so high that, in order to avoid criticism, schools feel pressured to do things that aren’t necessarily best for children, in order to keep an inspectorate off their backs.

A catch-22 situation

For example, just this week Ofsted advised primary schools not to teach phonics before Reception. It’s no advantage, said a spokesperson: learning phonics is simply a “short, sharp” process to help them along the road to reading.

It’s like Catch-22. In Joseph Heller’s famous novel, a Second World War US pilot cannot escape flying missions by pleading insanity, because getting out is the only sane response to the madness of war. 

Similarly, knowing pupils will be tested on phonics at the end of Year 1, schools won’t do a “short, sharp” job on them: they’ll start them as soon as possible, so that the kids score highly in the later test.  

The catch is that such schools are then criticised for drilling children when they should be learning through exploration and play.

Can't have it both ways

The same paradox was highlighted at secondary level recently, when MAT bosses, led by Harris Federation’s Sir Dan Moynihan, lambasted Ofsted over its insistence on a broad curriculum in Year 9. Dan and his mates say that Ofsted can’t have it both ways: not in schools in deprived areas, at any rate. 

Where kids have little significant cultural capital on which to build, the MAT bosses claim, they need an extra year (Year 9) in which to build the scaffolding for success at GCSE two years later.

These schools are getting their pupils impressive GCSE results by slimming down what’s learned in Year 9 – in effect running three-year GCSE programmes

“No, no, no!” shrieks the inspectorate, as yet another head is lost as a result of precisely this judgement. “Year 9 must be broad!” 

I’d like to share that view, but my experience was gained in relatively privileged settings, and I won’t tell those guys how to do their job in theirs. 

Weird about funding

Schools shouldn’t have to choose between upsetting Ofsted by narrowing the curriculum or pleasing it with great GCSE results. 

Is that view weird? If so, here’s another thing I’m weird about. 

It’s right that an education, health and care plan gives a child with special educational needs and disabilities the statutory right to receive appropriate additional help in school. But I’m puzzled by the fact that help is then so often unforthcoming. 

Hampered by lack of funding, people, resources and time, schools lack the capacity and, too often even now, the capability to give those kids the support they need. 

But then, I’m weird about funding. By 2022, we’re promised billions more flowing into schools from central government. But I just can’t see how merely regaining the funding levels of a decade ago is real progress. 

Like the boy sticking his finger in the hole in the dam, this cash injection prevents the problem worsening, but doesn’t improve it.

The wrong sort of weird

Improving: that’s why I’d like to join your team. My 40 years’ experience in the field could be useful.

I believe in giving schools and school leaders the tools to do the job (ie adequate resources). And I believe in giving them the freedom to use these tools as they see best, in their unique setting, not harried by ministerial diktats and contradictory pressures from an oppressive accountability system. 

It’s about trusting professionals, valuing them and giving them freedom. 

You’ll agree that view’s weird. But I fear it’s not the sort of weird you want. 

Somewhere you say (without irony?) that, if your misfits don’t fit in, they’ll be rapidly binned. So, on second thoughts, perhaps I’m better staying on the outside, with the other misfits. It’s friendlier out there.

Sorry to have taken up your time.

Yours etc,

Bernard

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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