Fear anyone placing schools at the heart of government

Past experience suggests that ministers wanting to shine a spotlight on education are more to be feared than welcomed. Is this true of Gavin Williamson?

heart about to be cloven in two by axe

Benjamin, the donkey in Animal Farm, has become one of my favourite literary characters. He’s seen it all: he knows that the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same – only worse.

Past experience of government ministers suggests that those who want to shine a spotlight on education and want to “place it at the heart of government” are more to be feared than welcomed.

Just when it seemed the profession had become accustomed to Damian Hinds’ well-intentioned efforts, a new incumbent arrives at Sanctuary Buildings.

At first glance, Gavin Williamson’s credentials seem to check out, in the sense that he has been a school governor, he has family connections who have worked in education and he has campaigned for fairer funding.

Driving up standards…again

But the new education secretary's rhetoric sounds unfortunately familiar. His first instinct has been to assert that standards have to be driven up – again – as if those involved in the system have somehow been slacking.

I would hope that teachers and students have always aimed high. Unfortunately, the best efforts of teachers have all too often been diverted to meaningless bureaucracy, which still cannot be shaken off. It’s a costly, inefficient system. Money and human resources have been squandered for far too long, in an increasingly hostile economic climate.

Mr Williamson will have to deal with continuing budget constraints, however much money is being vaguely promised by the prime minister.

His predecessor had made a more conspicuous effort to contain excessive pay awards at the top of the multitudinous academy chains. An astonishing number (146) of these MATs were named recently by the Department for Education as having paid at least one trustee or member of staff in excess of £150,000 in 2017-18.

A calculation based on assuming just one such salary per trust gives us the staggering figure of nearly £22 million. And that's before we even put a single teacher in a single classroom. Extending the academisation policy will add to that exceptionally high wage bill. Can the country afford this expensive makeover?

Working on workload

Little has been reported on Mr Williamson’s ideas about tackling workload. The last three education secretaries put their minds to making the education sector more efficient and more engaging to work in. To some extent, concessions have been made to schools and teachers: floor targets have gone, Ofsted will no longer even look at data produced in schools and inspectors will not comment on marking. The inspectorate is very keen to distance itself from myths about curriculum intent, in the interests of reducing the bureaucratic burden.

Even so, teachers still report excessive workload. And the system is still losing too many teachers in the first five years of their careers. It’s a terrible waste of experienced professionals who should have been stepping into middle-management roles and making a more strategic difference to their schools and students. It’s a terrible waste of the emotional and financial investment they have made in their academic and professional training. And it’s a terrible waste of schools’ money, because supply teachers (on high agency rates, but low hourly pay) have to be hired on short-term contracts.

No one can disagree with Gavin Williamson's comment that children have “only one chance in education” – and arguably never more so than in 2019. The pupils living in underfunded areas like Mr Williamson’s own constituency, and those who have borne the brunt of failed academy chains, have already suffered an unfairly impoverished education. If he is to stay true to his efforts of the past – notably in acting as a school governor and in fighting for fairer funding – perhaps he could find ways to compensate these victims of policy failure to date.

Second chances

Adult education, which used to provide life-enhancing second chances, has been cut with every funding squeeze. Apprenticeship funding seems to be migrating towards administrative or higher-level training, which arguably it was never intended for. This has left the vocationally skilled stranded, and industries that have always struggled are now struggling further.

Those left behind are more and more disenfranchised. This is most apparent in the regions that the new secretary of state for education and I both inhabit. Hopefully, we both understand the repercussions for our communities.

Superficial gloss

We live in interesting times. If education is to be “placed at the heart of government” then it’s to be hoped that such rhetoric isn’t signalling a further period of reform. There has been enough turbulence from wholesale qualification change. Structural reform is at best a superficial gloss, at worst a financial and effort overspend.

Today’s pupils need teachers in classrooms who are not overworked and stressed, teachers who are on sustainable workloads and who can concentrate on education rather than on bureaucracy. So, if standards are to be raised, eliminating unnecessary workload has to remain at the top of the agenda.

And, with concerns running deep over skills shortages and the effects of Brexit (in whatever form it takes), wouldn’t this be the best time to boost spending on further education for adults as well as teenagers? In this way, Gavin Williamson could address the injustices caused by the unequal distribution of cash in the past, compensating the victims of bungled reform – particularly those educated in failed academy chains – with second-chance further education to get them into sustainable employment.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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