I’ve watched the party conference season play out with usual high drama, superseded only by the high drama of Parliament. In a time of political divisions, it seems to me education is ever more important. It is the way we will heal a divided society. But the party conferences have had little to say on how we will build a great education system in England. There have been lots of words about abolishing things, but not too much about system-building.
So it is down to us, the profession, to think hard about system-building. And I’m not talking simply just about structures, nor am I in the business of extolling the virtues of one type of school over another.
We need bigger and better ideas. We need to build our system.
This is why the Confederation of School Trusts will tomorrow publish a sector-led "White Paper" on the future shape of the education system in England. We want to generate a conversation about system-building. This is first and foremost about children and creating the system that puts the substance of education first.
Drivers, both right and wrong
Building a system is about bringing coherence. It is about moving from a narrative of fixing one thing at a time to asking about the coherence of the system. This is about direction, working together and the substance of education. It shows where we need to go next. As Michael Fullan says in Coherence: the right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems, it is about how you turn "overload" and fragmentation into focus and coherence.
Fullan also talks about the wrong drivers. We’ve had some wrong drivers in our system. The drive to compulsory academisation in a very short timescale was a "wrong driver". The corresponding right drivers are perhaps capacity-building, collaboration and curriculum.
Building coherence means taking action with the right system drivers. And yes, this is a call to action. Let’s not wait for this political administration or the next one to tell us their policy as if we were children in a nanny state. Let’s move inexorably to become the system builders, the engineers, the architects of our own professionalism.
Fullan’s first driver is what he calls "systemness" by which he means focusing direction and the need to integrate what the system is doing. Right now, in England, we have a divided school system. We need to begin to integrate what the system is doing. And the system is building groups of schools.
There is power in a group of schools working together in a single accountability structure. As the Commons Education Select Committee said in a report on academies and free schools: “Primary heads told us that, whilst becoming an academy had improved their practice and their school, this was primarily because of the advantages generated by the collaborative framework of a trust.”
But be under no illusion, I am not proposing compulsory academisation. Academisation is not and has never been the panacea. I am talking about the power of a group of schools working together in what David Hargreaves in his think piece on the maturity of a self-improving system called "structural integration".
It has taken a 10-year horizon for schools to start to form groups. To complete this journey is likely to take another 10 years. Therefore, the time horizon for the system to work towards all schools in a strong and sustainable school trust is probably 2030. And let me be clear, this is about focusing direction. It is not about compulsion.
Fullan’s second driver is collaboration and how we create and cultivate collaborative cultures. School trusts create the conditions for deep collaborations among teachers and leaders to improve the quality of education. They are a new civic structure created with the sole purpose of advancing education for public benefit.
The concept of legally autonomous organisations set up purely for the purposes of running and improving schools has been part of the policy of all three main political parties – the Labour administration pre-2010, the coalition government (Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) between 2010 and 2015, and latterly, successive Conservative administrations.
It is almost 10 years since the 2010 Academies Act which enabled "convertor academies" and saw the rise of groups of schools, which we call "school trusts" to reflect their core education purpose. More than half of children and young people are now educated in such organisations.
It has taken a 10-year horizon for this change to happen. To complete the reform journey is likely to take another 10 years. Therefore, the time horizon for the changes proposed in our sector-led "White Paper" is 2030. We cannot limp on indefinitely with a two-tier system which leaves smaller maintained schools vulnerable as local authorities retract their school improvement services. It is imperative now that we build system coherence.
Pedagogy, of course, but also curriculum
Fullan’s third driver is pedagogy. He talks less about curriculum actually and more about "precision pedagogy". He focuses on instructional systems that build a common language and knowledge base, identify proven pedagogical practices and build the professional capacities of staff. So yes, part of system-building is the deliberate and precise building of pedagogical practice. And the way to develop great teaching is for teachers and leaders to learn and work together.
I would have liked Fullan to talk more about curriculum. But just because he doesn’t, doesn’t mean that we can’t. As Ben Newmark says so beautifully in his blog post entitled "Why teach?": “Our curriculum should whisper to our children, ‘you belong. You did not come from nowhere. You are one of us. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it’.”
A new language
In the words of TS Eliot in the Four Quartets, “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And new year’s words await another voice.”
The divisive language of MATs and Sats needs to go. We need to create a new voice and a new language – the language of school trusts as new civic structures. We need leaders who see a responsibility to work with other civic partners to advance education as a public good. Leaders who work with others to ensure the value of the child so that our collective actions protect high-quality education.
Leora Cruddas is the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts. She tweets @LeoraCruddas