'Groundhog Day in education would be a disaster'

The government has to deliver change in education – state and private schools must work together, says Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

The government needs to deliver real change in education - more of the same won't be good enough, says Bernard Trafford

The election’s over. Will the result bring Christmas to schools and colleges? Or a rather miserable Groundhog Day?

Given the freedom of action afforded him by so thumping a majority, Boris Johnson can now “get Brexit done”. Then, as he says repeatedly, he can tackle the nation’s other imperatives.

So, what of his alleged leaning towards liberal one-nation Toryism? He no longer needs the support (always equivocal) of the DUP. Nor is he necessarily obliged to appease the Right-wing ERG headbangers. Will he now go his own way? 

Or will education just see more of the same? Hopefully not. As Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, wrote to his members this week, more of the same will mean precisely that. And it’s not good enough.

Education priorities

In a Tes article, "What must the new education secretary’s priorities be?", Geoff outlines five key areas for change.

These are: more funding; teacher supply when pupil numbers in secondary education surge; a rethink of an accountability system that currently drives teachers out; tests and exams that consign a third of 16-year-olds to failure; qualifications, especially T levels.

Commentators – not least defeated Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn – were quick to challenge the prime minister to live up to – and deliver on – his election promises. In truth, when it came to education, there weren’t many. Beyond funding, that is. 

I’ve lost track of how many billions of pounds schools were promised. Nonetheless, experts calculated that, by 2023, funding will only be at 2010 levels in real terms. Better than at present, then, but not enough. Not by a mile.

Groundhog Day

So far, there are few indicators of other change coming. Just as the Cabinet is almost identical to its pre-election manifestation, so too the ministerial team at the Department for Education is unchanged. Groundhog Day appears the likeliest outcome.

That would be disastrous, even with a bit of extra cash in the pot. Geoff Barton observes that we won’t become an educational world leader through “arcane performance measures”, structural reforms, “policy tourism” and jumping on political hobby horses, nor even by arbitrarily scrapping Ofsted or Sats. 

He calls for a national strategy for education. Amen to that. 

How to plan it, though? Geoff rightly calls for involvement from “government, education and industry”, but let’s make sure that all of education is around the table.

The NEU, currently fearing (with good reason) that it might wither on the vine, must stop trying to politicise education and teachers, and work instead to the professional benefit of both – by being part of the discussion.

Decry, ignore, destroy

Next (admitting my interest) I must mention the independent sector. Seen as the enemy by both Labour and strident voices within the NEU, it has also been largely ignored and excluded by the recent Tory and coalition governments, which appeared to pretend it wasn’t there. 

It’s a curiously British trait to decry, ignore or even destroy something uniquely good.

British private schools are identified by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) as the best group of schools in the world. A global byword for quality, in this century they’ve spread the UK’s soft power around the world, bringing significant sums back into this country.

The election arguably demonstrated that “the people” (as we’re nowadays called) don’t want a government-led class war, which demonises sections of society. 

Rather than seeking to tear down the independent sector (which is overwhelmingly not-for-profit, by the way), let’s seize an opportunity, welcome and bind it into genuine partnership with government, as part of a national strategy.

Startling and positive change

Government can both bridge the divide and (partially) address the impending shortage of school places, by taking up the sector’s offer to buy places in independent schools. 

The devil would surely be in the detail. But how much better to explore possibilities and challenge entrenched opinions than to exclude, deny and oppose.

Consideration of radical strategies should begin, with all parties bringing open minds to the table.

Doing this could engender startling and positive change. By contrast, failure to do so risks continued tinkering, by fits and starts, and little real progress: Geoff Barton’s “more of the same”, indeed. 

That outcome would indeed be a Groundhog Day. And it would be one this nation could ill afford.

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

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