Seismic is probably the best way to describe the impact that the changes set out by education secretary, Damian Hinds, on Friday will have on schools policy in this country.
It’s not just the sheer volume of what is being scrapped – from coasting measures to, regional schools commissioner school inspections and the end of performance data triggering forced academisation.It is that this package represents a screeching handbrake turn on central government’s long standing mission to “drive up standards” in England’s schools.
The changes may have been sold as ways of making life better for teachers and allowing schools a clearer accountability structure and the space to get on with the job. Actually they are about much more than that.
This is not only a massive Whitehall admission of defeat, it is also a complete change in the direction of travel. Hinds’ package means the reversal of a trajectory built up through three decades worth of central government policy towards schools that has been steadily ratcheting up the pressure ever since the legislation that introduced tables, targets and testing was passed in 1988.
A major gamble
Anyone walking into the press room at Liverpool’s convention centre following Hinds’ speech on Friday afternoon may not necessarily have recognised the full significance of what had just been said. But they would have witnessed a ministerial media team looking mightily relieved. The education secretary had just taken a major gamble and apparently won.
Hinds might have pitched up at the National Association of Head Teachers conference bearing a large sack of gifts for school leaders and their staff. But things could so easily have gone horribly wrong.
Schools are in the middle of a financial crisis and their leaders are not happy about it. As the education secretary’s warm-up act NAHT president, Andy Mellor, told the conference, “underfunding” and the “under prioritisation of education” are now “doing irreparable damage”.
So any sense that Hinds had misjudged his tone and was not taking the issue seriously enough might well have provoked audible grumbles from his audience. And they would have swiftly been written up in the press as jeers, undoing all his hard work to promote a more positive agenda.
Don’t forget that Hinds had already attended this year’s Association of School and College Leaders conference with another conciliatory message – a promise to tackle teacher workload. But he walked away with heckling about school funding ringing in his ears and a batch of unfavourable news stories to digest.
NAHT delegates, however, did not round on the education secretary on Friday, even though his comments on school funding were hesitant and less than reassuring. The school leaders – presumably buoyed by the education secretary’s earlier pledge to allow them to “get on with job” – let him off the hook and Hinds left the rostrum to polite applause.
So it is understandable if the education secretary’s advisors are feeling pleased with themselves. After all, it was not just the heads who had reacted in the way they had hoped. The press did too when his reform package was trailed in the morning papers.
Hinds’ changes could quite plausibly have been written up as the government going soft on school standards. It is a charge that previous secretaries of state would have done almost anything to avoid. Friday’s announcements, by contrast, almost seem to court such accusations.
There has been no pretence that they are anything to do with helping parents or “raising the bar” for schools. Instead they are about easing accountability pressures and trusting teachers. Indeed, Hinds’ message for anyone who wants to see interventions for underperforming schools is that “that sort of action is rarely needed”.
All of that will be music to the ears of most people reading this piece. But it’s a much riskier message to put to a national media brought up on decades of successive ministers declaring that urgent action is needed because too many state schools are not good enough.
In the event, most newspapers decided to focus their coverage on an entirely different part of the package. If the announcement of teacher sabbaticals on the same day was deliberately designed to draw attention away from the full implications of what Hinds was saying, then the spin was masterful. It worked. There may have been very little money committed to the the sabbatical plan but it still led the news.
Accountability changes may sound much too dry, technical and frankly dull to excite the interest of most mainstream newsdesks. But that should not fool anyone into thinking that this is not an extremely big story. Hinds has, at a stroke, completely up-ended the Department for Education’s priorities for schools.
Until relatively recently – when the advent of multi-academy trusts started restricting heads’ freedom – many people would have you believe that the main motif of schools policy since the 1988 Education Reform Act has been greater school autonomy.
Actually there has been something even more significant developing in parallel that has had a much greater impact on the way that schools actually behave. Yes, we’ve seen local management of schools, city technology colleges, grant maintained status, foundation schools and then academies; all ostensibly allowing heads and governors more freedom to run schools in the way they wanted to. But at the same time there has been a growing imposition of control over schools from the centre.
League tables might have begun as being about giving parents information. But the tests that went with them and the national curriculum introduced at the same time have all been about ensuring that schools and their teachers were doing exactly what ministers and their officials thought was best. And, until three days ago, any changes made to the system since it was introduced in 1988 have usually meant a tightening of that centralised grip on schools.
From the naming and shaming of failing schools, to New Labour’s top down targets on the three Rs, to floor standards, the ignominious list of schools that came from Ed Balls’ "national challenge", to forced academisations and closures – everything has gone in the same direction – more Whitehall control.
When mass academisation arrived along with the diminution of the role of local authorities, critics argued that there was no way the DfE could possibly directly run thousands of schools from the centre. "Oh yes we can," replied ministers and officials, who set about putting into place new schools commissioners complete with an extra parallel system of school inspection.
And then there is the data. We have got used to the DfE revelling in the sheer volume of performance figures that are collected on schools. England has become one of the most “data-rich” schools systems in the world. Officials in Sanctuary Buildings have long been able to pull up figures showing granular detail on exactly how every in state school in England is performing. Data has been king, the be all and end all, the trigger for school take-overs, the answer to everything.
Now, suddenly, it has all changed. Forced academisations based on performance data alone will end. High-stakes DfE floor and coasting targets that can lead to schools being closed and taken over will instead be replaced by a new measure that will merely act as a trigger for support to be offered. And Ofsted, rather than the DfE, will be in sole charge of school accountability.
“Ofsted is the body that can provide an independent, rounded judgement of a school’s performance,” Hinds said on Friday. “Data alone can’t tell the whole story.”
But why? Why would the DfE give up on the primacy of data and its own role as the key actor in trying to ensure that school results improve? The main reason is no secret and is spelt out loud and clear in the education secretary’s speech.
Hinds says he has an “urgent task” – “to look at the barriers that can drive teachers, and leaders, out of the profession and may put people off in the first place”. In other words, he has to sort out the teacher recruitment and retention crisis and do it quickly.
“Top of the list” in the factors driving the crisis, he says, is tackling teacher workload – the subject of Hinds’ first major policy speech in March. He developed this on Friday by acknowledging the accountability system’s role in creating extra workload – hence the radical changes he is now introducing.
The penny drops
Once you have understood that DfE is now prioritising teacher recruitment and retention above everything else, then the rest of what Hinds is proposing falls into place and makes sense. It is all about hanging onto teachers and attracting new ones into the job.
That, of course, begs another question. Why now? The signs that we are in a teacher recruitment crisis have been around for at least three years. But until very recently the DfE’s approach has been to play it down, continually pointing to the fact that “there are more teachers in our schools than ever before”, and seemingly ignoring the acute shortages in many of them.
But somehow, recently, the penny has finally dropped in Sanctuary Buildings . Observers have speculated that it might have been a National Audit Office report in September criticising the DfE’s approach to teacher retention, that was the trigger for action.
Tes research revealing that 47,000 extra secondary teachers – a rise of 22.5 per cent on the current number – will be needed in England by 2024, has been suggested as another factor. Others believe it is just the cumulative impact of a steady flow of bad news on teacher shortages that eventually flicked the switch.
There is no doubt that minds are concentrated now. Those visiting the department, report that officials really do get it. When changes and policies are discussed they will apparently go out of their way to consider any implications for teacher workload and by extension recruitment and retention.
There is also a second significant likely factor behind Hinds’ changes on school accountability – the fact that the current system is no longer working properly. There is little point in the DfE threatening to academise low-performing schools if it hasn’t got the capacity to follow the threat through or can’t find enough academy sponsors willing to take these schools on.
There had already been some suggestions that the DfE had started to wake up to this reality. In October, Nick Gibb admitted that schools had been put under too much “football manager-type pressure” to reach floor standards. The schools minister said that while the education system still needed accountability, the “mere publication” of school results was sufficient to provide “the pressure that will raise standards”.
In March Tes read the runes and ran a magazine special on school accountability asking whether “this is the end for the system as we know it”. But few expected the DfE to make such dramatic changes on accountability so quickly. Power is suddenly falling away – it feels like an occupying army is turning tail and heading home because it has realised that the game is up.
Of course, much of the current super-structure and means of central control over schools will stay in place under Hinds’ plan. It doesn’t look as though Ofsted is going anywhere and the national curriculum, and the national testing that goes with it will remain.
The difference is that because the government has decided not to take over schools on the basis of the data that comes with such tests, or exam results – these assessments instantly become much less high-stakes. Hinds’ plan is also significant because it represents such a change in emphasis and that it could well make it much harder for the DfE to return to old habits in the future.
No way back
Now that the department has ceded the idea that it can have a central role in enforcing school improvement, it has effectively lost a long-running argument with heads and teachers annoyed at the extent of its micromanagement of schools.
Could another education secretary regain that power? They might try. But would schools take notice anymore when they know how much trouble the DfE has had in turning its tough talk into reality? Just as Eastern Bloc Communist leaders found in the late 1980s, the DfE could well discover that once you start to loosen the reins of power it is very hard to tighten them up again.
Most schools and teachers will, of course, view this radical change of stance at the top of education as unadulterated good news. But they might also look and wonder what it was all for in the first place.
If the DfE can so quickly end its reign of fear over schools, then what does that say about all those efforts to reach targets by any means necessary – the stress, the anxiety, the lost jobs, the broken careers, the league table gaming, the questionable vocational qualifications, the "off-rolling"? Teachers all over the country may now be thinking "Was any of it ever really worth it?"