David Russell remembers sitting in a restaurant in Madeira, watching the 1997 general election unfold. Tony Blair had just become prime minister, the first Labour leader to do so in 18 years.
“I thought, wow, Britain’s just changed. Tony Blair was talking about ‘education, education, education’: that was not the environment in which I trained to teach. Immediately, I knew I wanted to be a part of that,” he says.
Russell had spent the past few years teaching internationally – and it was time for a change. He spent the next 15 years working in the heart of education policy: the Department for Education. Today, he leads the Education and Training Foundation, a workforce development body for the further education and training sector. The core of his role, he says, comes back to that moment of clarity in Madeira: the desire to be part of a movement that’s centred on education and, critically, teacher training.
By David Russell: Why we need a self-improving education system
The power of education
Russell was born in Aberdeen and grew up in Crieff, a market town in Scotland. Both of his parents were teachers and met during their training in Edinburgh. His father’s early life, he says, inspired and influenced the family greatly. Russell’s grandmother died in childbirth and, as a sickly child, his father missed a lot of school. When he was in bed, he would spend his time reading whatever he could get his hands on, and ultimately, he gained a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Edinburgh.
“My dad felt very, very strongly that everybody should have the opportunity to get the kind of education that he had benefited from when he got that lucky break. He spent his whole working life teaching in the state system because he passionately believed that all children should get the kind of knowledge-rich, transformational education that he had been lucky enough to achieve,” he says. “That was very influential on me and still affects what I do to this day.”
Russell was the second pupil at his secondary school to get straight As in all his Higher exams – the first being his older brother. It was always a given that he’d be going to university but, initially, he struggled with what to study, feeling that he enjoyed all his subjects equally. In the end, he went to the University of St Andrews and studied maths, chemistry, ancient history and moral philosophy. Going into the second year, Russell wanted to drop a couple of subjects and was persuaded by his parents to keep history, with a view of potentially teaching it.
After a summer teaching English in Romania between university years, Russell decided he would follow his parents’ path and complete teacher training, even attending the same training college as they did.
Upon completing his final observation, his tutor, Richard Dargie, gave Russell some advice.
“He said, ‘you’re 22, you’ve grown up in a small town in Scotland, you’ve gone to university in another small town in Scotland, you’ve now done your teaching practice mostly in a small town and you could go and get a job in a small town in Scotland. Do that and, in a few years time, you will be fed up, and possibly even bitter and cynical about what you have not done with your life. And the last thing we need in this country is another bitter, cynical teacher’,” he remembers.
Dargie told Russell to go and see the world: to do something completely different and to challenge himself. Three years of international teaching followed: first in Lisbon, then in Madeira. Madeira, in particular, made a huge impression on him: he says it was a strange but fascinating place, and it was where he discovered the power of adult education for the first time.
“I was teaching English for business and the opposition presidential candidate was one of my private students – I’m still in touch with him now. That was strange driving around the city around the time seeing my student's face on a massive billboard and thinking, ‘oh, I’m his teacher!’” he says.
“But also, I taught people who really, really needed English for the work: waiters and waitresses, baggage handlers, bus drivers. That’s when I first got the bug for adult education.”
The inspiration of the 1997 election struck and Russell came home determined to work in government, and after a short stint at a museum, applied for the fast-track scheme into the civil service.
Life at the Department for Education
“I was a bit worried, actually. There I was, I had a PGCE, three years’ experience as a teacher and I thought, am I really qualified to work on education policy? But when I got there, I discovered that I had more practical experience than almost anybody else in the department. It was kind of strange but I loved it. I loved the work, I loved the people,” he says.
“I thought what we were doing really mattered; there was a real sense of purpose and that we could change things for the better.”
During his time in the department, Russell worked his way up to director, and across academies and skills briefs. The move into skills was a conscious decision: Russell felt all of his experience was in schools and school teacher development. Keen to not be pigeonholed, he moved across to skills and the world of further education opened up to him. He said it was an eye-opening experience and he became determined to integrate further and adult education into the education system as a whole – something he feels, today, still hasn’t quite happened.
“It swings back and forth: the first education secretary I worked for was David Blunkett, and he himself had been a teacher in FE, so he needed no lessons on adult education, he was so passionate about it,” he says. “But after him, we hadn’t really had another education secretary who said ‘my top priority is further education’, and said it consistently for more than a week, until, actually, Gavin Williamson. He is the first person who has said consistently, ‘I think FE is really important, I'm prioritising it within my abilities, my discussions with the treasury, my discussions with the prime minister and so on’. It’s the best chance for a long time we’ve had to build a platform for the proper investment that the system needs.”
The importance of teacher training and development
Russell says the decision to leave the civil service and lead the Education and Training Foundation was because he wanted to focus on what he believes matters most: teacher training and development.
“I felt an awful lot of what we did was really quite peripheral to what mattered. We spent a lot of time thinking about, talking about and trying to change accountability, funding, qualifications, structures, systems – all these types of things – and hardly any time thinking about the relationship between the teacher and the learner, and the skills, knowledge and behaviours of the teacher who comes into teaching, who stays in teaching. How are they trained and developed, how are they led, how do they do their job?,” he says.
“Having been a teacher, that helped me get that perspective that, yes, these things matter; it matters the specification of the qualification I'm delivering, it matters what state the classroom is in, it matters whether the principal of my college is supportive, uninspiring or oppressive. But, actually, none of that matters compared to how good I am at the craft and science of teaching people. That is the single most important thing by a long, long way.”
Russell has now been at the ETF for eight years and doesn’t show signs of planning to leave anytime soon. He’s clear that while ETF exists as an improvement body for the sector, that’s not his long-term vision for the organisation.
“That mindset suggests a relationship of dependency. Where there’s something that needs to be fixed or improved, we will come in and fix or improve it. But, actually, what we want is a self-improving system. That’s where a profession aspires to be and, then, the role of the ETF is to set standards, maintain standards, connect professionals, get expert input into professional exchange, but support the system to be self-improving, rather than to be always trying to use a sort of long-handled screwdriver to fix things,” he says.
“It’s an ecosystem, and we’re here to help improve that ecosystem, maybe do some weeding, maybe try planting some new species, maybe coppice some trees if they’ve got too big or are competing with each other too much. It’s that kind of facilitating, tending, cultivating – that’s our role to help the system itself be fantastic: we're a part of that system. But we’re not doing it to the system, we’re helping the system grow and be it’s very best.”