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An open letter to Justine Greening: 'You can't achieve lasting change without engaging teachers and leaders'

The teaching workforce is the new education secretary's greatest asset. And the profession is ready to participate in change, says the general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union

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The teaching workforce is the new education secretary's greatest asset. And the profession is ready to participate in change, says the general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union

Dear Justine,

Congratulations on your appointment to one of the highest offices in the land. Never mind the economy or foreign affairs – this is where the future of our nation is decided. 

As a new hand on the tiller, you have an unrivalled opportunity to steer around the storm clouds ahead. Big capacity issues are on the horizon – funding, recruitment, morale, capital and school places. You can solve these by acting now in dialogue with the profession. 

It is your job and your duty to challenge teachers and school leaders. You are elected to act in the interests of pupils, and that can mean uncomfortable conversations. But you cannot achieve lasting change without the engagement of the frontline or without their expertise in the complexities of education. The view from Whitehall does not match the view in 20,000 schools across the land. The workforce is not an obstacle to be overcome. It is your greatest asset. An awkward and argumentative asset, I'll give you that, but great teaching is really the thing that matters. 

Challenge Westminster 'wisdom'

When you challenge teachers to aim high, therefore, remember also to challenge some of the received wisdoms of Westminster.

We already have one of the most autonomous school systems in the world. A bit more autonomy is not going to solve our problems. It will fragment and isolate our schools. 

We already have one of the most accountable systems in the world. More use of “the stick” won't drive standards up; it will break our schools. High-stakes accountability corrupts everything it touches, hollowing out the results it claims to produce and distorting good practice. It destroys initiative and replaces it with compliance.

We already have a deeply demoralised workforce. They cannot work any harder. They don't need pushing – they need access to good ideas and the best evidence. 

A bold move on assessment

So here are my suggestions for the early days. Abandon the distraction of forced academisation as a proxy for meaningful action. The evidence before you is clear and you have no stake in the past. Focus more on the differences between the great chains and the average chains. Capture that essence of great collaboration, great focus on children, and spread it across the system

Streamline the accountability system so that you treat people as the dedicated, trustworthy and talented professionals they are. Help them see what works and they will do it. Above all, stop using tests to drive compliance. Poorly designed and excessive tests have driven the system to breaking point. Worst of all, this misuse of tests in high-stakes accountability is destroying the value that testing actually brings. Tests are a vital tool for teachers. The government has taken this tool away from them and turned it against them. This is a tragedy. A bold move on assessment would create so many possibilities. 

Implement funding reform, improve teacher pay, take special needs seriously, invest in high-quality early education, support further reform of inspection (ditch the "outstanding" grade and promote peer review). I could go on, and will no doubt do so when we meet (apologies in advance) but hopefully you see where we are coming from. The profession is ready to engage in change and this is a golden moment to do so. 

Best wishes,


Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union. He tweets as @RussellHobby

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