Those waking on Saturday or Sunday to headlines about “coasting” schools and government plans to sack heads could have been left with a worrying impression about the state of England’s education system.
It is worth reminding ourselves then that about 80 per cent of our schools are rated as “good” or “outstanding” at any one time, and that this achievement is the result of a remarkable amount of hard work and dedication by school leaders and teaching staff.
What the government now has in its sights are not only those schools which are deemed “inadequate” but also those whose progress has “flatlined” – so-called “coasting” schools.
We are told that this will be addressed in three ways: removing heads where there is no clear plan for improvement, parachuting in “super heads” and turning the schools into academies.
As school leaders, we share the government’s commitment to making sure every school delivers the best possible education in what is already a strong and rapidly improving system.
However, we have misgivings about the proposals unveiled on Sunday, while recognising that these are only broad brush strokes and the detail will come in the legislation due to be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech.
The first point is that taking schools which “require improvement” to being good or outstanding is a complex problem. If it was easy to address, it would have been solved a long time ago.
In many schools which are categorised as such, heads and their staff are working very hard to deal with a whole range of entrenched problems, and are certainly not complacent or ‘coasting’ (though, of course, there may be some schools where there is genuinely room for improvement).
Sacking a head or changing the structure of a school into an academy may do nothing to address its actual problems.
One of the most serious of these is the difficulty in recruiting teachers because of severe supply shortages.
A recent ASCL survey found that 86 per cent of school leaders reported difficulty in recruiting to core subjects, and 62 per cent to non-core subjects.
The fact is that the teacher supply model is no longer working effectively in meeting current demands. Schools all over the country are experiencing unprecedented difficulties recruiting trainees, qualified teachers, middle and senior leaders. The problems are particularly acute in challenging schools and in the more remote areas of England.
Very often, what schools that “require improvement” most need is help and support rather than criticism. To be fair to education secretary Nicky Morgan, she did say very clearly on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show at the weekend that “step one” would always be help and support before any intervention.
However, this point got a little lost in the headlines of the day and the indignation that followed among teaching professionals, who felt that they were once again under attack.
The recruitment issue also means that the government’s proposals will encounter another problem. We need to ration carefully the deployment of outstanding leaders and teams. Confident promises that it will be possible to parachute such school staff into significant numbers of schools is unrealistically raising public expectations. There is simply not the capacity to do this.
The other major issue facing schools, and one that may ultimately undermine all the good intentions in the world, is that of funding.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that schools and colleges face rising costs of up to 12 per cent over the next five years because of increases in wages, pension contributions and inflation. This amounts to a substantial real-terms cut, which will inevitably mean taking some very tough decisions. And this is on top of significant cuts in post-16 education over the past five years and a formula for funding allocation that means schools in some areas receive far less than those in others.
The solution to both further raising standards and addressing problems including recruitment and funding is for the teaching profession and the government to work together constructively with the shared moral purpose of ensuring a world-class education for every child.
So, to quote David Cameron’s overture to the Liberal Democrats in the last parliament, we would like to make this Government a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to engage with us in a new discourse about the future of our education system.
It is our belief and ambition that together we can build a system in which all schools can succeed and all children can achieve.