John Bangs, honorary visiting fellow at Cambridge University and chair of the Trade Union Education Working Group at the OECD, writes:
I welcome Nick Clegg’s criticism of his government’s free schools policy. It’s a sign that he at least seems to be dimly aware that Michael Gove has been deconstructing the education system for the last two and a half years.
Why is Clegg’s move so significant? Important as it is, it’s not so much his emphasis on the need for qualified teachers in free schools which represents the greatest deviation from existing government policy but his argument that free schools and by implication all academies should follow the national curriculum.
For the life of the coalition, Gove’s use of international evidence to justify his break-up of the English education has remained unchallenged. He has cherry-picked mercilessly evidence from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), claiming that its results back his move for total devolution of power to heads. In fact the results do nothing of the sort. All the evidence from the top performing countries is that, while devolution of power to schools brings benefits, those benefits can only be realised if countries have coherent education systems which make sure that the conditions for teacher learning and best practice, equality and the capacity to innovate apply equally to every school. Indeed a characteristic of most outstanding education systems is that they have enabling national curricula.
It is simply not enough to say that an education system is solely defined by its accountability system as Gove does with Ofsted. Just having Ofsted and the compliance culture it creates actually works to annul the benefits of devolution and squeezes out creativity – even in free schools.
Which is why Clegg’s position on the national curriculum is so important, even if he doesn’t realise its implications. A national curriculum should create the frame work for an education system; for what is taught in schools. An enabling curriculum shouldn’t stifle innovation in a highly devolved system – it should provide the essential underpinning for innovation. New Zealand’s national curriculum is just such an example. In a highly devolved system it provides a guide for autonomous schools. Indeed New Zealand is grappling with the other implications of devolution such has how to achieve equity and how professional development can enable all teachers to be at the edge of their game. In fact New Zealand feels so strongly about how its system can operate coherently that it is hosting next year’s International Summit on the Teaching profession which will tackle just these issues.
I once told an ACSL annual conference that Gove had to wake up smell the coffee and realise that he is actually running an education system. The same comment might apply to Labour’s new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt. He is right that all children should be taught by qualified teachers but he needs now to start drawing evidence together on what makes education systems outstanding and turning it into distinctive English model for improvement. His predecessor [Stephen Twigg] showed no interest in such an exercise and indeed neither have the Liberal Democrats.
However the response to Clegg’s speech should not be tribal. The stakes are too high for that. Comment should be directed at getting the deputy prime minister to understand the logic of his position. If, for example, if he believes that the national curriculum should apply to all schools, why should there not be a systemic approach to teacher policy? After all teacher morale and self-confidence is at a low ebb and even a Conservative Select Committee member, Charlotte Leslie, is arguing for the development of a National College of Teachers. He should start challenging Gove’s Faustean pact which gives heads unparalleled powers in exchange for not criticising government policy. He should ask whether the system has the capacity to challenge and support Heads on knowledge and skills they don’t know they don’t have?
He might ask what his schools minister David Laws is doing to answer these questions. At the very least he might also ask what his colleague’s response is to international developments such as the International Summit? After all, no Minister from his Department bothered to turn up to the last two.