A narrative of failure is promoted by ministers to justify their reforms – but the truth is our schools are better than ever

2nd October 2016 at 16:02
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Our schools are not perfect and never will be, argues this teachers’ leader. But overall they are pretty damn good and we should be immensely proud of them

The public could be forgiven for thinking that we are in the midst of some sort of crisis in schooling in this country. A narrative of failure has been promulgated by successive governments as they look to justify their latest "big idea" for education. Schools are not good enough, they claim, and major (not to mention expensive) structural reform is the only answer. First we had academies, then free schools, and now we face the possible expansion of grammar schools.

The problem with their argument is that it simply is not true. Our schools are better now than they ever have been and the overwhelming majority are fantastic places to learn. Almost 90 per cent of our primary schools are now judged to be "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted. This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that the inspection framework has become increasingly demanding over the years. We shouldn’t also forget that there is some excellent practice within those schools that have been judged to "require improvement".

Up until this summer’s government-inspired debacle, SATs results have also demonstrated that standards in English and Maths have improved significantly over the last decade. We have even managed to begin to address one of the most stubborn issues in our schools, namely the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. The work here is far from complete and we would like the gap to be closing more quickly, but things have been heading in the right direction. Whichever way you look at it, our schools are better now than ever.

Professionalism and dedication

As someone who went to school in the late 1980s and 1990s, anecdotally I know just how much better our schools are today than then. While I had some inspirational teachers who made a huge difference to me, I also remember spending the best part of a term colouring in borders in a project book, a great deal of the summer playing rounders and an entire year where I was effectively left alone to get on with teaching myself maths by working through a tatty-old text book. These days there is simply no way that sort of dodgy practice would go unchecked or be allowed to continue – our own expectations simply would not allow it.

There is also a level of professionalism and dedication among our teachers and school leaders that we should be immensely proud of. How many other professions are there where people voluntarily give up evenings and weekends to attend unpaid events for the sole purpose of self-development? I’m assuming here that there are very few teachers who can claim expenses, time off in lieu or overtime for going to a Teach Meet or the #Learningfirst events! 

There are plenty of politicians (both past and present) who would claim that the achievements of schools in the last 10 years are the direct result of their policies. I would argue that, quite the contrary, they are in spite of them. Somehow schools and school leaders have managed to continue this pathway to improvement despite the obstacles and distractions that keep being thrown into their path.

We have yet to see any compelling evidence that these major structural reforms have made a significant difference to the quality of schools. As has always been the case, it is great leadership and brilliant teaching that has made the difference and these have been achieved through hard work and dedication in schools up and down the country, not in meeting rooms in Whitehall.

Of course, our schools are not perfect and never will be, but overall they are pretty damn good and we should be immensely proud of them. The government should focus on the basics of ensuring there are enough teachers in the system, that we have decent quality buildings to work in and that schools are properly funded. Other than that, get out of the way and leave the professionals to do what they are evidently very good at.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge

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