The start of term is surely the perfect time to end education’s political ping-pong match

6th September 2017 at 16:12
Teachers and school leaders need to rise above the endless political back and forth and start making a proactive case for education

From the curator of lost languages, Robert MacFarlane, this week we learnt a new word: "úht-cearu". It’s an old English term signifying the worries that gather as one lies sleepless before dawn.

I’m guessing it was a word that over the past few nights could be applied to the nation’s teachers and educational leaders. Because however long we’ve worked in schools or colleges, the grip of anxiety rarely fails to find us in those long hours running up to the start of term.

I know that in 15 years of headship, there was never a Sunday night when my sleep wasn’t fitful, my dreams punctuated by narratives of out-of-control classes or staff meetings unravelling into anarchy.

But now, for most people, the start of the new term is behind us, the sense of úht-cearu deferred until the next start of term or, more bleakly, next Sunday evening.

Instead we can focus on a reassuring sensation that always weaves its distinctive magic – the unbridled optimism of new terms. I spoke to a veteran headteacher yesterday who, fresh from greeting staff and then eager new Year 7 and Year 12 pupils, said: “The sense of a new beginning gets me every time. I dread the start of term. Then I love the start of term."

New term optimism

In my first September after stepping out of headship, of not standing at the school gate to greet the new recruits, I felt nostalgia this week about the part in education that matters most, the bit I missed – the relationships we have with other human beings, the opportunity as teachers and leaders to quietly shape children’s futures.

I’m hoping that this year together we can make the new term optimism last. I’m especially aware of this in my new(ish) role as leader of the Association of School and College Leaders. It’s too easy for us in trade unions to slump into the tried, tested, and tedious patterns of playing government and opposition.

Thus the government announces something – changes, say, to league tables – and we declare that it won’t work. We are probably right, of course, because we represent people who work in actual schools, who have to implement the endless changes.

But in simply reacting to announcements, what we do is sustain an educational discourse which already feels too narrow, too unambitious, too parochial.

It’s time that education UK stopped being all about EBacc, or inspection schedules, or rooted in more self-absorbed tinkering with grading systems.

Looking beyond Brexit

As Martin Ford reminds us in his compelling but chilling book The Rise of the Robots, there are much bigger issues out there. As automation takes its grip, it isn’t just low-skilled jobs that are at risk.

My older son is a management consultant. His job, as I understand it, is to audit the safety of companies’ IT systems – are they robust and secure enough?

My nephew is a well-paid consultant radiologist in the USA. His job is to sit in a darkened laboratory looking at a succession of X-ray images and decide which of them reveals whether the patient may have cancer.

According to Ford’s thesis, both jobs are threatened. Computer systems will soon be built that will automatically prevent people from forgetting basic security functions. We won’t need auditors. And as we train technology to scan X-rays faster than the human eye, it will do that job without shifts, without tea breaks, and with much greater accuracy.

So as we look beyond Brexit to a technologically-different future, we shouldn’t be fixating on soundbite arguments drawn from the English Book of Educational Clichés.

Rethinking education

We should be asking what we want from our young people. What are the skills, knowledge, attributes and values that they will need as they navigate a world that will continue to change faster than we had realised?

We should be asking as school and college leaders whether we really want to preside over a system where we see the arts and sport marginalised in too many state schools, where modern foreign languages become an entitlement for the fortunate few.

This is why I like what I see in Wales. For all the deadening bureaucracy, the starvation of funding, the challenges of making too many run-down schools fit-for-physical purpose, what I keep noticing is the optimism.

In rethinking education, the Welsh Assembly has started where England’s government should have: not using inspection and performance measures to drive schools’ behaviour. That’s cynical and reductive.

Instead, the Welsh start with a simpler, more principled question: "What kind of young people do we want to develop by the time they reach 19?"

When teachers talk about the curriculum in Wales, they talk about that ambition. The chance of a lifetime to give all young people precisely that: the chance of a lifetime.

I’m hoping that this may be the year when as school and college leaders we become bolder, when we say that we shan’t keep playing a simple, mechanistic game that leaves too many young people alienated by education and too many teachers quitting a great profession in despair.

Instead, I am hoping we can regain our educational ambition, make teaching the hottest career choice in town and build consensus across education, business and higher education that it’s time to call it a day with party political ping-pong.

It’s time to build a shared long-term vision for education. We owe it to ourselves and to our communities. Most of all, we owe it to our young people.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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