Justine Greening’s speech at The Sutton Trust’s Social Mobility Summit this week was potentially a very significant one. It is the first time for many years that I can recall a secretary of state acknowledging the negative impact that an overly punitive accountability system is having on our schools.
This is a very different tone from that struck by previous incumbents of the post, such as Michael Gove, who once told headteachers that he would have to "part company" with them if they felt that the accountability system was a cause of stress.
Teachers have lived through decades of ever increasing, multi-layered, high-stakes accountability; they have witnessed first-hand the culture of fear that this has engendered. It is hard to blame teachers and school leaders for retaining a healthy degree of cynicism when it comes to such promises. Understandably, many in the profession will take some convincing that this encouraging rhetoric will translate into positive action that makes a real difference on the ground.
However, we do now appear to have a secretary of state who recognises that there is a problem and who is prepared to say this publicly – this is a significant step in the right direction. Politicians often like to tell us that they are in listening mode but it would appear that on this occasion Justine Greening has not just listened, she has also heard.
As we have seen with primary assessment, there is a growing sense that the current secretary of state is genuinely willing to engage with the profession on these important issues.
This may just be a glimmer of light rather than the breaking of a new dawn, but it’s a light we have all been waiting to see for a very long time.
So what needs to happen next if Justine Greening is to address the problem she has rightly identified?
Quite a lot you might say. Important conversations need to take place about the overlapping role of Ofsted and regional schools commissioners.
Equally, serious questions need to be asked about the future role (if indeed there should even be one) of coasting and floor standards. Such narrow, data-driven measures underpin the system of punitive accountability. We also need to see an end to schools being judged on a single year’s data.
There are a number of specific actions that could and should be taken. However, if the secretary of state is serious about making a positive change, there needs to be a fundamental shift in both the language and approach when it comes to supporting schools that are struggling – the key word here being support rather than sanction.
Let’s have an end to the naming and shaming culture. The rhetoric of failure obscures more than it reveals, and damages more than it helps. Terminology like "coasting" is frankly insulting. Some schools need to improve, but no one in this profession is working at anything less than full tilt.
When, for whatever reason, schools find themselves struggling, the default response should be how can the system support the existing teachers and school leaders to improve things as quickly as possible? An expectation of support rather than sanction would remove a lot of the fear the currently exists.
As a profession, we have a part to play in this too. We should see this glimmer of light as an opportunity to step forward and offer our own vision for what a robust, yet supportive and non-punitive accountability system might look like.
We should not shy away from accountability altogether, but instead make the case for a fair, proportionate system and one that is based on mutual support rather than mistrust and fear. This should be the natural next step in our conversations with the government.
Another previous secretary of state once asked us to do more to "talk up the profession". If Justine Greening is prepared to tackle the worst excesses of the current accountability system, it will certainly make it far easier for us all to do just that.
James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen
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