I think we can probably agree that it wasn’t the smoothest of Cabinet reshuffles. Nevertheless, tectonic political plates have shifted and it is time to look to the future with a new education secretary at the educational helm.
Veteran observers will know the drill. It’s customary at this point for trade unions to set out a list of demands and for the secretary of state to largely ignore them before pressing on with their own – and the government’s – agenda.
But that is not the narrative that we at the Association of School and College Leaders want to see. We think that the old binary days of "them" and "us" should be consigned to history. Our offer to the new Secretary of State is to work constructively together on what matters most – giving the children and young people of this country the very best education possible, irrespective of background or perceived ability.
That’s an easy thing to say, of course. Indeed, people say it all the time. It’s much harder to achieve in practice – and it is in the differing interpretations of how to do so that people tend to fall out with one another.
So, how can government and the teaching profession work in a collaborative but rigorous manner to the benefit of all our young people? How can we rise above outmoded government and union hostilities?
Working together means recognising that have our distinctive roles to play.
Let’s take the big two issues – funding and teacher supply. We are not going to let up on our calls for more investment in schools and colleges. Current funding levels simply aren’t sufficient to provide the sort of broad, enriching curriculum that students and parents want and deserve – and that is especially the case in 16-19 education, where funding levels are atrocious.
It’s not just us saying this. A government looking for evidence-based policy needs only to scan the data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Education Policy Institute and the National Audit Office. There’s not enough money to provide what parents rightly expect state education to provide. This is an issue that won’t go away.
But as educational leaders, we have a responsibility to go beyond merely calling for fair and sufficient funding. We have to make sure that we are doing everything possible within the profession to support leadership teams, especially business leaders, in managing finances as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Tools and guidance
That means that professional associations such as ASCL should be providing tools and guidance – as we are doing – and that bodies such as multi-academy trusts, local education authorities and governing bodies must provide a relentless focus on ways of achieving cost-effectiveness.
Then there’s teacher supply. This is where the second crisis is. There’s much that the government must do – and indeed some things that it should stop doing.
On the latter, a period of stability in curriculum and qualifications is badly needed. The convulsive changes of recent years have been a major factor in driving the excessive workloads that are a cause of the ongoing teacher supply crisis. We recruit and retain too few teachers. This has to change. But we in the profession also need to make sure that we are doing everything possible to tackle workload issues, being bold in deciding what is absolutely necessary in giving our students a great education, and stamping out any practices which don’t meet that test.
Many other things need to be done to improve teacher supply, not least how we make sure that the schools with the greatest challenges have the supply line of great teachers and leaders that they need. But let’s accept that we all have a role to play – and that the most productive way forward is for the government and the profession to work together on solving these issues.
That brings us on to the issue on which Theresa May has sought to define her government – social mobility. Because funding and teacher supply are the ingredients which are most important for raising education standards further for every young person, particularly those in areas where the greatest challenges exist.
We should feel rightly proud that in England nearly 90 per cent of our schools are now rated by Ofsted as "good" and "outstanding". But it is also clear that we need to do more, particularly in those places where people too often feel that their prospects are bleak and where local schools need more support.
Education cannot solve all of society’s problems on its own – but it can make things better. It can give people aspirations, hope, skills and knowledge. To achieve this, we have to make sure that these schools are able to access the very best teachers and leaders, and that going to work in them is something to which people aspire, rather than an ever-changing accountability nightmare.
And we have to back that up with the funding to provide pupils in these schools with the broad educational experiences that their middle-class counterparts in wealthier areas take for granted. We have to build further on initiatives such as the pupil premium, and opportunity areas.
Trust in education
What we must avoid is policy pyrotechnics – eye-catching political wheezes which take us away from the real priorities and that tend to fuel aggravation between the government and the education sector. At a time when the government’s hands are full negotiating Brexit, it can ill-afford such distractions. It needs to trust school and college leaders and give us the space to innovate, to develop, to bed good practice in, to improve.
Our best chance of improving social mobility is that we work together, focusing on the priorities of funding and teacher supply and recognising that we have shared a role in a national mission.
That doesn’t mean that there will not be dissent and obstacles along the way. There will be policies we’ll no doubt disagree on. But when we do, let’s endeavour to find solutions and common ground.
And let’s base everything around the central issue we all have in common: helping all young people in all areas to gain the kind of opportunities that only great teachers and leaders in all our schools and colleges can make happen.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton
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