'To the new prime minister: Education is central to building a country that works for everyone'

12th July 2016 at 14:09
Open letter to the prime minister
Give schools space to be innovative and don’t paralyse them with constant high-stakes assessment and inspection, advises one leading headteacher

An open letter to Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary replacing David Cameron as prime minister:

Dear Theresa,

Congratulations on your appointment as prime minister. There are lots of people rooting for you and many more yearning for real change that will improve their lives. Be courageous, be bold and please don’t let us down.

While you’re thinking about how best to get out of the EU, please do keep an eye on education as it is one of your key levers for bringing about a country that works for everyone. I know a little about the recipe for successful schools. They all have common ingredients: a community with high aspirations for their children; great teaching by distinguished, diverse and expert people; and, skilful, inspiring leadership which focuses solely on the business of maximising the achievement of our children and developing them as people. I guarantee that if you keep these at the forefront of what your ministers, advisers and officials do then you will not go far wrong.

'Raise the status of teaching'

Structures such as academies, grammar schools, free schools and multi-academy trusts are secondary, lower-order considerations, as are the accountability mechanisms such as inspection: important, yes, but not the primary drivers of change. So if you want to be remembered as the PM who created a country that works for all you might like to focus on:

  1. Developing teaching as a high-status profession for both men and women by attracting more men of calibre for the early years through to secondary schools and more women into the leadership of schools. To do so you will need to address the climate and culture in schools and the external factors which impinge on both such as pay, workload, expectations and routes into/through teaching. We don’t have enough outstanding early years teachers and the supply of subject specialists in Stem subjects and MFL is rapidly drying up. It can’t be right that our children are taught these subjects by people with no or limited qualifications in them, as is the case in many schools.
  2. Quickly addressing the vacuum left behind in the wake of the emasculation of the National College for School Leadership. Just as you have learned the skills of high office by being surrounded and nurtured by others, our future school leaders need the same opportunities. Expose them to great people and great ideas from all backgrounds inside and outside the education bubble. Give them the confidence and courage to help you make a country that works for all and the freedom to do so.
  3. The idea that great teaching, expert leadership and engaged parents, the young people in our schools and their families have the best chance of developing the high aspirations they need to be a success. Don’t stifle that by insisting on all schools following a tedious, template curriculum and please don’t kill interest by assessing pupils to death. Give schools space to be innovative and don’t paralyse them with constant high-stakes assessment and inspection.

With regard to everything else; forget it – it probably won’t work, it will simply distract from these key ingredients and waste money. If I can help, don’t hesitate to call.

Mike Buchanan is headteacher of Ashford School in Kent.  He tweets at @Ashfordhead

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