Notes for Theresa May: Don't lose sight of the importance of education as you grapple with Brexit

11th July 2016 at 13:25
Theresa May
My advice to Theresa May as she takes over as prime minister: There are no silver bullets in education, and that includes grammar schools

A new prime minister will have much on her plate after Brexit, but education should not be last on her list of priorities. There is quite a to-do list waiting there. What would headteachers like to see?

Before any specific policy, we'd like to see better engagement. Number 10 has a large role to play in setting education priorities. In the past, this has sometimes been based more on quick-fire ideology than evidence. Please engage with people on the front line to understand what works – a bright idea in Whitehall can look very different played out across 20,000 schools in a huge range of circumstances.  Pragmatism would be good.

While we're at it, can we schedule education policy around the education timetable rather than the communications grid?

There are a couple of significant policies that need a quick approach. One is the status of EU students and pupils following the referendum. They are not bargaining chips. They need swift certainty. 

The second is the national funding formula. This really is a now or never moment on the formula – any later, and schools will lack time to budget properly. 

When these immediate priorities have been cleared, the question of long-term planning arises. From our perspective, there are significant problems in execution and implementation that threaten the government's agenda. This year's Sats chaos is just one example. This is not a time for someone to stamp a fresh mark on the sector. This is a time to get right what's already in train so that parents actually notice the difference. Give your education department space to work with the profession to solve assessment, in particular, rather than provoke further division with eye catching initiatives. A new test is not often the right answer. 

There are some complex and unglamorous problems to solve around capacity. Teacher recruitment, the overall level of school funding and planning for places. These don't sound like much fun – probably because they're not – but come the next election, parents will notice if their children usually have a supply teacher who doesn't know them, if the buildings are crumbling or if they can't get a place at the local school. It will be too late to solve these problems when they are fully visible. Start now. 

This probably requires a close look at education funding as all of these problems require real investment. Beware of clever gimmicks – these usually shift the problem around rather than tackle the fundamentals. There are no silver bullets in education. It is all about getting great teachers in front of as many children as possible. Evaluate every proposed policy against that measure. 

Oh, and if we could just forget all about grammar school expansion, that would be lovely, thanks.

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union


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