Sam Freedman, former Department for Education policy adviser and monthly TES columnist, likes to explain that ministers have only two levers to make schools do what they want them to do.
Think carrot and stick. The carrot is, of course, money (“Do this, and we’ll reward you”). The stick is accountability (“Don’t do this and we’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks”).
In times of austerity – let’s be clear: budgets are tight for schools across the country, and getting tighter – the carrot goes out the window.
So instead, we’re left with accountability. We’re left with league tables, floor targets, Ofsted judgements and exam results. Fun, fun, fun.
Into this accountability miasma, we can now throw Sir David Carter and his appointment to the newly beefed-up role of national schools commissioner.
Sir David may be formally succeeding Frank Green in the job, but that tells only half of the story. He will be in charge of all eight regional schools commissioners, the 5,000 academies and free schools that they oversee, and will in the end, it is suspected, become the ultimate line manager for every headteacher in the country. Sir David outlines the approach that he plans to take in this role in this week's TES and it appears to be an enlightened one – avoiding Sam’s levers altogether.
While his role undoubtedly holds some very real authority – think forced academisation – Sir David seems to see his role as one of soft rather than hard power. He sees the multi-academy trusts (MATs) mushrooming around the country as key to achieving the panacea of any educationist, a self-improving school system.
He plans to use his position to chivvy them into sharing best practice, grow their own talented teachers and work together to drive up standards. Perhaps even better is his softly, softly approach to identifying the schools that he and his team will deem in need of intervention. He argues in favour of local knowledge, peer review and a light-touch approach to data.
So far, so land of milk and honey. But there is a problem.
The fate of the schools under Sir David’s watch doesn’t really sit with any decision he will or won’t make: it sits with reforms and strategies well underway, and well on their way to undermining the education system. Namely, the unnecessarily rushed exam reform programme and the ongoing teacher recruitment crisis.
One academy chief executive that I was chatting to the other day – the kind of MAT boss that Sir David will want to promote – told me that he is seriously worried that the new-style GCSEs are a major obstacle in the way of the upward trajectory of his schools in the next couple of years.
He also went on to echo recent remarks from Ofsted’s outgoing boss Sir Michael Wilshaw about the damage that the recruitment crisis is doing across the board, including major advances such as we’ve seen in recent years in London.
Sir David may be enlightened in his approach to managing downwards, but my bet is that his success will rest with the art of managing upwards. He must diplomatically tell ministers where they’re going wrong (in areas such as teacher supply), and steer them in a more sensible direction. But as Sir Michael has found out in the last four-and-a-half years, this is easier said than done.
Nevertheless, it’s essential. Sir David, please don’t forget to speak truth to power.
This is an article from the 26 February edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here