What do we know about the direction of Boris Johnson’s government and what this will mean for education?
It may be early days but the shape of things to come is emerging. He has pledged to “repay the trust” of former Labour voters who backed the Conservatives in the north and midlands, claimed the mantle of “one-nation” Conservatism, and looks likely to carry out a major cabinet reshuffle in February.
This then is a prime minister who appears to be on the look-out for big transformative policies, with a parliamentary majority to enact a radical agenda, and who appears to have laid down the gauntlet to his cabinet colleagues to drive real change if they want to keep their jobs.
For education this is a significant departure from the policy stasis that has been the hallmark of recent years – certainly since the Conservatives became hopelessly distracted by the Brexit referendum, its aftermath, and the challenge of running a government without a clear majority.
To a certain extent, the fact that the government was restricted to minor tinkering after the whirlwind of the Michael Gove years was a relief.
But that relief has been comprehensively outweighed by inadequate funding, crippling teacher supply problems, and frustration with the government’s reliance on an arcane accountability system to drive improvement rather than on big-picture thinking.
Time for a new vision
This then is surely the time for education secretary Gavin Williamson to clear away some of the debris of the past and develop a vision which delivers on the prime minister’s rhetoric.
And what better place to start on the former objective than by getting rid of that most pointless of accountability measures, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc)?
Its focus on a small number of traditional academic subjects runs in the opposite direction to the parity of esteem with technical education championed by Mr Williamson, and feels rooted in the past rather than a vision for the increasingly digital and technological society of the future.
On a practical level, EBacc entry has remained stuck at just under 40 per cent of pupils since 2014, which suggests the government target of 75 per cent of pupils studying for this combination at GCSE by 2022 is likely to be both unachievable and politically embarrassing.
And, in any event, a mechanistic and obscure accountability measure is never seriously going to drive the transformational educational change which is needed to improve the lot of people who live in communities blighted by industrial decline and generational disadvantage.
There is a lot else which needs to be fixed with our cumbersome and perverse accountability system but what a refreshing gesture it would be if Mr Williamson signalled a new direction by jettisoning EBacc.
The much more difficult bit of course is developing a vision which genuinely delivers a one-nation society. The Conservative Party’s general election manifesto doesn’t give many clues on education beyond the repetition of its funding commitment and some vague platitudes on behaviour and standards.
The fact that it is a clean slate is both potentially liberating and potentially worrying. It means that Mr Williamson has a free hand to develop policy ideas which at last set an agenda that looks to the sort of society we will be in the future and the education we will need to deliver to all young people. But it also means that if the policy direction is wrong we are in for a very tough few years.
We could devote many words here to talking once again about revisiting and reforming the existing curriculum and qualifications, to improving funding in particular for SEND support and 16-19 education, and to the actions needed to tackle the teacher supply crisis. We could mention also the need to support education with integrated social and economic policies.
But for the sake of space and the avoidance of repetition let’s talk here about general principles.
Accountability can never deliver educational improvement at scale and in the schools which face the greatest degree of challenge. It is right that schools are held to account but the process of inspections and performance measures is a check not an agent of change. Schools do not improve because the government arbitrarily sets a new bar. Improvement will be secured by the provision of high-quality early years education and sufficient numbers of teachers at all levels who are well-trained, well-supported and feel confident in their own teaching.
There will never be parity of esteem between academic and vocational education as long as we continue to insist on separate qualifications. If we are to genuinely value technical education – as we absolutely must do – then we have to end the binary divide. The qualification system should be sophisticated enough to allow a combination of academic and technical subjects under one banner.
The quality of the education system can never exceed its resources. If we want schools and colleges to deliver a broad curriculum, character-building enrichment programmes, SEND and mental health support for their most vulnerable pupils, with a qualified teacher in every class and class sizes of no more than 30, then we have to pay for it. We must match what we expect from our education system with the resources which are necessary to deliver those expectations.
If these principles sound like an agenda for radical change that is because they are. Our experience is that school leaders have the highest ambitions for the education system and are frustrated by the narrow confines of the current reality.
If Mr Williamson wants to come in our direction to discuss his policy blueprint for a genuinely transformational agenda we’ll bite his arm off.