'Teachers will only have real autonomy when the government allows them to say no to the latest stupid fad'

Imagine a world in which teachers could say no to the latest intervention which they are told is the next 'must do' – then they would be truly liberated, writes NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted

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Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, recently gave a speech to the nattily named Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association conference where he declared that, as a result of his government’s education policies – and in particular because of the expansion of academies and free schools – "teachers and headteachers now enjoy far greater control over the destiny of their school. Decision making has truly been localised and professionalised.” 

Nick Gibb is nothing if not ambitious in his claims for the success of the government’s education reforms.

“All around the country”, he boasted, “the government has built the foundations of an education system through which teachers and headteachers control the levers over school improvement and parents exercise choice, wrestling power away from local education authorities and handing it back to local communities.”

I find the Schools Minister’s worldview very interesting. Am I living in an alternate universe? Because, from where I am standing, I don't see hordes of liberated teachers and school leaders. But, perhaps I am not looking in the right places. 

There is always a danger that self-belief, untrammelled by challenge, warps into delusion. So, in the interest of balance, I ask the question: how does Nick Gibb’s vision actually match up to hard, cold, reality?

What power?

I wonder how the parents of the Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) academies, whose children’s schools are being transferred to other multi-academy trusts (Mats), over which they have no say and no choice, feel when they are told by Gibb that they have more power and choice over their children’s schools. 

And if, as the minister argues, decision-making has truly been localised, then what power do the local authorities in the areas in which WCAT schools are located have to determine who runs the schools in their authority? And why, given WCAT’s abject failure to run their schools effectively and the fact that they can’t secure acceptable standards of education in 80 per cent of them, are local authorities not being given the opportunity to take back control of these schools?

And, if so many teachers and headteachers are enjoying so much more control over the destiny of their school, why do so many live in fear of the current accountability framework, with its plethora of categories for schools that are deemed, in one way or another, to be not making the grade?

There are so many categories that schools now fear to fall into. Ofsted’s "special measures" and "requires improvement" are now augmented by the Regional School Commissioners’ (RSC) categories of schools failing to meet the grade: "rapid decliners", "steady decliners", "improver decliners" and the "weakest performers".

The turf war between Ofsted and the RSCs is making school leaders’ lives a misery in many places.

And, if school leaders and teachers really have the power to make professional choices about the curriculum, why has the government imposed the EBacc accountability measure on schools? Professional decisions about the curriculum, when subject choice is so constrained by the government, becomes subordinate to the accountability measures upon which a school’s position in the league table is determined.

Professional autonomy

Nick Gibb’s mistake, of course, is to equate structural autonomy with professional autonomy. And in doing so, he ignores the key question: what agency do teachers and school leaders feel they have to make appropriate professional decisions, in their schools and in their classrooms, for the benefit of their pupils?

Professional autonomy matters because it is the basis on which teachers and school leaders have the confidence, based on evidence, and informed by research, scholarship and experience, to say one, small, but really important word. A teacher or school leader with professional autonomy is able to say “no”, or, if not a downright “no” which might be a bit harsh, at least to say “I don't think so”, or “it's not a priority”, or “perhaps, but not yet”.

Imagine a world in which teachers and school leaders could make those responses to the latest fad which they are told is the next "must do".

So, when teachers were told – and let’s not deny reality, they were told – that they must mark in three different coloured pens, and write more in their marking than their students have written in their work, they would be able to say “no – there's not a jot of evidence that marking in three colours improves pupils' work, so I am making a professional decision not to do it”.

The confidence to use that little word – “no” – would be the best antidote against the punishing, excessive hours worked by teachers who work more unpaid overtime than any other profession.

If Nick Gibb’s rosy view of the conditions of schools and teachers even approaches reality, why do over half the profession leave the classroom within 10 years of starting to teach?

The government will not solve the enormous challenges facing our schools unless its ministers face up to them. Retreating to their comfort zone does not help.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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