After 24 years as a teacher, Chris Tweedale joined the DfES - and is happy on the 'other side'
On December 20 last year, after eight years as head of John Masefield high school in Herefordshire and a total of 24 years and a term in five schools, I gave my set of master keys to my PA and drove out of the school gates to start my new full-time job as an education adviser at the Department for Education and Skills. Swapping the familiarity of my school job, 1,000 students, their parents, the governors and leadership of the staff for a desk in the open plan third floor in Westminster's Sanctuary Buildings has been the most daunting change in my professional life. So, seven months on, what have I learned? And what impact has it made on me?
First mention must go to my new workmates. I've found the civil servants I work with immensely dedicated to their task of serving ministers and driving the "education system", and more motivated by the ultimate goal of improving the pupil experience than I'd expected. I have found them to be highly intelligent and self-critical policy-makers. Their strength is in planning and designing policy that (they hope) will deliver change across nearly 26,000 schools. They have welcomed me, and a growing number of people like me, from schools and other frontline posts, with open arms.
Without exception they are keen to learn from practitioners: how they can improve the system and implement policies more effectively at school level.
I must mention the amazing way in which policy papers are written.
Teachers pride themselves on working in a collegiate manner, but, when it comes to writing documents, we could learn a great deal about teamwork from the civil service. Policy papers are "drafted" then emailed to anyone and everyone who can help. Comments are offered and changes made. It's a superb mechanism that gives a better product - except when it's your paper. I have not been used to others (many others) correcting my work and, I admit, in my early days at the department, to taking constructive criticism in a far from generous way.
Senior DfES personnel know how important it is to involve school staff in policy-making and how they need to develop policy that will work at school level. I get the impression that this has not always been the case. For much of my early career as a teacher it seemed to me that the Government felt school staff just got in the way of developing their policy. But I have had chances I could not have dreamt of, to influence the way things happen and to describe to people in senior positions - including ministers - how particular policies are seen, or would be seen, in schools. I have been brutally honest.
It has become clear to me that the DfES and ministers are attempting to change their ways. Even good policy turns bad if the delivery and implementation phases do not receive the same care as the planning and design. Teachers have criticised the DfES and its predecessors for ignoring, and being ignorant about, how a national policy can be translated into something that works in the classroom. If there is one thing practitioners can advise on, it is how policy can be implemented at school level. That is why I am here. It is early days but I believe things are changing and, I hope, starting to be felt at school level.
I had no idea how large and complex a body the DfES was until I got here.
The risk in such an organisation is that officials work on "their" bit of policy, unaware of how the whole package affects schools. This is why ministers have introduced the implementation review unit and are changing the way schools are to be held accountable. I am lucky enough to be working on both these areas of policy.
So how has the DfES changed me? I am a better "influencer" and my ICT skills improve daily. In the early part of my teaching career I would flick through The TES to look for jobs; as a head I used to read it to learn what was going on. Now I read The TES to see what slant is being given to things I already know. I travel a lot and work as many hours as I did as a head.
But when I close down my email and turn off the computer, I turn off the job in a way I was rarely able to do at school, other than during the holidays.
And, as my wife has pointed out, the twitch in my right eye has stopped.
Like the pain of childbirth (I assume), no one can accurately describe quite what it's like to work in a school. I must never forget.
Chris Tweedale is an education adviser at the school workforce unit