'Are teachers the problem or are they the solution?'

15th June 2012 at 01:00
Ex-Ofsted chief Sir David Bell on his struggles to create change

He may have started his career at the primary chalkface, but Sir David Bell, who rose to become education's top mandarin, has admitted to wondering whether teachers themselves "are the problem".

Some might be a little surprised by the confession from a man who in 2003, as Ofsted chief inspector, hailed that generation's new teachers as the "best ever".

But Sir David, who stepped down as permanent secretary at the Department for Education last Christmas, believes that worrying about teachers' attitudes to change goes with the territory of reforming the nation's schools.

"I have often wondered whether it is just the lot of governments of whatever persuasion to be forever conflicted about the teaching profession," he said. "Are teachers the problem or are they the solution?"

It was important to have teachers on side if changes were to work, Sir David said as he gave the annual Tribal education lecture last month. But he added: "If I was the secretary of state, I would be sceptical at just taking what 'the profession' said. That is not to argue that the profession always sets its face against reform, because it doesn't. But it can feel that way when you are sitting in central government and you feel as if there is always push-back on what's been done."

School league tables are a prime example. "I still find it disappointing 20 years on since the first performance tables were published that a strong body of opinion in the profession is heavily, heavily opposed to them," Sir David said.

"It sits rather uncomfortably alongside what teachers as citizens have come to expect about information being made available about all other walks of life, whether it is more information about the food that you eat, the care that you are being given or whatever. Why should education be any different?"

The high-flying son of a Glaswegian railwayman told TES that he was proudest of his role in promoting greater school autonomy - and not just as a permanent secretary overseeing the academies programme.

"I was a headteacher as the changes (loosening local authority control over schools) were first being made; I tried even as a county director of education (in Newcastle) to maximise autonomy. I have seen it all the way through," he said.

"In different ways I might have helped to nudge it along a bit. It is not because you create great schools out of autonomy - it is because you ensure the best chance exists of creating great schools if they are autonomous."

Sir David denied that the government had made a mistake in not deciding earlier whether a new "middle tier" - a layer of management that would sit between academies and their central government masters - was needed to cope with the vast expansion of schools free from local authority control.

"I have heard people say, 'oh, the government hasn't even thought about that'," he said. "But the timing wasn't right to think about it. I am not even sure yet that the time is right.

"I think my view - that we shouldn't over-obsess about it - was one that was broadly shared among ministers. Let's see how this evolves."

Sir David suggested a mixed system, with local authorities continuing in some areas while different solutions were applied elsewhere. "Messiness," he said, was not a problem.

But he was concerned that the proposal from current Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw for local schools commissioners felt "quite similar to an old local authority system and it doesn't feel quite like system leadership".

Sir David, now vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, has already stridently denied suggestions that a difficult relationship with the current education secretary was the reason for his departure from the DfE.

And he praised Michael Gove, along with the minister's Labour predecessor Ed Balls, for their "boldness" in reform, saying they had much in common with a "very clear sense of what they were looking to achieve".

Sir David said he had no regrets, but admitted to "my fair share of scraps, whether it was the Sats crisis of 2008 or BSF (Building Schools for the Future) or whatever", adding: "Stuff happens and you just have to get through."

The day in July 2010 when he publicly took responsibility for civil servants' mistakes over inaccurate lists of schools with cancelled BSF projects still "sticks indelibly in my mind", Sir David said. "Boy, it was a frustrating time."

So were there any lessons to be learned from the fiasco? Yes, he replied, smiling: "Don't put out a list that's got mistakes on it."


31 March 1959: Born in Glasgow

1982: Teacher, Cuthbertson Primary School, Glasgow

1985: Deputy head, Powers Hall Junior School, Essex

1988: Head of Kingston Primary School, Essex

1990: Assistant director of education at Newcastle City Council

1995: Director of education and libraries, Newcastle City Council

2000: Youngest local authority chief executive when appointed by Bedfordshire County Council

2002: Ofsted chief inspector

2006: Permanent secretary at what is now the Department for Education

2012: Vice-chancellor, University of Reading.

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