Hell-bent on reform, but who cared about teacher morale?

17th September 2010 at 01:00
Education lay at the heart of New Labour's vision, but ministers were fixated on policy-making and showed little concern about those who actually worked in schools, according to a new book by John Bangs, John Macbeath, and Maurice Galton

Teachers often complain that politicians do not understand the reality of the classroom when they set about trying to reinvent schools. We wanted to discover the extent to which the concerns of teachers had been accommodated in the policy-making of the Blair and Brown governments during 13 years of intensive reform.

Our analysis was based on remarkably frank interviews with teachers, headteachers, leading academics, politicians and policy-makers from across the political spectrum.

Two of our headline findings were:

- Labour's determination to woo middle England led to a souring in its relationship with teachers which, in turn, had deeply damaging effects on its campaign to improve schools.

- In the words of former chief schools inspector Mike Tomlinson: "There is nothing rational in policy-making."

Sandy Adamson, a former senior civil servant in the Education Department, tells us that the failure to win teachers' confidence was "an irretrievable mistake".

Even Sir Michael Barber, one-time head of the government's school standards unit, admits that the effect on the profession of the government's "top-down" strategy to raise standards was "quite negative, and it was much more negative than I might have guessed". Indeed, he admits that Labour came to power "without an overview of where we were going with the teaching profession".

Another senior adviser, Kevan Collins, claims that ministers were too concerned with meeting targets to worry about teacher morale.

"I don't think morale was ever talked about explicitly; we just kept our eyes on the numbers," he says.

The main reason for the failure to listen to teachers arose from Labour's wish to shed its traditional image. As Estelle Morris, former education secretary - arguably, the one with the greatest understanding of teachers - puts it: "Labour had to shift in the opposition years from being seen to be the party of the provider... to the party of the consumer."

For her, the government failed to understand the demands of teaching during the first three years in office because "unless you've done it" it is difficult for anybody to know the pressure in the classroom.

In fact, the government in 1997 did know about the state of teachers' self efficacy and morale, as Lord Puttnam, film director and Labour peer at that time charged with improving teachers' status, recalls.

"What I was asked to do by (then education secretary) David Blunkett was to get out and about in schools and come back to him by December 1997 at the latest. I said: 'You probably know this is a devastated workforce'."

Puttnam's solution, the Teaching Awards, almost did not get off the ground.

"My deal with David Blunkett was that we wouldn't go ahead with the awards if we couldn't get a sufficient number of nominees. I got him down to 800 and on the night we closed we had 796. So I sat down with the (awards) chief executive and created eight additional nominations. I went back to David and said, 'That was close, 804'. He said, 'That's good enough.' You'll be pleased to know none of our nominations won!"

The prime minister and many of his advisers were more interested in the perceived failure of comprehensives than supporting teachers, it is claimed.

Fiona Millar, former Downing Street adviser and now a campaigner for comprehensive education, says: "There was a real divide within Number 10 between people they would see as Old Labour like me, Alastair (Campbell, her husband, and Blair's director of communications), (Blair's parliamentary private secretary) Bruce Grocott and to a certain extent (Blair aide) Sally Morgan and the sort of thrusting young middle-England people who allegedly knew what parents wanted. Some of them had just made up their minds that comprehensives were a disaster."

Indeed, Blair's commitment to education was not initially internalised within his own government. According to Millar: "Brown made more speeches about education in the Third World than he did about education in this country. Although he was behind Sure Start, I don't think he was focused on education or else he would have been focused on the spending budgets of the time."

Mick Waters, a former government exams adviser, recalls a meeting with Alan Johnson, then education secretary, who "went on about teenagers having to read Austen, Hardy and T S Eliot as top of the list of what children should have to do at key stage 3... When the umpteenth youngster was being stabbed in south London".

In 2001, Alastair Campbell announced "the end of the bog-standard comprehensive" in an effort to promote specialist schools. In public, Blair condemned the phrase as one he would never use himself. He also rang Lord Puttnam. "David, I want to apologise. You must be very upset over Alastair's remarks."

Puttnam replied: "Yes, upset is right. In one sentence he's just managed to undo six months' work." Privately, Blair told other advisers that he thought Campbell's comments "gave us some definition".

This was not the first time schools had been subjected to such damaging criticism. In the summer of 1997, the entire Education Department ministerial team had decided, with Number 10, to name and shame publicly 14 secondary schools in special measures. It was action which left teachers angry and Ofsted nonplussed. According to Mike Tomlinson, director of Ofsted and subsequently chief inspector of schools:

"The first 14 schools named and shamed were not checked with Ofsted before the announcement... we didn't think they were the right ones anyway, if we'd been asked. Naming and shaming was essentially a political action designed to give a political message."

When Blair became interested in market incentives, the mantra of standards, not structures, was abandoned as he promoted academies and trust schools. Researching the book, we found that civil servants had been dismayed as attention shifted from school standards to these new types of schools.

Exams, targets and media

In 2004, Mike Tomlinson thought he had achieved consensus on an overarching diploma for 18-year-olds and that he had convinced Blair that he had preserved the "gold standard" of A-levels.

Yet his report was scuppered by the agreement that the two opposition leaders should have sight of it in advance. Michael Howard, then Tory leader, made a speech the night before publication saying that he would defend A-levels at all costs. Blair felt he had to say the same even though the Education Department supported the diploma.

Summoned by Blair, head of the Number 10 policy unit David Miliband, who had earlier tried and failed to convince him of the diploma's merits, told Tomlinson he had "rambled a bit" when asked if A-levels would be safe.

Blair said he could not run an election campaign while the Daily Mail was printing stories about his plans to ruin A-levels.

Tomlinson adds: "We had the wonderful position of a speech being given by the prime minister saying I'm not inclined to get rid of A-levels while his secretary of state and minister were at another event saying this will be implemented in full.

"There is nothing rational about policy-making at all," he reflects.

The setting of literacy and numeracy targets was not based on evidence. They were at best "educated guesses", according to Michael Barber.

Judy Sebba, for seven years senior research adviser in the Education Department, says: "How can a target ever be evidence based? You can say at the moment children make one level or one-and-a-half levels of progress in a year, therefore we will set it at two, but what's the evidence base for challenging targets?"

Sandy Adamson, a senior civil servant who worked on the policy, speaks of "the stupidity of targets, unobtainable targets simply pulled from the air and then applied to every school in the country".

"The majority of the reaction was, 'this is unachievable' and for a substantial minority it never was achieved," she says.

A voracious media shaped government decisions. Mick Waters talked to Downing Street advisers soon after he arrived at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, predecessor of Ofqual and the QCDA, about the importance of cookery and was told "No, we don't want to take that on."

"Then Jamie Oliver did his thing on Turkey Twizzlers and overnight cooking has to be front and centre in the curriculum," he says.

More seriously, the education reform agenda demanded continued success. The engine for further change had to be based on the need for it. These arguments became a double-edged sword.

Jim Knight, the former schools minister, describes this dichotomy as "a bit of a rat" in reference to Gerald Ratner, who famously destroyed public confidence in his own company's jewellery products by describing them as "crap".

"How do you still sound impatient for improvement while not rubbishing what you've already done?" asks Knight.

Journalists began to ask whether the responsibility for failure lay with government.

What should happen now Andreas Schleicher of the education directorate at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development points out that Finland and other Nordic countries have strong value-based education systems shared by major parties without "layers and layers of unfinished and incoherent reforms all on top of each other".

Our governments need to try harder to achieve consensus on what matters most to teachers, pupils and parents, he says.

"Consensus and coherence are the two very powerful forces for change," he adds.

"If your goals vary, how do you motivate anyone, be it the teacher of a class or the student, to take learning seriously? If you're a teacher, you know today they're trying this and tomorrow there is something else."

Our book concludes that many of Labour's achievements were obscured by its poor relationship with the teaching profession. It argues strongly for future governments to have an overview of where they want to go with the teaching profession and to include teachers in that debate - an overview complemented by consistent, coherent and educationally sound policies.

Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching is published by Routledge at #163;24.99.


Mick Waters, former director of curriculum at the QCA, accuses exam boards of conniving at the dumbing down of school examinations.

"Before I went for this job, I used to think that all this criticism of exams that they were being dumbed down was unfair. You know, the old argument, more people passed than ever before. Since I've been there, I think the system is diseased, almost corrupt. I don't mean QCA or Ofqual or anybody. We've got a set of awarding bodies who are in a market place.

"In previous jobs, I had seen people from awarding bodies talk to headteachers implying that their examinations are easier. Not only that, 'We provide the textbook to help you through it'."

He says: Ofqual, the regulator, should "immediately look at whether the chief examiner should be allowed to write the text with regard to pupils' questions".

"That's insider dealing."

Standards and academies

Kevan Collins, who was primary strategy manager at the Department for Education and Employment, describes the collision when Blair became interested in - to use Sir Michael Barber's words - "market incentives or market-like incentives".

"Standards not structures was a mantra which created the space for us to work freely across the whole system," he says.

"We were not interested in structures; we were interested in standards. It meant you could have audiences in rooms up and down the country from Cornwall to Newcastle, have a common language and a common set of priorities that were universal."

Mr Collins contrasts this with the move to the debate about how to introduce market incentives.

"We moved straight away from the universal language of teaching and learning and began to believe that the solution was in creating certain types of schools... the absolute shining example of that was the academies debate.

"It fractured a working alliance between individuals and the common endeavour ... and it basically segmented the profession."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today