More evidence, fewer policies, less meddling

18th September 2009 at 01:00
With the party conference season about to begin, the ASCL general secretary calls for politicians to focus on what matters

With the party conference season upon us and a general election campaign only months away, the political temperature is rising. A difficult time lies ahead for education, and especially for schools.

In an election year, the economy will always be the major topic. Yet everyone knows that, whatever the claims, no party knows all the answers, and they may not even be asking the right questions. On defence, the parties agree on the central question of Britain's place in the world, although they may argue about army equipment. On health, the Government has quietly been making progress, and the Opposition dares not attack the NHS: look how quickly Tory leader David Cameron sprang to its defence when Daniel Hannan MEP attacked it on US television.

So, apart from the economy, education will be the key election issue. It is no coincidence that all three major parties have bright young education spokesmen - and all are close to their respective party leaders.

The early skirmishes in the education policy war started in July with the publication of the Government's white paper - a programme of more than 50 policies that touch almost every aspect of school life. Unlike the weather, education heated up in August with a string of Conservative announcements about exams and league tables.

Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, indicated immediate support for the recommendations of his exams guru, Sir Richard Sykes, who stated that standards would be reinforced by changing league tables so that academic and vocational results are separately reported, "hard" A-levels are given greater weight than "soft" ones, and a points score will replace the proportion of 16-year-olds gaining five high-grade GCSE passes or equivalent. The points score is supported by the Liberal Democrats and is the main feature in the Government's proposed school report card, so in this respect the parties agree.

In fact, there is quite a lot of agreement. All three parties want a "world class" education system, whatever that is. All want "high standards". All are happy to see the expansion of new routes into teaching, such as the highly successful Teach First programme. All want to reform school funding and introduce a fairer system for additional funding in disadvantaged areas. All recognise that assessment at age 11 needs to be reformed. Labour and Tories both want to turn more secondary schools into academies.

But areas of disagreement exist, with the future of Diplomas and vocational education the most important. The Conservatives say they would abolish quangos, but it is not clear which ones, nor whether the work would be transferred to Westminster. They would raise the standards of entry into teaching, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have an entitlement to professional development and a licence to teach to ensure that teachers keep up to date. Independent exclusion appeals panels would be abolished by the Tories.

School structures could change under the Conservatives, with primary academies and Swedish-style, parent-run schools. Under Labour, we would see more federations, both primary and secondary, and more chains of schools.

On top of all this there is the looming crisis over national debt: there can be little doubt that cost savings will be needed in schools, and politicians may want more than just efficiencies.

The problem with this torrent of education policies is that politicians have to demonstrate what is wrong with the present system in order to argue that their policies will improve it. So schools and colleges are criticised for poor results and failing to narrow the gap between the best and the weakest.

Eventually, these policies go into a white paper with parliamentary debates, where parties outdo each other in describing not only the wisdom of their proposals but why problems in the status quo mean they are needed.

The teaching profession and the reputation of state schools inevitably suffer collateral damage. The sad truth is that it is simply not expedient for politicians to admit that schools have done a good job.

The real problem is that we have too much education policy, too much political interference, and too many changes to implement in too short a time. What is needed, surely, is not an absence of policy but fewer, better policies that are focused on what really matters: the quality of teaching and learning.

The least-read section of July's white paper is the chapter which describes the huge amount that has been achieved by schools since 1997. That should be the starting point for the 2009-10 political debate on education.

Then perhaps we can have a policy framework based on evidence rather than theory. For example, politicians argue about whether whole books or phonics is the best way to teach reading, yet the evidence from brain research indicates clearly that both are needed. If education is to be a major political battleground this year, then the least we can ask of the politicians is that it is an evidence-based debate.

We can't keep education out of politics, but we can appeal for politics to be more rational in the way it discusses education. Health has the authoritative voice of the chief medical officer, agriculture has the chief veterinary officer, science has the chief scientific officer, and all these areas have a calmer, more evidence-based policy debate than the one that takes place in education.

Perhaps the electorate needs a similarly objective chief educational officer to guide it through the policy swamp and be the professional voice in policymaking. Then we would enjoy the education debates of the next few months rather more than we are likely to as old criticisms and new policies abound.

  • John Dunford, General secretary, Association of School and College Leaders.

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