Schools, yield no longer. Let's reclaim education

1st May 2015 at 01:00
With the election just days away, teachers must learn the lessons of the past five years - and never again allow such meddling

Outside the window, an election campaign is raging. Or at least it's throwing a bit of a tantrum and refusing to finish its bacon sandwich.

Here we are, five years on from the last political whirligig, gazing blearily at ourselves in education's tarnished mirror. How different we look.

Certainly I do. Billy Crystal's once-funny line from the film City Slickers provides grim confirmation that I have arrived in the deepest thickets of middle age: "I'm losing hair where I want hair and I'm getting hair where there shouldn't be hair."

But while age is no guarantee of maturity, it's timely to pause in this no-man's-land between governments and, before the next wave of attrition begins, see what we've learned. In particular, what have five turbulent years of education policy taught us about politicians in England - and about ourselves?

A ministerial posting to the Department for Education was once like being pushed slowly off into the most languorous of political backwaters. As Margaret Thatcher's first education secretary, Mark Carlisle, later admitted: "I knew nothing of state schools, having used them neither for myself nor my children."

Nowadays, what happens in Whitehall matters. The past five years have taught us how naive we were when we assumed that the political process involved evidence-based proposals, deep consultation, trialling, implementation and evaluation.

Instead, policymaking has been more like wayward adolescents hurling dog-dirt over a pensioner's fence. There has been a kind of gleeful sense of abandon and a schoolboy relish for the resulting turmoil.

We've seen how a single initial Education Act in 2011 has served as a catalyst for an onslaught of changes. We've learned how many of those were driven not by principle but by a disturbing pragmatism about how schools these days work.

Far less attention has been paid to curriculum development than to tinkering with accountability measures. The subtext? Only two levers drive real change in schools: performance tables and inspection.

We can, of course, point accusing fingers at that pantomime villain of the educational fleapit, Michael Gove (pictured, inset). But my prediction is that history will judge him as far less significant than his collection of press clippings might suggest.

Gove's legacy may well be that improvements in teaching actually stalled as a result of his toxic cocktail of initiatives. The sheer quantity of changes was a distraction from the quality of what matters most: the classroom.

Losing our way

From where I sit, 13 years into the headship of a comprehensive school, I sense that the past five years have left state schools more highly strung, more mechanistic in their obsession with data, more neurotically insecure. In too many, the joy has shrivelled and our collective mission to make state schools great has faltered.

Many of us gained the national qualification for headship. We spent hours hammering out our vision and values. We became specialist schools founded on principles of partnership. We worked together through the Leading Edge, Gaining Ground and Training School programmes, all of which - unlike the academy programme - had system leadership as a prerequisite, not an afterthought.

Yet within days of the English Baccalaureate wheeze being announced in 2011, there were reports of schools moving students out of GCSEs in music and dance and telling them they had to take history or geography instead.

Why would we do that? Creativity has long been the hallmark of so many of our schools. Why would we abandon it for a putative performance measure that so few of us believed in?

Yet, according to Polly Toynbee's fascinating book Cameron's Coup, "the 2014 Taking Part survey found a sharp fall in the number of children doing any arts: 35 per cent fewer took part in music activities, drama and dance than in 2010". And it happened on our watch.

Footsteps of giants

This September it will be 30 years since I began my life as a fledgling English teacher at Garforth Comprehensive School on the outskirts of Leeds. Its maverick head, Lawrie Lowton, made you feel there was no mission more important than taking the white working- and lower-middle-class young people of that nondescript suburb and teaching them well.

When I set up a school magazine and the school's bank refused to pay pound;10 towards sponsoring it, Lowton didn't hesitate to close the account and move it elsewhere. In those days when schools had headteachers, not principals, Lowton exuded principles. His leadership values are now my values.

The veteran English teachers I looked up to at meetings and conferences fought for the introduction of 16-plus examinations to replace the divisive O-level and CSE system. They ensured that speaking and listening was legitimised as part of the English curriculum. They created syllabuses that included proper, individualised coursework - activities that taught young people the skills they would need for true independent learning. What would those veterans think of us now?

As Eleanor Roosevelt taught us: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Whoever the next education secretary is, let's not allow ourselves to be so easily spooked, or browbeaten, or let ourselves feel inferior.

Next Parliament, let's not fall into forelock-tugging compliance with policies we believe are wrong. Our masters, after all, aren't the politicians. They are the students and the parents. And we owe it to our proud predecessors to reclaim state education for the next generation.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk

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