The power to improve schools is in our hands

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Teachers dedicate their lives to helping children and yet must answer to ministers who lack such expertise. But we can take charge of the education debate

Whatever opinion poll you look at, teachers are among the most trusted professionals in the country. Politicians are among the least trusted. (Trade union leaders fare little better – above politicians but definitely mid-table at best.) Yet we face the situation where one of the most trusted professions is told how to do their job by one of the least trusted professions. This surely deserves some analysis.

For example, the schools minister tells a conference of teachers how to teach maths. Would a health minister tell a conference of doctors how to conduct surgery? I wouldn’t want to suggest that the NHS is apolitical, but politics takes more of a back seat in the operating theatre than it does in the classroom.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs. Having a Royal College of Surgeons helps. Surgery is also intimidating in a way that teaching is not. You don’t hear calls for “free hospitals”, experimenting in innovative new methods of brain surgery in the same way that you hear calls for free schools. This is cultural, but there is something else within our control.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Unless parents and the public hear an alternative vision of education – one that is honest and ambitious – politicians have little choice but to fill the gap. Our task as a profession is to crowd out the political narrative of failure with a professional narrative of ambition. We’ve done well, but we can do more. If the professional narrative is defensive, complacent or self-interested, it will not get respect or attention. If it is optimistic, self-critical and passionate about opportunities for children, it will dominate.

This should not be too hard: “optimistic, self-critical and passionate” sums up most teachers whom I have met. It’s time to make clear that the people who are most ambitious for the children of this country are the people who have dedicated their careers to working with them.

So our formula for professional autonomy and ownership has two components: we must take responsibility for each other and we must take back ownership of teaching standards.

Both are needed; solo ambition won’t help us in these tough times. As austerity bites, the support for schools is slipping away. Pretty soon, there won’t be much left but schools looking out for other schools. If we turn to competition, fragmentation and isolation, we add to the problem. But we don’t have to – the nice thing about freedom is that you can choose how to use it.

There is no credit in improving one school while other schools around it suffer. There is no glory in raising standards in one school by covert selection – things aren’t getting better. You are just redistributing the challenge to make yourself look good.

Taking responsibility and taking ownership of standards are examples of leadership. Strong leaders focus on action rather than complaint, aim to do good rather than look good, have a sense of where they want to be and are willing to persuade others to follow.

Nonsense about “bruisers” and “battleaxes” bears no relation to the reality of daily leadership beneath the soundbites and out of the spotlight. It is a complex and sometimes paradoxical mix of tough choices and even tougher kindnesses, of confidence and humility. If you approach it with a single recipe for success, you will run aground as soon as you step outside your comfort zone.

If it’s missing, then create it

School leaders don’t need to ask the government to do things for them. They have a right to expect the basic supply issues to be provided: enough places where they are needed for every child, enough teachers to stand in front of them and enough money to put a roof over their head. It’s not rocket science. A bit less time on exclamation marks and bit more time on the fundamentals would be welcome.

Beyond this, though, if something is being eroded that you value, then take it over yourself. If something is missing that you need, then create it. If behaviour is suggested that you disapprove of, then don’t do it.

There are good examples of the profession doing just this. The landmark event for school leaders was cancelled, so they took it on themselves. You can attend it again this year in Birmingham on the 15-17 June, when 1,500 leaders will gather at the Inspiring Leadership Conference organised by the Association of School and College Leaders, the Education Development Trust and the NAHT heads’ union. It is bigger and better than it ever was.

Similarly, the National College was fading away – and now the profession has created its own Foundation for Leadership in Education to take this on. Imagine if we wrote our qualifications for leadership…

Autonomy can be intimidating. But my experience so far is that when teachers and leaders do it themselves, they do it better.

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union

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