My personal wishes for the next government can be summarised as:
Constancy of purpose maintained by those who are responsible for education within a constantly changing environment;
Consensus with regard to education policy supported by the various political parties;
Clarity on the direction education takes and clarity on how the education system should operate;
Consistency with regard to what we expect from our schools;
Cohesion within a system which involves all stakeholders in improving the life chances of our children.
Constancy of Purpose
Benjamin Disraeli said ‘The secret to success is constancy of purpose’.
Dr Edwards Deming, the guru of total quality management, considered we need to ‘create constancy of purpose for continual improvement of product and service’.
The purpose of education has been argued over for thousands of years by philosophers from Plato to Bertrand Russell. I know it is a ‘big ask’ but all I would like is some agreement regarding the purpose of education which may last more than one parliament.
So is the purpose of education to focus on the needs of the developing child or to serve the requirements of wider society and the economy? Of course it is both.
And what should we expect from our schools – knowledge, know-how, wisdom, character? How much should we concentrate on the theoretical or practical aspects of learning? Should we place more emphasis on developing young people’s attitudes - or developing their skills? Of course we should focus on both.
Surely we should be able to come to some agreement on these important aspects of education?
Many employers will say too many young people come to work with the wrong attitude and limited social skills. Schools will say we partly agree but unfortunately all late twentieth and 21st century governments mainly judge schools and pupils on the theoretical aspect of their learning: practical know-how and the development of attitudes and skills receive less attention.
Employers would say we need to be clear about some fundamental aspects of education. Thus the North East Chamber of Commerce would want:
Good basic skills ( Maths English etc) for all;
Stronger emphasis on STEM/IT /Languages;
The development of social skills/teamwork/ resilience etc;
All schools to have links with business and the wider regional economy to develop aspiration.
I suspect schools and colleges, parents and students would also agree.
In every decade since I was a child in the 1940s a limited consensus has been achieved.
Unfortunately, in education once we have come to some agreement, a new government comes along, undermines the previous consensus and seeks to create a new one. For example:
1950s – Local democratic government was considered to be the ideal way to deliver a high quality education system.
1960s - Comprehensive education growth created the same kind of excitement and buzz that the academies programme is achieving today.
1970s – Curriculum areas of experience (HMI 5-16) which emphasised a broad and balanced curriculum rather than a subject framed curriculum received tremendous support.
1980s – Local financial management which allowed schools greater control over their budgets, was mostly supported by schools.
1990s – Self-managing autonomous schools were generally supported though people had different views as to the amount of freedom schools should have.
2000 – ‘Every child matters’ led to a focus on children’s wellbeing. The majority of schools welcomed this focus as it seemed to chime with the moral purpose of putting the child at the centre of everything.
2010 – The academy strategy is certainly developing a new a consensus, though there is a variety of approaches within and across the primary and secondary sectors.
2020 – Regional devolution is of course future-gazing. However both the Conservative and Labour governments are promoting regional solutions.
I would like to suggest that we should seek to retain the consensus partly achieved every decade and build on the thinking of previous years rather than reject the old and constantly bring in the new. Thus I do believe that we can support high quality local democratic government oversight, comprehensive education and school autonomy. It just takes a little creative thinking.
Of course consensus is not the main objective and sometimes an achieved consensus isn’t a good thing if it excludes some vital elements.
There also may be a concern that too much consensus kills innovation and new ideas – there needs to be scope for these to be developed without anyone being branded an educational heretic.
However attempting to build some consensus is certainly a worthy aim.
There are two forms of clarity.....clarity of direction and clarity of how things work. Too often in education we are unclear about both.
With regard to clarity of direction we are often unclear about what is expected of teachers and school leaders, education trusts and local authorities.
We are also unclear about how each of us collaboratively contributes to the national educational mission. The continual changes in how things work; policies, procedures and lines of authority, mean that those who operate within the system are confused or at least find difficulty in keeping up to date.
It is therefore essential that all key stakeholders within the public and private sectors agree on the long-term direction or vision for UK education. Such an agreement would then inform how we design the structures and systems which would deliver such a vision.
Policies and procedures should follow vision, not drive the direction of education within this country.
Of course if we cannot agree on the purpose of education it is difficult to agree on how and what we teach.
Because this debate about the purpose of education is never settled then the debate about how we teach and learn is unresolved. When I first started teaching, the focus was on pupil engagement in learning and ‘the joy of learning’.
Today the arguments are pretty basic - teaching facts, instruction, transferable skills and projects are labelled good or bad depending on your own experience of education and your political point of view.
We have now reached the point when lessons are dissected and analysed like dead bodies in a mortuary. An example is Professor David Hargreaves who later became chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. In the 1980s he divided lessons up into five phases:
The entry phase
The settling down or preparation phase
The lessons proper phase
The clearing up phase
The exit phase
(Hargreaves et al. (1984))
I know teachers are not entertainers but imagine if these professors and inspectors gave advice to Monty Python, Tommy Cooper, Groucho Marx and the other entertaining greats on how to deliver a comedy routine? The creativity and interaction with the audience would be the first to go.
The ‘What We Teach’ has for too long been a result of individual Secretaries of State promoting their own prejudices.
If we had a shared vision for education we would design a curriculum which has a shared view regarding the right balance between theoretical, practical, attitudes and skills.
This leads me more and more to support the idea that curriculum design and assessment should be removed from direct political control. Government needs to step back into a more strategic role. We should pull back the increasing central government involvement in what is taught, how things are taught and how schools are led.
The teaching profession has to have the capacity to step forward and fill this space. We need collectively to consider the ways in which we rebuild professional capacity to do this.
I am not saying that education policy should be decided by the teaching profession. I am clearly distinguishing between the strategic role of government and the technical skills of the teaching profession.
Whenever education ministers talk about ‘systems leadership’ they mean the schooling system. We need to understand that the schooling system is part of a wider system which involves local government and the private sector.
We therefore need a ‘whole system’ solution.
Of course education is a complex adaptive system and therefore we may wish to view education as an eco-system.
Schools as complex, adaptive systems will also exhibit interdependence; they will seek to collaborate and prefer to be managed by a loosely organised management structure. The self-organising school system most headteachers want is not ordered by a tight management structure nor is it chaotic.
A good start to improving the system is to break down the entrenched divisions within education.
These divisions can often be traced back to the divisions that exist between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is in the interests of everybody that all sectors, schools, further education colleges, and local authorities are thriving. The health of the economy and local government is important to the health of all schools and academies.
It is vital that schools are seen as one part of an education and training system that also involves further education, higher education, apprenticeships and so on. It still feels like many of these parts are competitors or rivals rather than all focused on the same objectives.
We need an increased understanding of the relationship between wealth creation and the public services. A truly cohesive education system is able to respond to economic, social and demographic change and sees this as part of its moral purpose.
In conclusion let us all agree on what a compelling educational offer looks like to student teachers, parents, businesses and politicians: a compelling educational experience that encourages young people to participate in education for its intrinsic value.
We need a Royal Commission involving all key stakeholders, which will have a long term sustainable impact and which delivers a shared vision of educational transformation. It must not become taxonomy of conflicting, vested interests, exercising tribalism within the tent.
Of course we don’t need to wait for a Royal Commission - let’s seize the opportunity ourselves. We have the capacity in the North East of England to bring together the further education, higher education, local authority schools, private, independent and third sectors.
Perhaps the key principles I have outlined could be a basis for moving forward.
And finally let us not encourage TV presenters to tell us how to teach maths, run school dinners and present education as a soap opera. I am still waiting for the first celebrity surgeon to say ‘cut here’.
I don’t want much – just constancy, consensus, clarity, consistency and cohesion!
Les Walton CBE is chairman of the Northern Education Trust.