Education Deserves the Best, Not Second Best

A Guest Post by James Williams, Lecturer in Education, University of Sussex (follow him at @edujdw

In this powerful guest post, James Williams reviews the last five years of education policy and argues that we’ve have been saddled with ‘second best’. Havoc has been wrought on education with reform that has been as chaotic as it has damaging. In the run up to the general election, this piece is essential reading for anyone – parent, school staff member, education academic, local or national politician, school governor or student teacher – who wants to join the debate, we need, to shape a better education system for the next generation of children.

Children Deserve the Best – so why are they at the mercy of political ideology?

By James D. Williams

I’ve spent nearly my whole life in education. Apart from a brief dalliance with sales and marketing for three years after I graduated from University, I have either been in education as a learner, or teaching others in various educational settings, from Universities to FE colleges, secondary and primary schools.

During Michael Gove’s reign as Secretary of State for Education, I, along with many other teachers and education experts, were characterised as part of ‘the Blob’. We were seen as left-wing, obstructive Trotskyists; lovers of, and apologists for, failure. One of those ‘progressive’ types who hate knowledge and have a ‘prizes for all’ attitude. I have never advocated that children shouldn’t fail, should not learn key facts, that poor behaviour should be rewarded or that all should have prizes.

The last five years of this coalition government has changed me. In particular my views on education, policy and politics.

Before 2010 I wasn’t very interested in politics. I was a ‘floating voter’. I have never joined or associated myself with any political party. I prefer to judge parties and vote according to the soundness of their policies and the local candidate’s record/arguments. When it comes to education policy, I have been a severe critic of all the main parties at one time or another. I was of the belief that teachers will do the best for their pupils in spite of politicians, rarely because of what the politicians do.

Pointless Education Secretaries

Politicians come and go. Few Secretaries of State have made an impression upon me as effective Ministers who actually understand education. Many are now just names that could appear in the TV show ‘Pointless’ – the category? Secretaries of State for Education from 1980. Who remembers Ruth Kelly, now working for HSBC, Who will, after the next election, remember Nicky Morgan? Some will be high scorers in the category, such as David Blunkett and certainly, I think, Michael Gove. But what of John MacGregor or Charles Clarke? How many have left an indelible mark?

Politicians need to leave some form of legacy, especially if they are appointed to high office and wish to carve a high profile political career. Their legacy is rarely determined by their ideology, more by their actions. The problem we have is that the vast majority of politicians have no real experience or understanding of education other than their own experience of schools.

One who did impress me was Estelle Morris, who resigned as Secretary of State, yet my admiration for her increased. She was a teacher who came via the certified teaching route (CertEd) for people who did not have a degree. She later did extra study to enable her to gain a BEd degree. She at least understood the profession. The stress placed on teachers and the working life of teachers. She resigned as she felt she could not do the job well enough. “If I’m really honest with myself I have not enjoyed it as much and I just do not think I’m as good at it as I was at my other job (schools minister) I’m not having second best in a job as important as this.”

Education Deserves the Best, Not Second Best

Today we are, and have been for the past five years, saddled with ‘second best’. It’s just not good enough. Michael Gove has wrought havoc in the education sector. This was no shaking up of the system to make it better. It’s been a wholesale destruction of certain sectors and reform that has been as chaotic as it has been damaging. The mere fact that Gove was sacked is a testament to how damaging he became to his own party by the end of his tenure. Nicky Morgan was slipped in to try and repair the rift – more akin to the Grand Canyon – that had opened up between those who deliver education in our schools and colleges, and Gove who merely imposed his ideological hegemony on the sector.

The government’s failure to listen to anyone, other than those who agree with whatever reform is presented, is not only damaging but insolent in the extreme. Gove’s tenure for me is the tenure of a tyrant. His repeated name-calling (the Blob, Trots. Etc.) was not the behaviour of a serious professional who respects the people he is supposed to lead and work on behalf of, it was playground bullying of the sort that teachers must prevent; yet how do you stop the bully who had the blessing of the Prime Minister? Now we have a Secretary of State who is also intent on reform for the sake of ideology, whose appointment was as big a shock to her as it was to the education profession. Some maintain that she is just a puppet whose strings are still being pulled by a backstage Michael Gove. Her experience of education was zero, apart from her own private schooling in Surbiton and study of Jurisprudence at Oxford.

What damage has been wrought in the past five years?

Teachers – The profession has been downgraded. Teaching qualifications have been deemed to be unnecessary. It has been reduced to just a job which anyone could pick up simply by watching other teachers and copying. Being a qualified teacher – that is, someone who not only knows what to do, but who also understands how children grow, develop and learn, and why certain approaches in the teaching of concepts work and why others don’t – is no longer required for academies and free schools. As a result there has been a huge increase in unqualified teachers being employed, from 14,800 in 2012, when the change was made, to 17,100 in October 2014. Luckily many Headteachers are sensible and still require qualified teachers to fill their vacancies, but with a teacher recruitment crisis upon us, alongside real terms cuts in school budgets, the pressure will no doubt be put on heads by academy trusts to place someone in front of the class, qualified or not.

Schools – the privatisation of schools by their removal from Local Authority supervision has been the most insidious aspect of the past 5 years. Even under Labour, who first introduced the idea of academies as a way of revitalising failing inner city schools through private investment, the idea was watered down. Initially academy sponsors needed to commit to funding of up to £2 million. In 2007 Ed Balls scrapped the requirement for sponsors to part fund academies. Why? Perhaps business saw no ‘profit’ in schools if they had to fund them in part. Today, school academy trust chiefs and heads are earning eye-watering salaries only seen in big business. These funds come from taxpayers, you and me. From extreme sums, such as the reported £400,000 earned by the Head of the Durrand Academy in South London, to more ‘modest’ (yet still beyond the wildest dreams of the vast majority of the working population) £150,000 plus earned by over 100 academy Heads. Something has to be wrong when schools are searching for savings, teachers are being made redundant and buildings are crumbling.

Forced academisation – this is now routine. Hiding behind semantics, the DfE often claim that an enforced Interim Executive Board (IEB) which recommends conversion is not a ‘forced’ academisation. Yet common sense says that governing bodies that resist academisation or seek a sponsor they trust, rather than one being imposed, who are summarily and unceremoniously sacked and replaced by an IEB willing to do the bidding of the DfE is forced academisation, plain and simple. Some schools have successfully resisted and others have persuaded Heads that where there is no need to convert then it should not happen, as was the case with Hove Park. But such battles will inevitably leave scars. In an astonishing admission, recently, Tristram Hunt stated that some OFSTED inspectors had deliberately failed schools so that they could be converted to academies, something that should be the matter of an urgent enquiry.

The Green party is all about local supervision for local schools. It’s not League of Gentlemen localism, but ensuring that schools are accountable to the parents and that parents know that when problems arise there is a body they can contact that is independent from the school and can act as an intermediary. Local Authorities are by no means perfect. Some are better than others, many have been hit by years of underfunding. Each academy conversion also takes away funding and can, paradoxically, saddle a Local Authority with its debt, while presenting a clean, debt free status to an external academy sponsor. Surpluses carefully saved by schools also transfer out to academy trusts. So each conversion can present a significant loss to the Local Authority – it’s win:win for academy trusts and lose:lose for Local Authorities.

Curriculum – curriculum reform is a necessary part of education. Knowledge does not stand still, things change, priorities – economic and social – change. Yet the curriculum reform we have seen over the past five years has simply been botched. Expert groups have been engaged to advise on reform, then their findings ignored and the group dismissed. A lack of ‘joined-up’ thinking has resulted in curriculum reform which teachers can see is inadequate, retrograde even.

Examinations – Michael Gove was correct when he characterised the exam system in 2010 as inadequate. It was. Leaving aside the arguments about grade inflation, examinations were, in my opinion, inadequate in that they no longer reflected what children understood, simply what they had memorised for the exam. Teaching to the test was done on an industrial scale, only because the result was the only measure governments would use to judge teachers and schools. We stopped educating and turned schools into exam factories. Gove’s answer was simple. Make the tests harder. Children will not become brighter or more educated just because the exam is harder. Yes, we needed a wholesale reform of the examination system, but in my view one that leads to generational change in our education system. We need examinations that do not just test what the child knows, but what they understand. Pumping children full of knowledge will not lead to better understanding. How they make links between different aspects of knowledge, the expertise they develop in logic and thinking skills – knowing what to do with their new-found knowledge and what it means is what we should be ‘testing’.

The speed of examination and curriculum reform has been criticised from the start. Most recently Heads have condemned the examination reforms claiming that they are ineffectual and damaging. Teachers, Heads etc. know how difficult it is to enact major changes in schools. The undue haste in the DfE reforms has been guided by an election timetable, i.e. what can be done in a 5 year government term, rather than looking at what is best for schools and, more importantly, children. The standard political ‘excuse’ that reform must be fast for the sake of the children is nothing more than hypocritical. Bad reform is more damaging than leaving things alone, trialling, piloting and getting the reform right first time.

Consultation – a common understanding of consultation is a discussion (usually for or against an action) which leads to an informed decision. Consultations run by the DfE rarely result in an informed decision. Most decisions seem to be pre-determined, the consultation is perhaps an inconvenience rather than anything meaningful for the DfE. For example, when academisation is proposed consultation with the various groups affected should be undertaken, yet time and again we have seen almost total opposition of proposed academisation, from teachers, parents and Local Authorities, rejected and academisation approved. A consultation where all views, except those which confirm a pre-determined decision, are simply ignored, is no consultation. It is an insult.

Where are we now?

I have reservations over Labour’s education plans. I agree with their stance on qualified teachers, but worry about the inaction on academy status. Their plan for Directors of School Standards seems to be recreating the Local Authority model yet, outside the Local Authorities. When Tristram Hunt talked to a group of Sussex Heads and education specialists recently, nothing he said caused me to be either excited or angry, but of course opposition plans are great until you get into office to find that all the money has gone, something labour did to the current coalition.

Another Conservative government will further damage our education system. We already have a teacher recruitment crisis, the marginalisation of universities (who actually play a vital role in teacher education and who could help address this crisis) and the wholesale privatisation of schools, to the extent that local people in some areas now have very little say or control over the running of their local schools. We have schools almost being ‘bought and sold’ on a market with some academy trusts walking away from difficult schools they promised they could reform (e.g. in Hastings) and other schools having their sponsor changed and schools removed from sponsors, who were deemed inadequate, in deals made by the DfE, with no consideration of what the parents would like to happen.

Things are not about to get any easier for schools, even after the next election. School funding is, in effect, being cut by the Conservatives, despite a promise to keep cash levels the same. As we all know costs rise and will continue to do so, it amounts to about a 10% cut in school budgets. Labour does at least promise to protect budgets in real terms. The greens have interesting ideas on education and I support their commitment to local supervision of schools and colleges, but I am not convinced about their policy on higher education and tuition fees.

My main concern about all parties is whether they would be prepared, and have the courage, to promote generational change rather than tinkering and reforming for the sake of a quick political fix in the short term – driven by the election timetable.

One good thing the current government has done is push for a College of Teaching – a professional body for teachers. Here I support them in full – provided they are genuine in their pledge not to interfere and try to control the profession through such a body.

The next logical step would be to relinquish the control of the examinations, curriculum and reform to such a properly constituted body. As I see it, the job of politicians, especially those who are not experts in a field, is not to determine what should happen and to drive reform and change, but to hold the profession to account. This is a job that politicians can do very well. One only has to look at how Margaret Hodge runs her Public Accounts committee and puts politicians and others through a tough interrogation, with no punches pulled. To his credit, Graham Stuart does the same as chair of the education committee. In these very intense and illuminating sessions party politics are often put to one side for the common good of holding business, government departments, politicians, civil servants and others to account. I would heartily support any party that resolved to allow professionals to run the professions and be the voice of the people holding the professions to account.

James Williams, Lecturer in Education, University of Sussex

The views expressed here and entirely personal
and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer

Follow me on Twitter @edujdw



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