When the phrase “manifesto commitment” is uttered by a politician you might be forgiven for rolling your eyes and sighing a little.
As the cynical among us will immediately think, what is printed in a manifesto might not always be a solid indication that it will form policy if that party makes it into government.
But manifestos matter because they give us a strong indicator of the general policy approach of a political party and whether it wants to maintain the current status quo – or challenge it with radical new policy approaches.
The main political parties have been testing their policy ideas in the media for a while now and this gives a strong indication of what education battle grounds the election will be fought on.
However, what education policy pledges do secondary school leaders want to see? We asked a selection of leaders from around the country for their education policy wish-list.
For Jamie Clarke, executive headteacher at Sponne School in Towcester, the need for policy that supports school autonomy and reform of Ofsted is the most important.
He said: “There needs to be a commitment to continue with the self-governing drive of recent years that give schools the autonomy they need to make local decisions,” he said.
“This is to enable successful schools to continue to adapt and change quickly in the future while being able to take into account their local context and create that sense of ownership in our high-stakes accountability system.
“For schools that find themselves in Ofsted categories, they often need more time to not only ‘turn this around’ but to make it sustainable without the almost constant interference from both ministers and Ofsted.
“Frequently schools in these categories spend their time preparing for the next inspection visit and, separately, Department for Education (DfE) monitoring visits. This means that not only are they constantly looking over their shoulder but ensuring that the visit will produce a positive outcome regarding their progress.
“The time this takes means that schools are not able to fully focus on driving the changes over an 18 month or two-year period but rather having to show instant impact of changes that really are divorced from reality. Hence, schools then change their plans and momentum is lost.
“Simply put, schools need the time to drive the changes without the monitoring reports of HMI becoming public or having such high stakes if real improvements are to occur.”
Agreement on policy
Julie McBrearty, principal of Welland Park Academy in Market Harborough, urged competing parties to forge agreement on education policy.
She said: “I want to see a cross-party agreement between political parties regarding educational strategies, particularly for testing and measuring achievement. A cross-party, broadly agreed plan spanning 10 years would be very welcome.
Teachers want to assess but assessment frameworks are in a state of flux. Being at the whim of changing education secretaries is destabilising and costly in terms of labour and finances.”
Funding to support a school-based mental health service for young people is another policy on Ms McBrearty’s wish list: “We do a lot of work on healthy schools which I feel is having an impact in terms of increased participation in sport, healthy eating and less substance abuse but increasingly schools are dealing with mental health issues for which they are ill-equipped.
“This creates obstructions to learning and CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) is severely overstretched. We need the capacity to develop a more immediate and personalised response for these youngsters in house.”
She also wants more vocational qualifications to be included in the Progress 8 measure. She asked: “Progress 8 is a good development in ensuring that subjects outside of the English Baccalaureate don’t feel so marginalised but how will schools who undertake sterling work with less academic youngsters receive any recognition?”
A commitment to “sufficient, equitable and sustainable funding” for schools and colleges must be a priority, says Dr Peter Kent, headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby and president of Association of School and College Leaders.
He said: “In addition to funding increases in staff costs, this means developing and implementing a national funding formula that is fit-for-purpose and incorporates weighted funding for disadvantage.
“The second priority is a commitment to a smart, slim and stable accountability system, with a small number of ambitious goals. This includes a nationally determined progress measure to incentivise improvement, and fundamental, far-reaching changes to inspection so that it is again seen as reliable and accurate.”
Dr Kent also wants to see the next government “move towards a more strategic, enabling role in education, which creates the conditions for school and college leaders to step up and drive improvement”.
“The key to that is a commitment to a five-year vision for the education system – set in consultation with the profession – that is planned, properly resourced and coherent,” he said.
“The members I have spoken to agree that education should not and cannot stand still. They welcome change that is in the interests of young people, if it is strategically planned and well communicated. They know they have a responsibility to lead the next stage of improvement, not just within but beyond their own institutions.
“The government’s role is to create the conditions to allow this to happen.”
Terry Molloy is headteacher of Claremont High School in west London and a director of the London Leadership Strategy, a not-for-profit organisation that is run and led by serving headteachers.
He wants to see a “firm commitment” around a range of areas, including the retention of AS and A2 examinations.
“The division of the A level system into two stages has been highly effective in supporting disadvantaged students in securing university and college places,” he said. “It has been a transparent model for ‘securing’ the social mobility that government says that it wants to promote; for many students it has offered a lifeline.
“Government should not underestimate the positive impact that success in stages has for learners who have traditionally fallen at the first hurdle of more traditional A levels and AS levels did much to remove this.
“Neither should they underestimate the very positive impact that immediate success has on the expectations and practices of a generation of teachers who do not know, but will quickly learn, that it is what happens after two years that determines what a student will achieve and the options that they will have and not what they have done with them term by term.”
He continued: “I would want to see a reversal of the policy on first entry validity for English and mathematics. This is simply nonsense and flies in the face of everything that teachers know about the benefits of having more than one opportunity to succeed over time.
“It also makes a mockery of just about every ‘life skill’ test that adults face – how many people would not be driving now if only their first test counted.
“In the same vein English pupils should not be disadvantaged by an ill-thought-out ‘reaction’ to the international GCSE examinations. In English the iGCSE is a very effective preparation for so many
A level courses. We need stability and time to embed change, not this constant ‘reactive’ approach that we seem to have now.”
Mr Molloy echoes the views of Dr Kent and Ms McBrearty in wanting to see a long-term strategy underpinning policy. He added: “I would like to see policy serving the needs of education and young people over time and not education and young people being at the mercy of those who write policy for the sake of scoring political points.”
Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.