A plea to Damian Hinds...

Written by: Sir Mike Griffiths | Published:
Sir Mike Griffiths, educationalist & former headteacher

As another year gets underway, what big decisions face schools and what challenges face the education secretary? Sir Mike Griffiths outlines what he sees as the key challenges

Politicians and the media have something in common – a belief that there are simple answers to complex problems; that a solution is just around the corner. It rarely is.

When considering the challenges facing education, clearly finance and its real-terms decline is front and centre. That is a given. The secretary of state for education must simply argue in cabinet for a greater slice of the cake. Over to you, Mr Hinds...

There are, of course, other important challenges. I want to focus on four: recruitment, curriculum, accountability, and destinations.

Recruitment

A world-class education system requires a constant supply of outstanding teachers. Pay is only part of the story. Everyone – from Damian Hinds to you – yes you – must promote teaching; the joy of helping the development of mind, intellect and attitudes of young people as they grow into adulthood. Smile! Be joyous! Be positive! Maybe more of your students will want to join us.

But young graduates are faced with a hopelessly complex series of entry routes. Many excellent schools are reluctant to engage with routes with different criteria and inspection regimes. We need to focus on the outcomes of the training: does it produce excellent teachers who enter and stay in the profession?

That is what matters.

Curriculum

The curriculum was once the preserve of educationalists. In 1988 the politicians got involved. Not only have they meddled in “what” should be taught, but also in “how”!

Young people are entitled to a balanced curriculum that includes technology and the expressive arts to age 16. Politicians’ obsession with a narrow range of “important” subjects is strangling vital areas of our economy. We are world leaders in design, technology, music and drama. Will it last, given the paucity of pupils studying these subjects?

When I was president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), I called for parallel routes to excellence. Unfortunately politicians cannot understand that a course for highly skilled technicians is not suited to an assessment model that requires writing lengthy prose.

There is yet another attempt at an answer, but it will only succeed if awarding bodies, trade organisations and educationalists are allowed to develop a curriculum and assessment model fit-for-purpose (and not fit for a minister’s mid-20th century public school view of education).

The curriculum needs to progress. We must ensure youngsters are taught not only the wonders of technology, but also – as with many tools – the potential to do harm. We cannot allow “social media” to go unchallenged. Children need to be aware of the realities of the www – and learn how to deal with them.

Accountability

Sir John Dunford some 20 years ago coined the term “intelligent accountability”. His clarion call went unheeded. But in her speech to the Education Policy Institute in July, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman spoke of Ofsted being “too data-driven” and said that they “should focus on what happens in schools, as opposed to school leaders feeling they must justify their actions with endless progress and performance matrices”. A breath of fresh air...

Our accountability system needs to evaluate school effectiveness, but based on more than success in reaching very restrictive arbitrary criteria. Are children happy? Resilient? Stretched? Challenged? Excited? Stimulated? Educated?

We must evaluate what is important, not just what is easy to measure.

And teachers in schools “in difficulty” know it. They do not need an army of observers from their school, MAT, Ofsted, HMI, Regional Schools Commissioner, local authority, or diocese to tell them. They need support. But who identifies the support needed? Who commissions it? Provides it? Pays for it? Evaluates it?

The whole situation is a mess. We need clarity.

There are 1,100 MATs now, some 150 of which have 10 or more schools. I worry that some MATs are more “controlling” than ever were local authorities. If you gained control of your destiny by leaving a local authority, why would you now join a MAT?

Ofsted must monitor governance arrangements of MATs. Is the school local governing body governing anything at all? Or just an advisory group? And just how independent are the members and the trustees? Who do the teachers feel responsible to? Replacing a large bureaucratic remote democratic local authority with a large bureaucratic remote undemocratic MAT is not progress.

Destinations

Five years ago I addressed a conference about my concerns over “unconditional offers” for university.

In 2013, less than one per cent of applicants received one. In 2018 this figure is 23 per cent – 67,915 places offered unconditionally. Do those students aspire to top grades, knowing their place is secure? And which students get the offers?

Sir John Dunford wrote passionately recently that this growth has further disadvantaged the disadvantaged in society. I am sure this consequence is “unintended”, but the whole process needs an overhaul.

Universities must also explain how the numbers gaining first-class degrees has grown so hugely. And yet I still hear complaints that “students leaving schools aren’t prepared properly for university study”. Miraculous then that so many now get Firsts.

Mr Hinds, please...

  • Funding: no “smoke and mirrors”. Fully fund the costs schools are obliged to meet (pay rises, changes to employer contributions, etc), and find extra to improve resources for children. Be honest.
  • Recruitment: simplify complex routes and massively reduce the bureaucracy involved in the assessment and evaluation of courses. And everyone must talk-up the profession!
  • Curriculum: politicians must get out of the way. You must trust professionals to construct a challenging and demanding curriculum which brings the very best out of all children.
  • Accountability: support Ofsted in a complete overhaul of the inspection framework to allow inspectors to use professional judgement to evaluate whether a school is providing what is important for children. We need a clarity of roles across all bodies involved in evaluating and supporting schools, and how they can link coherently.
  • Destinations: encourage universities to move to post-qualification application, with admission in January. This would alleviate the tyranny of predicted grades, stop youngsters missing school to attend “open days”, and allow them to do voluntary work before embarking on further study. Change is needed.

Conclusion

Hopefully the education secretary and others in positions of influence can help us achieve what is important – excellent schools, containing outstanding teachers, providing a stimulating curriculum which is appropriately assessed before moving on to the most appropriate destination.SecEd

  • Sir Michael Griffiths was head of Northampton School for Boys from 2001 to 2013. He is a National Leader of Education and a Fellow of the RSA. He served as president of ASCL in 2012/13.


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