It’s election time: before the end of the school year, voters will have gone to the polls and a new government will be in office. There are choices to be made by all major parties: whether to offer consolidation, recognising the radical changes to curriculum, assessment and school structures introduced since the Academies Act of 2010, or to strike boldly out for more change.
For the Conservatives, noting at their conference that more children now attend good and outstanding schools, there must be a temptation to consolidate, to build bridges with teachers and make the Govian legacy work, rather than unleashing yet more disruptive change.
For the Liberal Democrats, claiming credit for the Pupil Premium, the aim is both to ensure that they get the electoral credit for an imaginative approach to school funding and can identify a further totemic policy to carry forward.
Perhaps choices are most acute for Labour: whether to try to unwind some of the structural changes, perhaps re-energising the role of local authorities, or to offer reassurance that they can make the system they will inherit work, or to move forward into bold new territory – perhaps reshaping post-14 into a coherent structure as advocated in the independent Task Force on Skills, which I chaired for them between 2012 and 2014.
In schools, there’s understandable cynicism about political rhetoric. Few headteachers and teachers recognise their schools in the representations by politicians and the media. Behaviour is good or outstanding in more than 83 per cent of schools, so politicians who use Ofsted’s latest behaviour report to talk about behaviour crises are wide of the mark.
The newly appointed early years minister was simply wrong when he said that in 2010 “one third of students left primary school unable to read, write or add up”. If politicians get their facts wrong, they are unlikely to get their policies right.
One of the most depressing features of policy development in education is the regularity with which politicians latch onto precisely those interventions which, at scale, have the least impact on improvement: setting and streaming, expanding the number of classroom assistants, performance-related pay, structural reforms of schooling.
All rate among the least effective interventions in the Education Endowment Foundation’s Pupil Premium Toolkit. There’s also no data in the Toolkit on the prime minister’s preference for teaching children in imperial rather than metric measures. As the great American humourist HL Mencken observed: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
We know a good deal about what works in education improvement. It’s both very simple and very complex. It’s simple: it’s teaching. Standards, schools, and education systems improve when teaching improves. A generation of applied education research has brought the possibility of systemic improvement within grasp. Professor John Hattie’s Stakhanovite review of 50,000 studies of effectiveness draws some implementable conclusions: teachers need to make learning “visible” – sharing intentions, making goals clear, organising teaching around those intentions, providing precise, usable feedback on learning so that learners know what they must do to improve. Classrooms in which learning is visible and in which there are extended sequences of learning-focused dialogue are rich pedagogic environments.
The cycle of visible learning and feedback works for learners and teachers: Patrick Griffin talks about “assessment for teaching”, when teachers use their analysis of student learning to shape decisions about teaching. It’s simple, but implementing it is always more challenging.
If we know a good deal about effective pedagogy through research, we also work at a time when there is real enthusiasm for embedding teaching as a research-based profession. This doesn’t mean that classroom teachers themselves need to be researchers: generating really good research is itself a complex task and classrooms turn out to be difficult places to research. But it does mean ensuring that there are ready means for teachers to access solid research evidence; it means equipping teachers with the skills of critical appraisal of research and evidence to enable them to detect flawed, ineffective or useless work and make effective use of good research. And it means developing an openness to change and development which characterises the best performance in the most impressive professional settings.
None of this will ever be led from an election manifesto. It is already happening in some schools: the enthusiasm of many teachers to engage with research and to use it to shape practice is one of the most striking developments of the last 20 years.
But at scale it needs something else, and this, perhaps, above all, explains the current enthusiasm for developing a Royal College of Teaching through which professionals can shape, lead and implement thinking about practice.
Professor Chris Husbands is director of the Institute of Education in London.