They say it is a common flaw of generals that they spend too long preparing to fight the last war. We have seen this borne out in history, from the Maginot line to investment in Arctic specialisms long after the end of the cold war. Could it be true of education too?
The preferred tactics of government intervention in education for the last decade or so, regardless of the party in power, have been accountability and autonomy. OECD data suggest that, when used judiciously and in combination, these have their place. Yet these are not always the norm in other countries.
There is always a risk, of course, that any policy pushed to extremes produces diminishing returns or even becomes counterproductive. We certainly have exceptional levels of autonomy and scrutiny by international standards; in recent years alone we have seen more detailed and harder edged league tables, new powers of intervention, and a higher bar and reduced notice in inspection.
The new government’s plan for education sets out, frankly, more of the same: new and harder tests, a new category for intervention, enforcement of the EBacc via inspection and more free schools. We also inherit a continued legacy of high floor standards and reduced local authority oversight from previous reforms.
This is a well-travelled path. The trouble is that the terrain has shifted. All the most pressing “battles” of the next five years seem to concern capacity: the challenge of finding enough school places with weak recruitment, shaky morale, change fatigue and shrinking budgets.
Education has been an edifice built on the twin pillars of accountability and autonomy. I am not suggesting that we knock these away, but it would be much more stable if we added a third: capacity-building. This calls for a whole different set of tactics, many of which are difficult for central government to master, for they are slow, distributed, intangible and unquantifiable.
We need to invest more in leadership development. We have never asked more of leaders, so why are we giving them less? We also need to manage the risk involved in leadership roles. They should be demanding and accountable, but they should not rest on a “throw of the dice” of inspection timing and cohort data. A lower stakes, more consistent inspection regime, streamlined reporting and a decent run at the job would all help.
We also need to look at the supply of teachers, worrying less about the method of study and more about the rigour of accreditation. We also quite simply have to bring pay back in line with competing graduate professions. Improving workload and reducing bureaucracy can only go so far in an improving economy. This, as much as anything, will limit government rhetoric, but you have to ask whether further conflict with the trade unions over ballot reform will help the situation.
We need to make sure that Pupil Premium money gets where it’s needed. And this means auto-registration. Someone, somewhere knows who is eligible: we should not make schools chase up registrations, we should send them a list and a cheque.
We need to find ways to help schools to work together in close groups, sharing resources and expertise. This does not need to be a multi-academy trust but it has to be more than a cosy chat. A variety of models to suit different needs and circumstances would be better than a one-size-fits-all approach.
The good news is that, although some of these – like pay – need government action, we don’t have to wait for government to start addressing all of these things. We can act on leadership development and on school collaboration; we can demonstrate different approaches to inspection by continuing the growth of peer-review.
If the profession wants control of its own destiny it must crowd out political interference by filling the gap. This is a relatively simple recipe: take back ownership of standards and take responsibility for each other. The more we take advantage of the demands of the “era of capacity” to assert our leadership, rather than simply resist change, the stronger we will be.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk