More power than we think

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Politicians will always involve themselves in education, but if the profession shows leadership then we can crowd them out, argues Russell Hobby.

Education news in the last four years has followed roughly the same basic format. Politician proposes a change (usually with reference to international competition and criticism of past practice); profession protests loudly about the change; general public watches on in bemusement.

In the last few months, though, with conference season and with politicians distracted by coalition bickering, we have seen something different. We have seen headlines about the profession reflecting on its practice and proposing changes. We have also seen politicians protesting about criticism of their achievements.

This is a healthy scenario. We may not always agree with the ideas being discussed, but a profession taking charge is exactly what people want and need to see. The only way to reduce political interference is to crowd it out through professional leadership.

We will never see the end of politics in education but politicians can take a back seat if the profession demonstrates the will and capacity to challenge and regulate itself. The public is inclined to trust teachers, given half the chance – so let’s give them that chance. And teachers and school leaders are in it for the long haul, which is exactly what we need.

The political cycle and the education cycle do not coincide neatly. Politicians need to cram in simple tangible changes in a few years, they need to look busy with fresh initiatives. Schools improve by a long steady focus on a few, rather intangible ideas. Successful education systems are usually characterised by a stable, long-term vision.

So let’s see more manifestos. But more than that, let’s treat them as real manifestos – that is, as a plan of action rather than a list of demands. We have more power than we think we do. It is often possible to get on and do the things we know are right without seeking permission. It is only when we leave a vacuum that politics intrudes to fill the gap. In many ways we should simply take the coalition government at their word when they say that responsibility has been delegated to the individual school level. 

If we think collaboration is important, we can collaborate without being told to do so. If we think broader measures of performance are important, we can create and publicise them ourselves. If we think leadership matters, we can develop our colleagues. If there is a better way to conduct inspection, let’s prove it. That’s the nice thing about freedom – you can use it how you wish.

Freedom is not comfortable though. Sartre wrote of the vertigo that comes with the realisation of the true extent of your freedom – the insecurity that comes with forging your character anew each day and from having to make your own mind up on every question.

Responsibility is the foundation of freedom. In particular, this means we will need to get much better at using evidence. Evidence can challenge our most dearly held assumptions but evidence also earns us the right to dispute demands placed upon us. This means more than simply beginning documents with the phrase “research tells us that...”. 

As Dr Ben Goldacre has pointed out, an evidence-based profession requires a research infrastructure that spans both practice and academia. This means a database of the most important questions that practitioners need answered; it requires a good way of getting research into the hands of practitioners in usable forms; it requires the education of professionals to use evidence appropriately; above all, it needs independent and systematic reviews of evidence, not cherry-picked studies.

I would hope that a future College of Teaching could be part of this infrastructure, building on the good work of the Education Endowment Foundation.

As we assert our independence and exercise our leadership, we must also build our credentials and demonstrate our responsibility. The prize is the respect and autonomy we long for, and an education system we can be proud of.

  • Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk


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