While at a world summit on education policy in New Zealand this spring, I realised that we are not alone. Other countries are facing similar challenges to us – how to raise standards of education and compete in the global race; how to prepare children and young people for a world which will be very different, in ways we can barely envisage, from the one we inhabit today.
The summit (the fourth such), organised jointly by Educational International and the Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD), is unique because union delegations meet education ministers, sit down with them and talk on an equal basis. I met teachers from a wide range of countries, listened to their experiences and heard speeches from other nations’ education ministers.
Listening to education ministers from other countries, one thing became clear: the coalition government’s drive to an autonomous, highly devolved school system is being followed by countries throughout the OECD.
The belief that competition between schools and colleges raises standards (as the strong prosper and the weak go to the wall) is contagious, and the disease is spreading. The majority of the ministers attending the summit talked about trusting teachers, letting the levers of power go, and leaving schools free to raise standards of teaching and learning for their pupils.
The same education ministers were clearly obsessed by their position in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. The OECD, the organisation which compiles PISA, claims its evidence supports school autonomy. That there is higher student performance if schools are set free, the state takes a back foot and lets teachers teach and leaders lead.
But there is a lie at the heart of the global drive to set schools free – free to pay teachers what school leaders think they are worth, free to hire and fire teachers, free to spend taxpayers’ money on HR, IT and leadership consultancies (all the better if you are on the board of an academy chain earning, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of pounds providing consultancy to the very schools you are meant to be governing).
The lie is this: all these freedoms come with big, heavy, iron chains. Because governments get nervous – they want to devolve power to school leaders, but when they let go, they get scared. Education ministers wake up at night troubled. They think: “How do I know that pupils are being taught properly? How do I know that mayhem is not ensuing because I have let a thousand flowers bloom?”
So they fill the vacuum they have created by creating a huge bureaucratic framework of data demands so that school leaders can demonstrate that their teachers are teaching pupils properly. And ministers, while proseltysing about freeing teachers to teach, remove teachers’ professional control and curtail their professional decisions over things which are essential in freeing teachers to teach.
Things like the curriculum and its assessment, and approaches to teaching, particularly teaching reading. Some governments even introduce a hierarchy of subjects – the first division of hard academic subjects and then the also-rans such as drama, RE, PE, etc – to ensure that their will prevails.
Politicians must learn that their rhetoric of freedom and autonomy for schools will always mean nothing in reality unless they end their muddled approach to the implementation of education policy. Warm words will no longer do. Teachers need professional autonomy in matters of professional expertise and judgement. And they need an ongoing dialogue with decision-makers so their knowledge and experience influences education policy.
Schools and colleges need intelligent accountability – certainly not the dysfunctional and unreliable agency that is Ofsted. In our education manifesto, we call for schools to work together to share good practice, supported by a local accountability system which is evaluated by a new-style Ofsted. And, until these matters are put right, politicians’ promises will be treated with increasing derision by teachers.