The only certainty is uncertainty...

Written by: Russell Hobby | Published:

In his final article for SecEd before he stands down as NAHT general secretary, Russell Hobby reflects on how the current political uncertainty could be a blessing in disguise for school leaders

This will be my final article for SecEd as I step down as general secretary of the NAHT this summer.

Future pieces will be penned by my successor Paul Whiteman, fresh from the frontline of protecting school leaders in their most challenging moments.

I wanted to leave with a wide-ranging sketch of the prospects for the next few years in education. But the fact is that there is very little sense of direction.

The only certainty is uncertainty. Policies bubble up and fade away over an increasingly short life-cycle. Grand schemes, long in the planning, are disrupted by political shocks before they even begin.

We do know that there will be no new grammar schools. We do know that there will be very little new legislation. We do know that a full, school-level hard funding formula is off the table. We do know that there will be insufficient money.

We expect Ofsted to alter the model of short form inspection. More positively, we also expect a more thoughtful strategy from the inspectorate in general. We know we have a secretary of state who is at least properly committed to dialogue. We suspect that the government will attempt a soft funding formula. We assume that government will reverse some of the education cuts. We think it likely that there will be none of the rumoured new accountability measures at key stage 3.

We don’t know how the reformed GCSEs will turn out or where individual schools will sit in the performance tables. We don’t know the status of the compulsory EBacc.

We don’t know the future of the public sector pay cap (lifting it would be great but if that is done without extra funding to pay the salaries it would bankrupt many schools). We don’t know whether the key stage 2 results will provide an adequate baseline for progress, although we have our strong suspicions. We don’t even know whether we will have the same government this time next year.

I could go on but you get my drift. This leads to one conclusion. And it’s a relatively happy one actually. You cannot navigate your school by trying to second-guess government policy or strategy, so stop trying.

All you have left are the vision and values which brought you into the profession in the first place. Isn’t that liberating? When you hear talk of a new policy or requirement, the first thought no longer needs to be “how quickly can I implement it?” but rather, “how long is this likely to last?”

Step back, let someone else be the guinea pig and take a more sceptical view of external pressures. Clearly there are legal requirements, and it’s an established policy position of the NAHT that you should obey the law, but these are not as frequent as is often thought. Every now and again you will like a policy, because it fits with what you wanted to do anyway.

The only secret of school improvement is that there is no secret, no silver bullet, no meaningful reform that will transform the system overnight. Doing a few things consistently well over an extended period of time, getting a little bit better every day, is the mundane truth of school improvement.

Of course you need to be open to new ideas and question your assumptions. I am not preaching isolation from the world. What I mean is this: your school is a precious place. Set a high bar for the ideas and changes that you will allow in to disturb what you and your team have built.

As our political environment accelerates and fragments it would be a disaster at the school level to attempt to match it pace by pace. Instead, the only viable strategy is to take the opposite tack, to slow down, build for the long term, focus on the essentials and reach out to support colleagues.

The brevity of the Queen’s Speech may turn out to be a breath of fresh air in the long run. And in the silence that follows it may also be possible for the profession to find its voice, to not only be a recipient of policy but to set policy for itself.

This requires a public vision for where the profession would like to take education. It cannot be defensive or complacent. It must address the genuine worries that lead to demands for things like grammar schools. But if that professional vision honestly sets out to address the challenges we face and to take responsibility for standards, the evidence suggests that the public will be listening with interest.

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


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