The political pendulum

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Enough is enough. We need a new era of big thinking from policy-makers rather than mechanistic reforms of structures and accountability, argues Geoff Barton

There’s a story about the former education secretary, Kenneth Baker. When he was appointed to the post in 1986, he apparently went to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and said: “I think we should introduce a national curriculum.”

She immediately agreed, saying: “Go and announce it now.”

“But,” said Lord Baker, “we haven’t worked on it yet.” Mrs Thatcher replied: “Kenneth – never underestimate the power of an announcement.”

It’s a good anecdote and, having recently met Lord Baker, I was able to ask him whether it was true.

“Oh yes,” he said. “And the PM gave me a blank sheet of paper as secretary of state to do whatever I liked.”

Thus, in 1988, began a period of seismic change that left the education landscape pretty unrecognisable with a volley of reforms which were then, daringly radical, and now might be considered as normal features of our education system.

Whatever many in the profession may have felt about these reforms – it was a tenure of extraordinary vigour and ambition.

“Vigour” and “ambition”, eh? Now there are two words we wouldn’t dream of applying to current education policy.

We have a government so distracted by Brexit that education policy has been largely reduced to trying to manage the aftermath of the Gove reforms, piecemeal measures to address teacher shortages, the introduction of a badly needed school funding formula without enough money, and a well-intentioned attempt to boost technical education which we hope will succeed but will be difficult to deliver.

Thus, we look to see what Labour offers. Here we have proud talk of a cradle-to-grave National Education Service. It will not be about structures. Instead, as far as we know, it will be about high-quality teaching, capital investment, fair funding, parity for technical and academic subjects, and local accountability.

This, at least, is what I think is being proposed. The problem is that we rarely get to any detail. So, what does “local accountability” mean in practice? Because if it’s an intention of sweeping away the academy programme, then we are back into huge structural reform and legal distractions.

That’s why I think there is an appetite for saying enough is enough. The endless pendulum swings between political parties have left parents and employers looking on from the sidelines at a world of education which has squeezed too much joy out of the classroom, added too many accountability measures, and made a career that should be defined by its optimism sometimes feel soulless and dispiriting.

So, it is time for an evidence-based approach which builds consensus and represents what parents want for their children, and what employers and universities say are the skills and knowledge they require. And here are some starting points of what I would like to see:

  1. An absolute commitment to recalibrating education by emphasising the impact of early years education, socialising young children, and rewarding these teachers properly for the powerful habits of learning they instil.
  2. A fuller commitment to the joyful, exploratory, and yet rigorous, learning that has characterised the best primary practice. The narrowing of accountability systems must be addressed. Let’s put the trust back into teachers.
  3. Let’s create a key stage 3 which is most definitely not the wasted years – but a time when children read widely, build broad as well as deep knowledge, and develop their independence, team-work and creativity.
  4. Let’s have a change of national mindset that no longer gives such emphasis to GCSE performance and, in particular, no longer thinks it acceptable that our year 11 results, year-on-year, consign a forgotten third to a Grade 3 or lower.
  5. Let’s remember that exams at 16 come from an era when many young people left school at that age, and actively think about a new approach which better suits an education system in which young people are now expected to stay on, in one way or another, until the age of 18.

As Labour and the Conservatives meet for their annual party conferences, our message to them is that we need a new era of “vigour” and “ambition” from policy-makers; big-picture thinking rather than mechanistic reforms of structures and accountability systems.

We need them to liberate schools, teachers and young people from the tyranny of assessment and excessive performance measures, enabling them to focus on what matters most – learning.

  • Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.


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