A national plan for education

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

It would not provide the quick-fix answer that politicians so love, but now is the time for a national, long-term plan for education, says Geoff Barton

In the week before December’s general election, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published its analysis of the manifesto plans for education (Andrews et al, 2019). Its executive director Natalie Perera concluded: “Our analysis shows that while each party has some well-designed and helpful policies, none has a properly evidence-based strategy to meet their ambitions. In order to address the inequality gap at age 16, parties should commit to policies which build on the evidence of what works.”

What this surely tells us is that we need a national strategy on education which is underpinned by evidence and which sets out key priorities with realistic timescales and costings.

One of the greatest problems in assessing the election manifestos was that they were a pick and mix of policies delivered with the customary rhetoric. There were good ideas, questionable ideas, and, it has to be said, in the case of the Tory manifesto, something of a policy vacuum.

What we lacked was a benchmark against which policy plans could be assessed. A national strategy would give us such a benchmark. At election time we would then be able to see how the respective parties measured up.

Would it really be so hard to develop such a plan? I hesitate to suggest the establishment of yet another commission but in this case it would be fully justified. All it would require is representatives from government, education and industry to work together, drawing on the best evidence to develop a costed and realistic plan. It might look at:

How do we go about making high-quality early years education available to every child? What funding, training and timescales would this require? We know that gaps emerge early on in the development of children, and that great early years education would improve social equity.

What can we do to improve the supply of teachers, particularly in schools in disadvantaged areas? Teaching in these schools should be a badge of honour rather than a constant struggle with our ferocious accountability regime. How do we stem the exodus of teachers from the profession and support them with better working conditions, flexible employment and career development?

How can we make qualifications work better for all our students? Too many young people leave education feeling demoralised by an exam system with too many cliff edges. Have GCSEs had their day? How do we genuinely end the divide between academic and vocational routes? And what sort of curriculum do we need in a world of rapid technological and societal change?

What should our accountability system look like in the future? Performance tables are a blunt tool which effectively penalise schools that face the greatest degree of challenge. How could we develop a fairer system, which upholds standards, gives useful information to parents, and rewards schools for inclusivity? And how can we free ourselves from the grinding cycle of graded inspection judgements which stigmatise schools and make it more difficult for them to secure sustainable improvement?

What is the level of funding required by our schools to ensure that they are able to deliver the expectations that parents and society have of them? Our report The true cost of education (Harnden, 2019) offers an analysis of this question. Government spending rounds use current funding levels as the base and this is why we end up with such huge gaps between expectation and available resources.
The objections to the idea of a national plan are obvious: it is too difficult; too time-consuming; there will never be a consensus. It is certainly true that it would not provide a quick-fix deliverable over a single Parliamentary term, but it would provide a direction of travel which is clear and less subject to political whim. 

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

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