Change is in the air. Can you feel it?

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
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Change is in the air. Can you feel it? But the boldest thinking about the future of education is certainly not coming from the Department for Education. It’s coming from outside the halls of power and outside education’s echo chamber, says Geoff Barton

You have to admit, those Greek philosophers had a lot of wise words to say about life. Take Heraclitus: “There is nothing permanent,” he said, “except change.”

Was he right? Do you share his world view that change isn’t a matter of choice but an inevitability?

Because from where I sit, there’s a mood of change in the air around education. I sense it pretty much everywhere I go and from everyone I listen to.

Whether it’s the need to rethink our clogged-up examinations system, or our punitive accountability and regulatory system, an overburdened curriculum, a failure to harness the power of technology for learning – on so many fronts, I hear people saying that now is the time for change.

Except in one place: the Department for Education, where the view from the bunker appears to be that more of the same – that is, the opposite of change – is what is needed.

Here’s what I mean.

At ASCL, we have continually argued that we have a good education system – far better than some parts of the media would have us believe. Yes, it’s different in different parts of the UK, as we shall explore. But for many of our young people, their experience of early years, primary, secondary and post-16 education serves them well.

The problem though is that word “many”. We have an education system that works for many, but not yet for all young people.

And, as this week’s bleak assessment by the well-respected Education Policy Institute (Hunt et al, 2022) reminds us, such inconsistency has devastating effects on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Educational outcomes still depend too much on where you live, what your parents achieved, and the lottery of opportunities in a shamefully uneven British society.

Thus, some argue for radical reform while others say that will prove a distraction from making what we’ve got work better.

And as we perhaps, possibly, hopefully, begin to surface from the depths of the Covid pandemic, there are certainly voices clamouring for change.

Some examples:

There’s the Times Education Commission, with its mix of people from within education and – significantly – from without. There’s a restless desire there for an overhaul of our education system.

Then there’s the eclectic mix of independent and state school teachers and leaders who comprise the Rethinking Assessment coalition. Surely GCSEs, designed in and for a different era need to be dispensed with or radically reformed. Couldn’t young people be assessed in a rounder, more humane, way via some form of digital portfolio?

There’s education grandees Lord Baker and Robert Halfon, calling from the educational side-lines for a rapid re-appraisal of the skills agenda.

And there are other groups and coalitions and individuals from within and beyond education who are saying things must change.

And that also certainly seems to be the view in other parts of the UK. We’re seeing various reforms, on differing scales, in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands.

In Wales, for example, it feels as though there is no aspect of the past that will not be challenged – including the shape of the school day and, possibly, the school year. It’s a government in a hurry.

Northern Ireland’s administration has meanwhile launched a long-awaited education review. And Scotland’s appetite for educational evolution most certainly hasn’t abated. There’s a restlessness for change.

Which brings us to England, where a new White Paper is being brewed. A White Paper is when a government decides to reset its priorities by setting out a new set of priorities.

We will see some tweaks to literacy and numeracy targets, some ideas around behaviour and attendance, plus a view that England’s complicated and fragmented education landscape needs coherence. All of which is worthy, if – to be honest – unambitious.

The more serious thinking should be happening around what a more equitable education system might look like, how technology might drive more personalised assessment, and how the work/life balance of the profession might finally – after all these years of talking about it – be addressed, so that we recruit and retain our most talented teachers and leaders.

It feels to me as if the boldest thinking about the future of education isn’t coming from the Department for Education. It’s coming from people on the outside of education’s echo chamber.

These are the voices of employers who want skills and knowledge that our current qualifications don’t value. The voices of parents who want to see the range of attributes of their children more fully recognised. And also, the voices of trade unions like mine, who are showing that we have higher expectations of our young people than the government itself does.

Underpinning our ambitions is precisely what that ancient philosopher taught us – that there is nothing permanent except change.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via

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