A Vision for Education – What’s the Big Idea?

Education White Papers don’t come along that often, and when they do, we look to them to signal a vision and direction for the future. The latest Education White Paper, ‘Opportunity for All’, has created some headlines and signalled some policy shifts, but the proposal to establish a structure of education based on full academisation into large Multi-Academy Trusts is probably the most radical and fundamental change in decades, one from which there will be no easy retreat.

As we move to a system that does not exist anywhere else in the world, based on the evidence of just a few years of partial implementation, there are some big questions that remain – not least how this will deliver the education that our children and young people urgently need and richly deserve.

In a series of blog articles, I am sharing some thoughts on the way that this vision might be constructed and realised, in the hope of contributing to dialogue and debate.

What’s the big idea?

Education in our country is a complex, interconnected system. The problem is that there’s no real agreement what it’s for. If you asked a hundred people what the core purpose of our education system, I’m guessing you’d get 50 different answers – the rest would be ‘Don’t Knows’. This isn’t just a question of nuance or personal preference, but it’s fundamental to the actions that we take. In any sensible setup, all of our strategic decisions are driven by the contribution they make towards our final goal. Our education system has been driven by a whole host of competing ideas and initiatives. Do we prioritise academic excellence or breadth and balance? Is it about securing a good job, or becoming a positive member of society? Is it competition that drive school improvement, or collaboration?

Are we trying to make sure that the majority of our students go on to university or further study, or do we want to have a focus on the world of work? What should the curriculum contain – a celebration of British history and achievement, or an uncompromising look at the chequered legacy of empire?

This is not simply an academic argument about higher purposes – a lack of clarity affects the way we do things now. Let’s take a topical example – Covid recovery. Very few people with an interest in education or the welfare of young people would deny that we need to address the impact of educational disruption as a result of the pandemic, and that we should devote time and resources to do so. However, because there’s no fundamental agreement on the priorities and ultimate goals, then there’s no agreement on the best way to achieve them. We end up with hundreds of millions of pounds poured into a tuition scheme that appears to contradict the ethos of many of the schools expected to implement it. The results are depressingly predictable. 

At the end of last month, we finally received the long-anticipated Education White Paper – ‘Opportunity For All’. It might be an exaggeration to describe it as eagerly-awaited, but it certainly looks like it will be significant. Among the weighty topics it covered are teacher professional development, targeted support for pupils, central support for behaviour and attendance, and, perhaps most significantly of all, the move towards a fully-academised system. It was accompanied by the SEND Green Paper, containing proposals which, if translated into policy, will provide a far more consistent approach to SEND provision and funding across the country.

There’s a tendency for those of us struggling with the day-to-day challenges of school to greet the fanfare that surrounds this sort of announcement with a weary shrug – given the all too present impact of Covid, as well as curriculum development, the return of Ofsted, budget challenges and all of the other urgent items filling the inbox, it’s hard to focus on the nature of school governance in 2030.

Innovation fatigue is a familiar concept to anyone who has worked in education for any length of time. Every time we read an announcement of a new strategy or initiative, whether that’s to improve attendance, raise reading levels, address the vocational skills gap or any other perceived problem, the first reaction is one of frustration, or resignation at best. This is not because everyone in schools thinks that everything is working perfectly well – we know that change is needed (and will always be needed) but it’s often hard to see the wider benefit and to understand how this particular project fits in with everything else.

Put simply, we’ve lost sight of the big picture. Our system has developed in a piecemeal, reactive way, and so we are reduced to seizing an opportunity, applying a sticking plaster, or reacting to a crisis. We’re creating a Frankenstein’s monster of an education system – and we know how that story turned out. It can’t be sensible for so many different models of school structure, funding and governance to co-exist, given that ostensibly we’re all judged under the same accountability framework and that we should fundamentally be aiming for the same thing for the young people in our care.

In this context, the move to a coherent system where all schools have similar governance structures is sensible, and whether or not you agree with the MAT model proposed, it should at the very least provide greater coherence and consistency. For this reason alone, the attempt to map the way forward is welcome, even though serious questions remain, not least around accountability, autonomy and ethos.

The White Paper provides some clear answers to the way the government is proposing to improve education over the next few years. Proposals to establish a career-long CPD structure, a minimum length of school day, a national curriculum body, and many more set out how the improvements are expected to be delivered (albeit with little detail in some areas). The structural reforms set out the model of governance and delivery.

In other words, we starting to know the How. What we don’t yet know is the Why.

The government have made it very clear that their goal is that all schools will be part of a strong Multi-Academy Trust. They have begun to set out how this might work. They have also set out some (highly-contestable) evidence of the impact of MATs, although given the range of models and the uneven distribution of schools into MATs, single academies and maintained schools, the best we can say is that they appear to have the potential to improve outcomes for pupils. If we’re not careful, a policy like this becomes the end in itself, rather than a way of delivering the vision. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that a well-conceived MAT system has great potential to effect improvement, but the governance structure of schools is the means of achieving our goal, not the point of the exercise.

Clarifying this becomes even more urgent as we enter this period of reform. In the short history of Multi-Academy Trusts, we have already seen the way that the philosophy of education can vary hugely from Trust to Trust, leading to radically different policies on local autonomy, pupil exclusions, SEND inclusion and staff conditions, to name just a few. Unless we’re clear about principles, then moving to a fully MAT-based system could actually increase inequality, confusion and lack of direction.

Before we rush headlong into the next stage of upheaval, it’s surely worth pausing and defining our purpose, with the aim of trying to establish a broad consensus across society. We all invest in education through taxes, we all benefit from a well-educated population, and we all have a view on what’s good or bad, based at the very least on our own personal experience.

If we are to have any hope of achieving an education system that is fit for the 21st century and has broad public and professional support, we have to answer three fundamental questions – What are aiming to achieve? What do we have to do to get there? And what are the values and principles that guide us?

Author: Dr Heery

I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values. My blog is a place where I share my thoughts and ideas on the world of education and school leadership, with the aim of provoking debate and discussion. Click the logo above to read more.

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