In my last blog ‘what’s the big idea?’, I argued that without a clear vision setting out what we want from our education system which is clearly understood and has wide support, then any reforms are likely to be piecemeal, disjointed and ultimately ineffective. In this blog, I am proposing a framework for setting out the vision and deciding the plan.
As ever, I offer this in the hope of contributing to the wider debate and am very interested to know the views of others.
Given that the education of our children is such a fundamental duty of society, the importance it has in our economic success, and the weight of experience and research that exists, the lack of consensus on how we should deliver it is striking. Almost every area of education policy is hotly-contested – governance structures, curriculum design, pedagogy, behaviour management, even the length and timing of the school day – all are bitterly contested battlegrounds, often drawn along ideological lines. No wonder we have seen dramatic policy swings and high rates of policy implementation failure. As I argued in my previous blog article, the lack of a broadly-accepted view of the way our system runs leads to incoherence, inconsistency and underperformance.
If we are going to succeed in the development of a system of education that enables young people to truly achieve their potential, we need to decide three things – what we’re hoping to achieve (our Mission), the strategies we will employ to get there (Means), and the way in which we will do it (Manner). It’s only when we have decided this that deciding the structure becomes a relevant issue.
Most importantly, therefore, we define our MISSION. What is the point of education and what are we aiming for from our system? It’s a simple question, but without an equally simple answer.
When (Sir) Gavin Wiliamson, erstwhile Secretary of State for Education, memorably declared that “We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job”, he was roundly condemned for promoting such a simplistic and reductionist vision. What about becoming productive members of society, being happy and mentally healthy, developing cognitive skills and intellectual curiosity, understanding and taking responsibility for the world we live in, fostering creativity and so on? Education has multiple purposes, so encompassing all of them within one Mission is a difficult, but crucial task. I believe there are three key features that should come together to form our mission.
Firstly, our education system must be ambitious for our children and young people, not least academically ambitious. We are not aiming for mediocrity, we want to produce a generation of young people who are more knowledgeable and with a greater command of skills and talents than any that have gone before. We need a curriculum that stretches and challenges, that encourages children to have a deep understanding of the world around them.
When they leave compulsory schooling, young people must have the intellectual ability, deep knowledge and highly-developed skills to make a success of challenging university degree courses, or skilled technical jobs. We also therefore need effective and reliable assessment systems for verifying and calibrating this achievement.
Secondly, our system must be inclusive. There is often a false dichotomy drawn between ambition and inclusivity, but actually the two are inseparable – a system that does not drive all groups of pupils to achieve the very best, regardless of special educational need, financial disadvantage or family background, is one that is sadly lacking in ambition. An inclusive education system is one in which we have high ambition for all young people. A system that sends 50% of students to study high-level degree courses, but leaves 10% without functional literacy or numeracy skills has failed.
The final pillar of our educational mission is a system that is relevant. Designing a curriculum is a dynamic, adaptive process. Financial and health education, the climate crisis, equality and the Black Lives Matter movement, online safety – all and more have become vital elements of the curriculum alongside the traditional academic canon. The oft-repeated claim about most jobs of the future not yet existing may be overstated, but as we learn more, the body of knowledge continually develops. Our system must prepare young people for the modern world, the one in which they will live and work. This is not an argument for downgrading the existing body of curriculum knowledge, but for understanding its place and purpose.
Understanding the Mission is not enough on its own. Equally as important to the wider vision of education is deciding the values and principles that inform our system. The MANNER in which our system operates has to have the trust and confidence of the wider population who fund it and depend on its success.
Arguing that our system should be ethical is hardly controversial. Understanding what that means in practice is a different matter. Nothing is more damaging for public confidence in schools than reports of abuses of the system, whether that’s Multi-academy Trust CEOs creaming off huge pay packets from the public purse, or reports of schools off-rolling difficult pupils. Ethical standards must be clearly-defined and hard-wired into the system. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – the Nolan Principles and the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education are a good starting point.
The way in which our system is accountable is perhaps more contested. Ofsted, league tables, ESFA, LAs – all hold schools to account in a variety of ways, and have a huge influence on practice. Too often, we have evolved accountability structures that lead to compliance in one area at the expense of damaging impacts elsewhere, such as the way that the emphasis on demonstrating progress in core subjects has contributed to curriculum narrowing and off-rolling. Anyone who is paid to deliver education to young people should be accountable, but that accountability should be coherent, have the confidence of all stakeholders (including those who work in schools) and contribute to system improvement.
Deciding on our mission and the manner in which we will go about it will take us only so far – it’s the actions and policies that will take us along this route that will deliver improvement. In other words, we need to decide the MEANS.
One of the driving principles behind neo-liberal reforms that became dominant at the end of the 20th century was the idea that competition would drive improvement, and in many countries this was explicitly built into the structures and systems, for example, in the US ‘No Child Left Behind’ reforms. However, there is little evidence that this has led to improvement, and the highest-performing systems almost all have an explicit ethos of collaboration. Despite the rhetoric about collaboration, systems have developed in the UK where the failure of one school can ostensibly benefit the school down the road, which is a disastrous state of affairs. Collaboration is not simply sharing good practice, it’s not schools that believe themselves to be outstanding passing on their pearls of wisdom to those less fortunate – it’s meaningful co-construction of practice, based on humility and willingness to learn, and when it’s done properly. It’s transformative.
If we look at the most successful education systems across the world, it can be difficult to see the golden thread that runs through them all. We see a range of pedagogical approaches, cultural influences and educational structures. However, the one consistent feature that they all share is a well-trained and highly-skilled workforce, with development not just focussed at the start of a teacher’s career but at every stage. Continued professional growth is the surest way to secure long-term improvement. Thomas Guskey wrote over 20 years ago: ‘one constant finding in the research literature is that notable improvements in education almost never take place in the absence of professional development.’ (Guskey, 2000). In other words, if you want outcomes to improve, then give the people who are responsible for delivering those outcomes opportunities to improve.
In this respect, it’s encouraging to see that the White Paper gives a prominent place to the development of effective professional development and training programmes, and there is an attempt to frame a coherent framework across a teacher’s career. However, we need to go beyond centralised training programmes to foster a workforce curious to discover the best practice and open to reflection and change.
Finally, if we want things to improve, we have to provide the resources to enable it to happen. On their own, resources do not secure improvement – the lack of correlation between high-performing and high-spending systems demonstrates this. However, investment in the right areas is essential. Providing the funding for professional growth might mean allowing teachers to access higher-level study, providing the technology for teachers to share practice, or enabling sabbaticals for teachers to engage meaningfully with research. Likewise, ensuring that sufficient funding was available to support pupils with the most complex needs would reduce the tug-of war between schools and encourage collaboration.
OECD analysis puts UK public spending on education at 3.9% of GDP in 2018. This was 19th highest out of the 37 OECD members with data on this measure and below the OECD average of 4.1%. (House of Commons Library, November 2021). A commitment to an improvement in this position over time would demonstrate the importance of education to our collective future.
Mission, Manner and Means – without a clear understanding of the big picture, the discussion about whether or not we have a fully-academised system, Local Authority control or the current curious hybrid is doomed to be uninformed.