Mission, Manner and Means

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 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.

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?