Four Wishes and a Star

The eve of a new year is usually a time for optimism. The promise of a fresh start, a blank slate to be filled by new resolutions. There’s something about the turn of a year that makes us feel more positive about the future.

Sad to say, in the world of education, the start of 2023 doesn’t particularly feel like that. Almost all of the problems that saw out the old year will still be round when the new term begins. A year ago, the prospect of the end of Covid disruption was an enticing one. Vaccines were proving successful and despite the Omicron wave, it appeared that schools were likely to stay open and largely remain safe. There was a new Education White Paper on the way which promised some clarity about future policy and a national focus on education.

Fast forward twelve months and the optimism has largely evaporated. I’ve rarely seen staff in school who have been so desperate to reach the end of term, exhausted by continual challenges. Some of this is as a result of the cumulative effect of three years during which the demands on schools have never been higher, and the work we do has never been so vital and wide-ranging. Much of it, however, is because of genuine issues that are facing the system and which need addressing urgently.

When evaluating the current situation, in keeping with sound educational practice that teachers everywhere would recognise, I’d ideally like to be positive, pick out a few things that are going well, and identify something that needs improving – a technique you may know as ‘3 stars and a wish’. However, I’m really not sure that would give an accurate picture of the educational landscape, and some of the challenges facing us are too pressing to be skated over. So, at the risk of appearing over-negative, and despite the fact that there are always positives to be found when we work in schools, I think a more realistic picture would be represented by ‘4 wishes and a Star’. Here’s my evaluation of the key issues facing education a we go into 2023:

Wish#1 – Recruitment: It’s a truism to say that the quality of our education system is entirely dependent on the staff who deliver it. Of course, they need to be well-trained, motivated and highly-skilled, but more importantly, they need to exist. Looking at the impending recruitment crisis is like spotting a tsunami far out to sea – it may not be causing issues for everyone at the moment, but we can see it coming and unless we act quickly, it will be upon us, too late to do anything about it.

According to the government’s own figures, in 2022, the number of new entrants to initial teacher training fell to 93% of the target needed to maintain teacher numbers in primary and 59% in secondary. 62% of the target was achieved for EBacc subjects (compared to 84% in 2021/22). All of these figures represent precipitous drops compared to previous years. The total number recruited was 71% of the target, down from 97% in the previous year. In addition, the number of teachers leaving the profession last year, especially in the early years of their career, leapt significantly.

There are already areas of the country where schools find it incredibly difficult to recruit high-quality specialist staff, whether that’s teachers of A level physics, early years specialists or any point in between. It’s particularly noticeable at Head Teacher level, where many posts are advertised and re-advertised several times over.

Put simply, if we do not attract more good quality graduates into teaching, and then retain them when they’re here, then the system will buckle in a few short years, and resolving the problem will take a generation.

It’s not just teachers. Attracting good-quality support staff can be almost impossible, given that the skills that we need are often far better rewarded in the private sector. Business managers, TAs, site staff, Midday Supervisors – schools all over the country have found it almost impossible to recruit well.

There isn’t one simple reason for this, of course – it’s a combination of pay, working conditions, status and the impact of performativity cultures, but if we have a strategy, it’s not working.

Wish#2 – SEND: The truest indicator of the success of our system is the way that it treats our most vulnerable children. On that measure, we’re failing. Increasing numbers of pupils with significant needs in mainstream schools, special schools full to overflowing, independent non-maintained provision of variable quality and spiralling cost – all point to a system that is breaking under the strain.

We have somehow managed to create a national approach to SEND that combines the worst of every possible world – a system that costs eye-watering amounts of money, serves pupils badly, and creates division between school and home. What’s more, the effectiveness of the system varies hugely depending on the locality – a situation that is both inefficient and unfair.

As well as the internal implications for the SEND sector, the crisis is bleeding into the wider funding crisis. In November, Schools Week reported that rising demand for SEND has left councils with a £1.9 billion deficit on everyday school funding, with some councils warning that without immediate aid, they would consider declaring effective bankruptcy.

Despite previous promises, there is still no clear timetable for the implementation of SEND reforms promised in the Green Paper, and as we get closer to an election, the chances increase that this will be shelved yet again. In the meantime vulnerable pupils lose out, parents are despairing of finding appropriate provision, and schools are buckling under the strain.

Wish#3 – Structural reform: One of the most eye-catching elements of the White Paper was the intention to move to a Trust led system by 2030. Whatever your views on this as a model, it at least represented an attempt at coherence. However, since the initial momentum generated by the announcement, little has actually changed and the shelving of the Schools Bill leaves us precisely where we have been for the past few years.

That is to say, we have a system completely lacking in coherence – a combination of maintained schools, small local trusts, national MATs, single academies, and a few variations on the above. All operate under slightly different conditions, with different rules, funding arrangements and accountability frameworks. The occasional school will be forced down the MAT route following a poor Ofsted, or a school leader may choose to join a trusted local colleague in a Trust, but at the current rate of progress, this patchwork system will exist for decades.

It makes effective policy decisions extraordinarily difficult, because the impact of a policy will often depend upon the status of an individual school, and it also hard-wires unfairness into the system. If the vision is still of a Trust-led system, then the Government needs to spend more time and energy in engaging with schools to make the case, and needs to join the debate.

Wish#4 – Funding: It’s important to recognise that the additional funding announced in the Autumn statement was extremely welcome and has certainly bought us some time. My initial scepticism has been misplaced – this is new money and has arrived in the nick of time. However, it is most definitely not ‘problem solved’. There is a well-founded fear that unless we take a longer term view, it has postponed the crisis rather than solving it.

Sensible and well run schools don’t plan a few months ahead, and hope for a benevolent Chancellor to rescue them when times are tough. We use all the information we have to take a view over the medium and long term, and then make decisions accordingly. For years, we have been asking for a long term view on budgets. There are a few key factors that we need to know to avoid the sort of angst that has been in evidence over the last few months – overall core funding over the coming years, broad policy on pay settlements, support (or otherwise) for extraordinary factors such as stratospheric rises in energy costs, and the policy on funding large scale capital projects.

Above all, we need a continuing commitment across the political divide to fund our education system properly, giving it the value it deserves.

And a star….

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the issues we’re facing at the moment. However, whenever the broad educational landscape appears to be lacking in hope, the best way to restore optimism is to look at what is happening in classrooms across our schools.

It’s my greatest privilege that I get to visit many classrooms in many schools and see teachers and support staff across all phases and sectors of education. Given the unimaginable disruption since the start of 2020, it is remarkable to see how successfully our schools have picked up the reins again, and children and young people are once again learning key skills, acquiring vital knowledge and making progress in their learning.

The core strength of our education system lies here – in the skill and dedication of staff, the positivity and warmth of our schools, and the strength and unity of our communities.

The message for those in power is simple – take problems seriously, engage with the stakeholders, particularly school and Trust leaders, and develop a coherent plan. We’ll do the rest.

Now, that would lead to a Happy New Year.

Dear Ms Truss…

First of all, congratulations on your election, and on becoming our new Prime Minister. It’s a great achievement, of which you should be very proud. It’s also good news that we have a Prime Minister who has been educated at a state school, and does not come from a background of immense privilege – I have to say it never felt as if your predecessor had any understanding of the lives of real people, and hopefully you will be very different.

I know you will have a busy few weeks as you settle in to your new job. As was discussed many times during your leadership campaign, we are facing many challenges as a nation – cost of living, fuel poverty, war in Ukraine, climate change, and we are faced with the transition to a new monarch. It’s an unenviable in-tray, and you will certainly have your hands full. I see that delivery is the theme of your tenure, and I know you are anxious to get on with things.

I did find it surprising that during your campaign, there was so little mention of education. Apart from some passing mentions of grammar schools, I am very much in the dark about your views on the key issues and concerns facing schools. The scale of the disruption to schooling during the pandemic has been very well documented, and the fact that this has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in society was only confirmed by this summer’s results. As Nadhim Zahawi said, during his short time as Secretary of State for Education: ‘Young people have put up with an awful lot over the past two years. By doing everything that has been asked of them, they will have sacrificed many of the things all of us here took for granted when we were growing up…We all owe it to this generation to give them the world-class education they deserve’.

I sincerely hope that you share this view. So, speaking as someone who is charged with dealing with these problems on a daily basis, I would like to give you and Mr Malthouse a ‘heads-up’ on the most pressing problems that are facing us.

Firstly, make no mistake – there is a funding crisis out there that schools are finding devastating. Help with fuel bills will make a difference, assuming it continues for a reasonable length of time, but unfunded and unanticipated increases in wage costs have hit us hard, however much they are needed and deserved by our dedicated staff. Schools and Trusts tried to be responsible and factored in increased costs at the recommended level, but given the scale of the increase, the proportion of our expenditure that we have to commit to wages, and the lateness of the announcement, it is impossible for this not to impact significantly. This will lead to cutbacks and impact provision directly. My greatest fear is that we will have to prioritise the core business of class teaching and therefore the individual and small group help and support will suffer. This will mean that our most vulnerable children and those most affected by covid disruption will suffer most. I can’t believe that you want this to happen. An announcement that government will fund the pay rises that schools were not asked to budget for would be very welcome, and help avert a significant diversion of resources for all, and catastrophe for some.

Secondly, whilst I understand and fully accept the need for schools to be held to account for the way they perform their vital task, this only works if the information used is fair and accurate. My observation is that two years without published external data have not led to complacency or a lack of effort, it has allowed us to focus on the most important things for our pupils. We have navigated a successful return to exams and external assessments and schools have prepared their pupils in the best way possible. However, the fact that the profound impact of the pandemic was so unevenly and arbitrarily distributed means that using these results to publicly evaluate school performance is deeply flawed, and will lead to unfair and counter-productive outcomes. Until you have absolute  confidence that this data is accurate and meaningful, naming and shaming should be put on hold.

Thirdly, the White Paper and subsequent Schools Bill signalled a direction of travel in terms of the future structure of education, but the uncertainty that has surrounded the change in government has left many schools unsure of the best way to plan. We need a clear signal around the plan for the future of education system. If all schools are to be part of Multi Academy Trusts, how will that be done at a reasonable scale and pace? How will you convince reluctant schools that they will not risk diluting their ethos and values by joining a larger partnership? There are many great trusts out there who are keen to grow (not least our own) but we have no desire to bring schools into our partnership who don’t want to be there. Hearts and minds have to be won if this is the way forward.

Fourthly, please don’t be distracted by phony culture wars. In my experience, teachers and school leaders take a pragmatic, responsible and ambitious approach to the curriculum. We want our pupils to have a balanced and rounded view of the world, to have a secure grasp of important core skills as well as the opportunity to develop their own particular talents, gifts and creative skills. We don’t use the curriculum to pursue ideology or promote particular lifestyles. In my experience, governments are advised to tread carefully and work with the profession when it comes to curriculum development.

Finally, please don’t be afraid to celebrate the achievements of pupils, teachers and schools. It is my privilege to see wonderful staff inspiring children every day of my working life. During my 34 years in the profession, I have seen remarkable improvement in the quality of all aspects of school provision – pedagogy, curriculum thinking, behaviour management, safeguarding, pastoral care. It has sometimes seemed that politicians view our education service not as a jewel to be celebrated, but as a problem to be fixed. When everyone is working as hard as they can, we all want to feel appreciated. When the pressures of your very difficult job weigh heavily upon you, then my advice is to arrange to visit a school – close contact with children, young people and the wonderful staff who support them will revive your spirit and remind you why you wanted to be in a position of influence. Just let me know and I’ll put the kettle on

The key questions to ask the MAT CEO

It is noticeable that in all the political chaos of the last few weeks, the Schools Bill has continued it’s passage through parliament. The flagship policy, namely the ambition in the White Paper and subsequent Bill that all schools will be part of a strong multi-academy trust by 2030 seems to have been far less controversial than a similar announcement made by Nicky Morgan in 2016. It appears that now we have well over half of pupils taught in academies, and further erosion of the capacity of LAs to directly manage schools, there is an acceptance, or at least a realisation that this change is coming.

As the CEO of a small but growing Trust, we have certainly noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of enquiries we’ve been receiving from maintained schools and single academies, and have a real sense that the number of schools now seriously considering conversion has grown dramatically. In our Trust, this has already led to conversations, school visits and a couple of information meetings for potential new schools.

To be clear, we welcome the interest – even though we are committed to remaining a relatively small Trust and don’t have any immediate imperative to expand, we are hoping for sensible and sustainable growth over the next two or three years. As a result, it’s easy to get drawn into a selling role when talking to perspective schools – there’s always a temptation to tell them what they want to hear in order to get that all important governing body vote over the line. I’m not suggesting that Trusts are not being completely honest with their answers, but they may certainly be painting things in the most favourable light possible.

In my experience, most of the questions we get are fairly straightforward and relate to systems and processes – contracts, TUPE arrangements, policies etc. They’re relatively easy to answer, and although there may be some differences in nuance, most trusts will be saying similar things. After a few years of the MAT system, most Trusts of any size will have employed competent specialists to deal with the operational side of things.

The reason, therefore, to join a particular Trust is not because they may shave a few pounds off your photocopying contract, or that they have a good bid-writing team that may get you a new class set of ukuleles. The reason is because you share their values and ethos, and that this is a comfortable home for your school – a partnership of schools that is a good fit for you, not just at the moment, but in the years to come.

Your questions, therefore, need to get to the heart of this – what’s important to this trust, what makes them tick? When the chips are down, what do they hold dear? You will be placing your trust in this person and their team, and that trust is precious. You are entering into a marriage without the possibility of divorce – the answers to your questions need to tell you not just what they do, but who they are.

So here’s some suggestions for questions that, if asked of me, would make me think, would reveal something of my motivation for the Trust – and may take me by surprise:

How would you define a strong Trust, and does your definition differ from the government’s?

Make no mistake, the CEO will have thought about this, not least because it has been highlighted in the White Paper. Although it did not make it into the proposed Bill, it is clear that MAT evaluations are on their way, and judgements will need to be made against some clear criteria. So what’s important to them? Achievement outcomes, presumably; Ofsted grades, probably; proportion of students going to university, oversubscription rates, sound financial management? How about exclusion / attendance rates; support provided for schools outside the Trust, engagement with parents and the local community? This may give you an indication of where their values lie.

When did you last permanently exclude a pupil, and where are they now?

As in most of these questions, there’s no correct answer, but it will certainly give you an insight into the culture of the MAT. Firstly, is this an exceptional event and therefore it has stuck in the mind of the CEO, or is it fairly routine? The most revealing element of this question is likely to be the second part – to what extent is the Trust committed to the long-term interest of their pupils, even (or especially) those who have failed?

How often do your pupils sing?

If the CEO starts talking about the medium-term planning framework for music, they’re probably missing the point of this question. Their answer should give an indication of the importance that the Trust gives to joy, wonder and awe in the curriculum, to a school experience that is broad and rich.  

Are you an expert in teaching and learning? How do you keep your knowledge up to date?

Once again, the most important part of this is probably the second question. Whether someone defines themselves as an expert may tell you more about their own levels of confidence, but their commitment to keeping their own knowledge current is a key indicator. Do you want to be part of a Trust where the senior leader does not have a clear grasp of the key skills needed to do the job, or shows insufficient interest in their core business? Without this, how do they effectively support schools and decide on policy?

What does your Trust do for the most vulnerable member of your school community?

This, for me, goes to the core of the MAT’s approach to inclusion. Once again, look out for the glib, rehearsed answer that references Trust-wide policy. Firstly, who is defined as the most vulnerable member? Educational need, risk of exclusion, family upheaval? Then, does the CEO take an interest in what happens to them – to the point where they would become personally involved if that could make a difference. I believe that you can always judge an institution by the way it treats it’s most vulnerable member.

Do you get paid a bonus, and if so, what for?

You may get an evasive response here, but it’s a simple question. The level of executive pay is to some extent a matter of record, but the awarding of a bonus and the criteria for doing so is likely to be more obscure. Is it for growth, for pupil test outcomes, for financial performance? Can you be completely confident that the values of your school and the Key Performance Indicators of the Trust are fully aligned.

What’s the one thing I could say that would convince you that our school was not right for your MAT?

It’s very easy for a CEO to go into a sales mode in these conversations, and to be focussed on ‘closing the deal’. If that’s the case, then this might make them shift a little uncomfortably in their seat. Groucho Marx is famously quoted as saying ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member’. A Trust that would take any school is probably one that is not clear and confident in its ethos and values. So what’s the red line, and would you put it in the same place?

In your time as CEO, what’s the one thing you personally have done of which you are most proud?

Being a CEO is a strange job. For those of us who have spent most of our working lives in a classroom, we have to come to terms with the fact that the really important work is done with the pupils, and our role is to simply to create the conditions in which that can happen as effectively as possible. So are we most proud of the fact that we have grown the size of Trust, or received national recognition, or that we have intervened to support a pupil or a teacher?

In the end, it’s a question of faith, and whilst faith in the leadership is not enough of a reason on its own to join a Trust, a lack of faith is probably enough to convince you that this is not the right move. When it comes down to it, if I haven’t been made to feel at least a little uncomfortable under questioning, then I probably haven’t been asked enough of the right questions, and that’s not good for either side of the discussion. The only way to make this vital decision is with eyes wide open. Good luck.

New Year Revolution – the Power of Collaboration

New Year is traditionally a time for optimism – for looking forward, considering the possibility of better times ahead. However, unless I’m misreading the mood, that doesn’t seem to be the prevailing emotion in the world of education. Uncertainty, anxiety and exhaustion seem to be the themes from school leaders as we head into the new year.

Obviously, the impact of two years of pandemic has much to do with this, as does the fact that there is still an air of doubt clouding the situation as schools return. In-school testing, staff absences, the return of SATs and exams – all cloud the future and make planning more difficult. The most recent government announcements have only deepened the gloom.

However, in the spirit of the season, if we’re going to change things, then the start of a new year is a particularly good time to do so, and it also makes sense to apply the things we have learnt in the turbulent times of the pandemic.

It’s been notable that when we analyse the successes of the last two years, many of them come down to organisations putting aside their competitive relationship and working together. When we needed to get meals to families or source PPE, schools, Local Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts pulled together and got things done. When the chips are down, sometimes quite literally, collaboration was the only option.

The problem is that collaboration is often seen as an added extra, a ‘nice-to-have’. Our system is structurally hard-wired to be competitive. Exam grades are allocated based on pre-determined ratios, meaning that whether or not a student achieves a Grade 5, for example, depends not just on whether they have achieved a certain level of knowledge or skill, but on how many others have done as well or better. School performance measures use metrics that compare individual schools to the group as a whole, so that even if everyone gets better, or indeed everyone gets worse, there are still exactly the same proportion of ‘failing’ schools.

The use of the word ’Outstanding’ as the highest Ofsted grade, literally means that the school ‘stands out’, or differs from the rest. By definition, it is impossible for more than a small number of schools to be outstanding – why can’t we have a system that hopes and expects all schools to be performing at very high level?

There’s a myth that to be successful in life, we need to engender a spirit of competition – that we should teach our children that success means doing better than the next guy. This isn’t how human society works, at least not when it’s operating successfully. In the vast majority of jobs in the real world, it’s far more important to work well with your colleagues and the people around you than to ‘beat’ them.

Of course, the belief that competition brings about improvement is ingrained into the performative, neo-liberal philosophy that has driven our public services for the last forty years. I’m not qualified to know whether it works in manufacturing or investment banking, but I can see the damage it causes in a public service like education.

A competitive system, by its nature, creates winners and losers. Successful firms thrive, weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with applying this to a public service like education is that we can’t accept the casualties of the system, we can’t allow some children to fail on the grounds that others will benefit elsewhere.

A system founded on the principle of collaboration looks very different. It’s a system where we all feel a genuine stake in the success of others and where success that comes at the expense of others is not seen as success at all.

Imagine if every policy decision was subject to this test – does this policy increase the potential for collaboration, does it improve the system as a whole? How do we take good ideas, share them, support their implementation elsewhere? Imagine if collaboration was the guiding principle behind discussions around admissions, exclusions, budgets, recruitment.

It’s not the same as sharing good practice, valuable though that can be. Collaboration is frequently interpreted as the favoured few telling the rest how to do it – Hubs, Tsars, accredited CPD providers – this isn’t a sign of a collaborative system, it doesn’t unlock the potential within each school.

But collaboration means working together to achieve a shared goal. It isn’t simply a soft option, free from accountability. If accountability is shared, then resources will be targeted where they’re needed, data will be used to support and inform rather than report and conform, and expertise will be put to work wherever it will have the greatest impact. If you want to see the research basis for the power of collaboration, see ‘Learning is the Work’ Michael Fullan, amongst many other studies.

It’s been my privilege to spend time in hundreds of schools, including many that were mired in difficulties. I can honestly say that I never visited a Special Measures school that didn’t have pockets of excellence, or an Outstanding school that had nothing to learn from others, regardless of their Ofsted badge or attainment profile. In other words, I’ve never come across a school that had nothing to gain from a collaborative system, or nothing to offer.

On a local level, 2021 saw the start of our own experiment in true collaboration – ‘Better Together’ a partnership of schools, some from our own small MAT, but also single academies, maintained and voluntary aided schools – special, primary and secondary. The aim is to run professional development courses delivered by our staff, for our staff. We chose a number of key themes – SEND, Governance, Behaviour, Curriculum etc – and asked for teams of people to take on the responsibility of running the courses. No expensive charges, no badge – just generous sharing.

It’s early days, but so far we have delivered courses to over 400 staff and governors, and feedback has been excellent. It’s also given opportunities for staff to deliver training to colleagues from other schools, and uncovered some real talent. If you’re interested in seeing how it works, our website is here

I realise that my new year’s optimism has probably got the better of me and we’re currently a million miles from this, but like all revolutions, it has to start from the ground up. If we want change for the better, we need to do it together.

Marking your own work – why high stakes accountability depends on school autonomy

The UK education system is just about the most accountable in the world – The combination of a high-stakes inspection system, a series of public exams and tests which are analysed and compared to other schools, a governance structure that allows for high levels of challenge and intervention, and a media that often displays a lack of trust in schools and school leaders, all add up to the sensation that many schools and school leaders feel of constantly being under the microscope.

Now, there are many views about the desirability of this model – critics say that such high-stakes accountability leads to a range of negative consequences, including an over focus on a narrow range of performance measures, high levels of stress and burnout and a disincentive to collaborate and support the wider system. Others argue that accountability provides incentives, ensures focus on the important things and leads to rapid improvement through competition. It also supports safeguarding and avoids consistent underperformance over time.

Much of the machinery of accountability has slowed down or been silenced over the last 18 months – Ofsted inspections halted and only restarting very gradually, performance tables suspended as a result of the absence of SATs and exam data, and other data such as attendance and exclusion data losing its usefulness. However, it is abundantly clear that this is intended to be a temporary hiatus. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the usual measures have simply been replaced by other forms of public judgement such as comparing the frequency of live lessons or conformity to government safety measures.

Whatever your view, there’s a key principle underpinning all this – accountability depends upon agency. In other words, if you’re going to hold someone accountable for the decisions they make, you need to allow them to make some decisions in the first place. You have to give them autonomy over the way they do things. This is key to the whole concept. It’s also the stated aim of government over the last ten years or more. The point of academisation, government’s flagship policy, is to grant freedoms – over curriculum, pedagogy, staffing and so on – which will allow for innovation and experimentation, and drive improvement. Academies and MATs can decide how they’re going to do things, and they are then fully accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

It seems, however, that in recent months, that the people driving current policy have chosen a different path. Autonomy is being eroded at an astonishing rate. Fealty to a certain approach is not just tacitly encouraged, but is actually being built into the system.

For example, we’re told that the government is considering extending the school day. Currently, the government doesn’t set the lengths or timings of the school day. As long as the day is divided into two sessions with a break and there are 380 sessions in a year, the rest is up to the school. Mandating the timings of the day wouldn’t be a tweak to the system, it would be a significant centralisation of control. And what if it doesn’t work, and produces no positive impact on pupil progress? Who is responsible – the school who has implemented it or the government who have come up with the plan?

Likewise, imagine a scenario where a school embraces DfE policy and uses every opportunity to introduce tuition programmes provided by government approved companies, dedicating all of their Covid-funding as well as core funds to provide the top up. Two years later, exam results come in and they show very disappointing progress in English and Maths. Who is accountable? The school, the tuition company, or the Department for Education who devised the scheme?

Another scenario – a behaviour adviser is allocated to a school from one of the new Behaviour Hubs being established. They give advice that has worked well in the context they have come from. The school tries to follow the advice, but it doesn’t lead to improvements, in fact there is further deterioration. Now this could be for many reasons – the skill level of staff, the relationship the school has with parents and carers, the quality of the adviser – but come the next inspection, it will be the school leaders alone that carry the can.

We’re seeing an increasingly clear government-favoured approach across a whole range of educational policy areas, including pedagogy. The Early Careers Framework is an ambitious and comprehensive piece of work, providing a highly detailed structure for teachers in the formative years of their career but with only six nationally approved providers, who are producing materials showing a high level of consistency – some differences in approach, but few in content or philosophy. Not since the days of the National Strategies during the last Labour government has it been so clear what the favoured pedagogical approach is.

We’re told that Gavin Williamson is looking into ways that he can ban phones in school. Now, I’m sure Mr Williamson is aware that schools obviously already have the ability to do this – indeed many do. My impression is that the majority of schools follow a similar policy to the one we favour – during the school day, phones should remain switched off and out of sight and if this is not adhered to, the phone is confiscated. National policy on mobile phones in school would be an absurd level of micro management, significantly eroding school autonomy.

I’ve spent my career leading schools in a high-stakes accountability system. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it, but I understand the rules of the game. I have seen the quality of provision improve hugely in that time. Throughout that time, I have felt that leaders in schools had the right to make decisions over the curriculum, pedagogy, timetable, behaviour policy, style of intervention – at least as long as the school was operating successfully. I have accepted that by making decisions, I am accountable for the outcome. It just feels as though the rules are shifting.

I am concerned that in the end it comes down to mistrust of ‘The Blob’ – Michael Gove’s memorable, if slightly offensive, description of the educational establishment. That’s not what the rhetoric says – ministers will point to improvements in schools over the years, and declare their trust in school leaders. If that’s the case, then give advice and support, by all means, but allow school leaders to make the right decisions in their own context.

Then, and only then, the buck stops here.

The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts

As we are beginning to emerge from the pandemic, many people are asking big questions about our education system – is the curriculum fit for purpose, what is the purpose of exams and assessment, how should we manage accountability, and, perhaps most fundamentally, how should our system be organized to cope with the challenges of the future?

It’s clear that MATs will now play a major part in this system –Gavin Williamson recently stated that by the end of this parliament, he expected to see ‘many more’ schools clustered together in MATs and even the Labour party, who have always been among the most critical, have quietly dropped proposals to dismantle the system. Given that over 50% of pupils are already educated in academies, and the majority are part of MATs, this has the feel of an unstoppable force.

In recent days, I have read opinion pieces from Emma Knights, CEO of the National Governance Association calling for a stronger lead from government on the direction of travel and from Jon Coles, of the United Learning Trust, arguing for trusts to become significantly larger across the board, rivalling the size of Local Authorities or NHS Trusts. Leora Cruddas, from the Confederation of Schools Trusts has put forward imaginative proposals for a system dominated by trusts filling a role as new ‘civic structures’. The debate is taking place and the consequences are very significant.

The difficulty with the debate is that the term MAT covers so many different models of governance and organisation, from the very largest Trusts with centralized curricula and policy, to small local groups of schools who retain their own distinctive character and a large element of local governance. We are in danger of stumbling towards an ill-thought out and ineffective structure that is incredibly difficult to unpick. Before we continue too much further along the journey, surely it makes sense to decide on the destination, and if MATs are a part of that picture, to decide what the ideal model and size of MAT should be.

To this end, there are some fundamental principles that must underpin our system, and which the system should be able to meet if it is fit for purpose.

  1. The purpose of our school system is to give the best possible start in life to all pupils and groups of pupils, without exception
  2. School leaders must have autonomy to respond to their local context
  3. Schools must have access to support and high-quality professional development
  4. The success of a school or trust must not come about at the expense of other schools
  5. Schools and those who lead and govern them must be transparent and accountable, not only for pupil outcomes, but for the way they use public money

The optimum structure to enable maximum school effectiveness depends upon finding the right balance between a number of competing elements. On the one hand, there is a balance between individual school autonomy and shared capacity, and on the other there is a balance between holding schools to account (and therefore those responsible for leading and governing them) and providing the support and development they need. I believe that the key to a successful school system is finding a way to accommodate all of these pressures, to find the sweet spot which gives schools the agency to respond to their local need, whilst at the same time operating collaboratively within a wider system.

School autonomy allows local school leaders to make decisions in their own context, to respond to the needs of their students and the priorities of their local community. It’s been the guiding principle of school organisation in this country for three decades, since the advent of Local Management of Schools and the handing of budget responsibility to Head Teachers and Governing Bodies. Head Teachers, along with their senior leadership teams and governing bodies, have become exceptionally skilled at making decisions about a whole range of areas, from curriculum, to budget-setting, from staffing to behaviour policy. There’s an irony in the fact that the benefits of academisation are often expressed in terms of school freedoms, when the experience of individual schools in large MATs is very often the complete opposite. The fear of losing hard-earned and highly-prized autonomy is one of the principal reasons why so many school leaders are fearful of academisation. Put simply, autonomy allows for creativity, diversity and the ability to respond to the context of the school.

However, for many schools, the downside of autonomy is that it is often accompanied by isolation. Autonomy, therefore, is not enough without Shared Capacity. This is where I have seen at first hand the benefits of schools coming together. Sharing administrative and back office functions such as Finance and HR, negotiating improved contracts, pooling resources to support long-term investment – all enable school leaders to operate more efficiently and concentrate their energies on the important task of ensuring that provision in the classroom is as good as it can be.

Much deeper than the practical and organisational gains, are the benefits of schools working in a true partnership, sharing ethos and goals, and co-operating for the benefit of all. This may be seen in the way schools share expertise by forming networks and peer support groups, the reduction in isolation for school leaders who can seek advice and bounce ideas off trusted colleagues, the way that curriculum can be enhanced through shared planning and moderation, the opportunities for enrichment across schools – I could go on, but the benefits of meaningful collaboration are well documented. This is the key argument for the deep partnership that comes about from schools working in the best MATs, united by a common purpose and shared values.

So this is how we arrive at the Goldilocks rule – if MATs grow too big, school autonomy inevitably reduces as power is concentrated in the centre, if they’re too small, capacity is spread too thinly and schools are isolated. The precise number of schools that we arrive at following the application of this principle is, of course, a matter of opinion and varies depending on context, but my rule of thumb would be that if the Head Teachers cannot meet together with everyone having a voice, the MAT is too large and power will inevitably be drawn to the centre, but if it’s too small to offer the full range of central and shared services, support and expertise is unlikely to be available when it’s needed. In our small but growing trust, we estimate this number to be between 10 and 15 schools.

So far, so idealistic. The problem is that in practice the system of Multi-Academy Trusts hasn’t always covered itself in glory. I can’t tell you how much my heart sinks when I read of the latest MAT CEO who has managed secure a pay rate higher than the Prime Minister, or a Trust with eye-watering exclusion or off-rolling rates. MATs have often not responded well to genuine concerns That’s why the system will not work unless there is effective Accountability, which is both transparent and locally responsive.

It’s a topic for another piece, but my belief is that Local Authorities have a key role in holding MATs to account on behalf of the whole school community for the way they use public funds and discharge their statutory responsibilities in areas such as admissions, SEND and employment practices, and therefore the best way to provide effective accountability is through a combination of Local Authorities and a refocused Ofsted, both carrying out very distinct roles. Without a significant change in the way that MATs are held to account, the system will never command full public trust and support.

The final, and absolutely essential part of the structure, and one where the DfE can play a truly significant role, is Professional Support and Staff Development. We often hear about evidence-based strategies – in reality, the strategy for improving pupil outcomes with the strongest evidence base is to improve the quality of teaching through the professional development of teachers. There are encouraging signs that the DfE is beginning to recognise this – the Early Careers Framework and restructuring of the NPQ programmes, for example. This does not need to be a centrally-driven, command and control strategy, but we should use the expertise of Universities, Teaching School Hubs, grassroots CPD organisations, subject associations and so on, to make our teaching force among the best-informed and highly-skilled in the world.

Whether or not we recognise it, we’re in the process of reorganising our education system in a way that will have profound consequences. Waiting to see what happens in the hope we will emerge with a fit-for-purpose system is a high-risk strategy, especially considering the consequences of failure for our young people. In my view, a system of medium-size school clusters or partnerships provided through our developing system of Multi-Academy Trusts is the ideal way to deliver the education system for the 21st century , as long as, in the words of Goldilocks, we get it ‘just right’.

This is the moment…

After a year of relentless bad news, there’s now a real sense of a corner being turned and a promise of better times ahead. The desire to return to the familiar rhythms of life before the pandemic is palpable, whether that’s sitting in a pub, going to a concert, or packing for a holiday abroad. You only have to look at a newspaper or watch a government press conference to see that a return to full school opening is a potent symbol of this desire, and will be a key marker that society is on its way back to full health.

After the year we’ve all just lived through, the hope of a return to normal is understandable and comforting.  I know that the moment when I see a school hall full of pupils listening dutifully to an Assembly, or hear singing coming from a distant music room, or see a classroom with students crowded round tables engrossed in a group discussion will be a heartwarming signal that the worst is definitely over.

However, despite this natural desire, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever be returning to school as ‘normal’. The impact of an event that was completely unimaginable a couple of years ago, and has left over a hundred thousand fellow citizens dead and many more struggling with the health, economic and emotional consequences, has been profound and will be around for some time to come. Given that a return to business as usual is unlikely to be possible, the bigger question is why we would want to.

History tells us that times of turmoil and disaster are very often followed by times of regeneration and creativity. In medieval Italy, the Black Death was followed by the Renaissance, and in our country the second world war was followed by the creation of the welfare state. Humankind has shown a remarkable ability to demonstrate resilience and rebuild no matter what we have been faced with.

We are (hopefully) emerging from a time of turmoil, but still have a system that was feeling outdated even before the pandemic. It was designed for a very different world, based on an employment market that has not existed for some time, arbitrary age breaks that have no basis in the pattern of children’s learning, a calendar designed around an agrarian society and a curriculum that has emerged through the influence of tradition and special interests.

There’s no reason why this should continue to be the case. We now have huge amounts of research evidence and opportunities to learn from education systems around the world. We have a far greater understanding of the science and craft of teaching and learning, and how that can be developed within the workforce and implemented in classrooms. We are going through a technological revolution that opens up huge possibilities in knowledge accessibility and curriculum design.

And, uniquely, we have a moment of opportunity, a moment when the foundations of our established system – public examinations, school attendance, the home-school divide – have been shaken. Whatever we decide, we will have to rebuild. Are we really saying that we will rebuild to the exact same plan we had before? That there is no way we can do this better?

I believe that there are a number of key questions that should guide our thinking as we survey the landscape:

  • The vision and purpose of education – Are we simply educating our children to get a decent job, or to become good and productive citizens? Is it the job of schools to develop creativity, a love of the arts, environmental awareness, social conscience, community engagement? If so, how do we design an education system to achieve these goals?
  • Governance and structures – How do we ensure agile and improvement-focussed systems of governance? Is that through collaborative groups of schools, as in the MAT model? How do we build in true democratic accountability and understanding of the local context?
  • Teaching and learning – Is there an evidence-based consensus about the most effective methods? What are the implications of the possibilities offered by technology?
  • Assessment and Accountability – How do we give reassurance that schools are providing the best possible standard of education for all children? How do we use information to aid improvement, by looking forward, not back?
  • Workforce – How do we ensure that our workforce is trained to the highest standard possible, and that high-quality professional development is an expectation throughout a teaching career? Is the balance between teachers, leaders and support staff the right one?
  • Curriculum – What is the curriculum that all pupils are entitled to? How much flexibility do we give to individual schools or pupils? How do we make sure our curriculum design is nimble enough to adapt to the changes in society that will inevitably come?

I have heard many voices, representing a wide range of views, calling for a new beginning, a desire to do things better. We need a structured national conversation including government, political parties, students, parents, teachers (independently, through membership bodies like the Chartered College and through their professional associations), Governance organisations (NGA, CST), Local Authorities, HE and research bodies, employers – anyone with an interest in ensuring that our children are schooled in the best way possible, which is everyone, as far as I can see.

It should be commissioned by government, but led by people with independence, credibility and expertise, and charged with providing a blueprint for the future of our education system, and it should start now, and become a permanent depoliticised fixture on our national scene.

This is the moment – if not now, when?

How to recover from Covid learning loss – Guaranteed!

Whenever the long term cost of the pandemic is considered, we soon come to the impact on children, blighted by the disruption to their schooling which has lasted for almost a year, and looks set to cast a shadow long into the future. There have been countless suggestions about how we should help children ‘catch up’ for lost learning – repeating a year, summer schools, 1:1 tuition, reducing the curriculum – all starting from the premise that something must be done.

Everyone claims, of course, that their preferred solution is the one based on evidence. I can imagine that the diligent and well-meaning compilers of the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which evaluated the evidence of impact of a range of interventions, shake their heads in despair when they see their work weaponised to suit a particular agenda. Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Select Committee was the latest exponent, explaining on the nation’s morning radio shows that extending the school day would lead to a catch-up benefit of two months. The fact that this evidence was described by EEF as ‘moderately secure’ and dependent on a number of other conditions being in place was not mentioned, nor was the fact that this strategy was actually judged to be far less effective than the majority of other strategies identified, including Metacognition (7 months benefit), Reading Comprehension Strategies (6 months), Collaborative Learning (5 months) and use of Feedback (a whopping 8 months).

Everyone’s entitled to their view, of course. However, before that becomes policy, and attracts huge amounts of public funding, surely we should consider a few other perspectives. Here’s my suggestions, based on a combination of evidence, my experience in schools, and my observation of the events of the last year, and collected neatly into a 5-point plan:

  1. Don’t Panic
  2. Invest in teachers’ professional development
  3. Reform the accountability system….
  4. …and then pass decision-making to schools
  5. Abolish SATs and completely reform (and massively downsize) the KS4 exam system
  • Don’t Panic

Of all the nonsense written and spoken about the impact of Covid school closures, the confident assertions that children are ’10 months behind’ (or whatever figure has been plucked out of thin air) are probably the ones with the least evidential justification. Learning doesn’t follow a neat incremental journey of equidistant steps and children’s development doesn’t just stop when they’re not in school. What is important is not where they are now compared to an estimate of where they would have been if none of this had happened, but where they need to go next in order to reach their destination.

I accept that students who are coming to the end of their time in education need particular attention to make sure that they are prepared for the next steps in their journey, but the vast majority of children and young people will benefit from schools operating as well as they possibly can over the coming years, not from some mad dash to ‘catch up’ in as short a time as possible. The evidence of resilience in children’s learning (see Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning Effect Sizes’) indicates that given time, children’s learning is unlikely to be adversely affected. Our energy is far better used to make sure that improvements are sustained and long-term.

  • Invest in teachers’ professional development

You want an evidence-based approach? Well, this is it. The secret to high-performing education systems is not really that much of a secret – they train their teachers to a high standard, not just at the start of their career, but all the way through. There are so many ways that we can do this – offer guaranteed time and funding for individual professional development at all career stages, increase access to research and offer opportunities to take part, restructure appraisal processes to focus on growth and development, structure opportunities for genuine collaboration (please not just top-down ‘hubs’) – but almost all of them require a cultural shift that puts professional learning at the heart of school development. Oh, and if we really want this to have an impact, extend the concept to all staff engaged in pupil progress.

  • Reform the accountability system….

School performance tables make things worse, not better. They lead schools to focus on a narrow range of outcomes and to prioritise particular groups of students, and they distort the curriculum. What’s more, they waste time and energy. The evidence is strong, (Leckie and Goldstein, 2009; Burgess et al, 2005) and has never been successfully refuted, but league tables have become a sacred cow of our performativity structure.

Let’s be honest, even if there was a sound reason to do it, comparing school performance in the coming years is going to be a lottery – apart from the fact that we’ve lost two years’ worth of national data, trying to understand the differential impact of Covid on each school will be an impossible task.

That doesn’t mean schools should operate without public accountability – this is the role of the Inspectorate. However, in this current effort, Ofsted needs to do more than objectively report – it needs to be a force for improvement. As someone involved in inspection, it always seems a waste of an opportunity that inspectors can’t work alongside schools to support improvement.

I would propose that all schools are inspected annually, a collaborative process in which inspectors are able to make suggestions and offer advice, and which produces one of two outcomes – yes, the school is providing an acceptable standard of education, or no, it isn’t. In the case of the former (on current proportions we’re talking 90% of schools), the report celebrates successes, identifies weaknesses and suggests areas for development. If it’s the latter, inspectors will either give notice of the improvements they expect to see by the next inspection, or recommend external action.

  • …and then pass decision-making to schools

The corollary to the fact that our schools operate in such a high accountability environment has to be that they have the freedom to make decisions. Centrally mandated solutions will never be responsive enough to meet the needs of every local context.

I can’t express how frustrating it has been to see hundreds of millions of pounds allocated to support catch-up learning, and then find out that we can only access it if we follow the National Tutoring Programme, a programme delivered by third parties who don’t know our students, who aren’t able to plan alongside our teachers and who don’t allow us to utilise our current staff.

  • Abolish SATs and completely reform (and massively downsize) the KS4 exam system

The simplest and most obvious proposal of all. If anyone is arguing that we need to lengthen the school day or reduce holidays because of the urgent need to give children more time, whilst at the same time believing that we should keep Year 6 SATs, then I can only assume they have no idea of the amount of time that SATs preparation and administration drains out of the system. The only reason for favouring SATs over the assessment of skilled teachers who know the children well, is if they are intended to judge schools, not assess children – is this really the current priority?

I believe the same argument applies to GCSEs. I’ve argued before (Putting the Horse before the Cart) that in a system where students stay in formal education or training until at least the age of 18, GCSEs are becoming redundant, but the time and energy spent on preparing for them has a colossal impact on the curriculum through the whole of a student’s secondary school life. Drastically reducing the exam burden for our 16-year-olds would put huge capacity back into the curriculum, with no cost to their long-term prospects.

A less-recognised aspect of our current exam system is the frankly scandalous amount of resource that it drains out of the system – the cost of invigilation, exam fees, ensuring practical arrangements etc runs into the tens or hundreds of thousands for every secondary school in the country. Just think how this could be used if it was diverted to activities that were actually designed to improve student progress, rather than just measure it. It would provide a financial bonus way beyond anything we’ve seen so far from this or any other government in recent times.

So, that’s my plan – nothing that others haven’t said before, but I guarantee that it will allow our children to not just catch up, but go further than they would have done before. The cynic in me says I can confidently offer this guarantee because it’s so unlikely to come to fruition, but that doesn’t make it any less true. What would you do?

Performance Management to Professional Growth

Given how much is written and debated about improving school performance, you could be forgiven for thinking that it depended on a form of alchemy – a mystical collection of ingredients that only a few people truly understood. Governments and systems leaders have tried to find the elusive formula that will unlock school improvement, and many ideas have come and gone (and come round again, and gone again).

The surprising truth is that it’s not actually that difficult to identify what actually leads to sustained, deep, systemic school improvement. Those who work in schools know it instinctively, but it’s conveniently backed up by a huge amount of research evidence, international comparisons and cross-disciplinary study. As 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)

Put simply, the secret to effective, long-term and sustained school improvement is ensuring high-quality effective professional development for staff – in particular (but not exclusively) for teachers.

The problem of course is that knowing it and doing it are very different things. Firstly, there is no short cut – effective professional learning takes time. Secondly, it’s not cheap, and the cost is particularly seen in staff time. Thirdly, it won’t bring about improvement in predictable ways that neatly match the School Improvement Plan. And fourthly, and probably where this most often falls down, it crucially depends on the right ethos being in place – one where teachers are trusted to make professional decisions about their work.

It’s because of these barriers that we often go for strategies that seem quicker, cheaper or easier to control. There are plenty of off-the-peg solutions out there – detailed pre-written curriculum planning documents, teaching ticklists, online AI courses, the list is endless – that promise rapid and guaranteed school improvement, and when we have the spectre of Ofsted and performance tables hanging over us, this can seem very beguiling.

In our Trust, we had faced this dilemma over a period of time, and had worked away at it as best we could. However, there was one major hurdle that stood in the way of an ethos of professional growth and development – the Performance Management and Appraisal system. Over the years, it had become ingrained – we adopted the LA policies because unions had already been consulted and it met statutory obligations. You know the sort of thing: Teachers met with their line manager and set 3 objectives, with SMART targets and quantifiable success criteria. These are placed in a file, reviewed mid-year (or usually not), and a special performance management lesson observation takes place. One year later, the targets were reviewed and pay progression was either recommended, or not. It went fairly smoothly, but we had managed to develop a system that rewarded those teachers who managed to negotiate the least challenging objectives possible, and very often focused on things that had lost much of the relevance by the time a full year had passed.

Is there anyone out there who would seriously claim that the system of nationally-mandated Teacher Performance Management and Appraisal made any positive impact on the lives of children, let alone that it justified the hours that it swallowed up? There had to be a better way.

This, then, was the starting point for our journey, a journey that is still in its very early stages. Over the last year, we have begun to develop a different approach to supporting staff improvement, an approach that relies on the belief that given the right support and resource, our staff will embrace the opportunity to develop and improve. It is rooted in our Trust Values and ethos, and has been a collective endeavour.

I was also indebted to Chris Moyse of TLC Education Services and The Bridgwater College Trust who generously talked me through the Growing Great Teachers methodology he has developed, and I have drawn on the principles set out in Paul Garvey’s ‘Talk for Teaching’ and Kulvarn Atwal’s ‘The Thinking School’. I was also inspired by the many teachers who have taken responsibility for their own professional development through their own engagement with training and research. It has been inspiring for me to attend events where teachers share their ideas and understanding in a spirit of complete generosity, not because they have to or because it’s on their Performance Management plan, but because they want to and enjoy the stimulation and camaraderie of learning. The fact that events often take place at the weekend and are led by teachers relatively early in their career (special mention to Clive Hill and Steve Cox in the East Midlands) is particularly inspiring for a grizzled veteran like me.

So what does our new system look like. First of all, we have separated pay-related appraisal from the professional growth process completely. If a teacher is performing in line with the expectations of the Teacher Standards, taking into account their job description and level of seniority, then pay progression happens. On the rare occasions where that is in question, they don’t find out in a meeting at the end of the year, but effective QA and line management means that problems are picked up early and addressed, principally through support and positive coaching. Professional growth is not about justifying your salary.

That does not of course mean that it is a soft option, quite the opposite. Our policy is based fairly and squarely on asking ourselves the question: Whatever my career stage, whatever my current performance level, how can I do better in a way that improves things for the children and young people in my care?

So our teachers still set objectives, but they are based on what we call Career Goals. The goal is to improve and the role of the line manager is to help each teacher to identify the areas on which to focus. These might be areas of relative strength in which the teacher wants to become even more expert, or areas of relative weakness in which the teacher wants to develop and improve. It could be developing new skills or expertise, or learning more about a particular issue – anything that fits the definition of professional growth.

Improvement doesn’t happen spontaneously of course, there are a number of things that have to be present, but the key element is learning – as teachers we know this instinctively. Professional growth is accompanied by professional learning – that may be through reading and reflection, it may be via others, perhaps a mentor or someone providing an inspiring CPD course, or it may come from our own research and evaluation.

Another crucial part of our policy is what we are calling the ‘Three-part conversation’ which takes place each term between a teacher and their line manager, with outcomes recorded and shared by both parties. This is a supportive meeting, with no judgement or grading. The first part deals with the breadth of the teachers’ role, and is set in the context of the teacher standards – what is going well? Are there any concerns about particular classes or subjects? Which groups may need some additional support? etc

The second part is focused on Professional Growth, specifically the progress towards the career goals identified at the initial meeting. The plans will be revisited – not to tick off success criteria, but to reflect on the learning so far and refine the next stages of the journey. The key principle is that the career goals are owned by the teacher, not the institution.

The final part is explicitly focused on teacher wellbeing – not simply a ‘how are you’ conversation, but an opportunity for a teacher to talk about the things that may be causing difficulty or anxiety, and for their line manager to discuss support and resources (as a Trust we have invested in ensuring that help and support is available). This is an explicit acknowledgement that our commitment to staff wellbeing is authentic, and doesn’t wait for things to go wrong before the support is put in place.

It’s early days, and we will need to work hard to ensure that this does not becomes as formulaic as the system it is meant to replace, but the early signs are positive. Like any significant change, it needs careful nurturing and support as it becomes embedded. We are also extending the policy to encompass the professional growth of all support staff, for whom the principles are just as relevant and important.

Would I be proposing this if our schools still Required Improvement and our league table position was well below average? Maybe not, but that would probably be due to a failure of nerve rather than a belief that schools and their staff need to somehow earn the right to promote deep professional learning. What I do know is that trusting our schools and the staff who work in them is not just the right thing to do, but the best thing to do – let’s see where it can take us!

Putting the Horse before the Cart

There are many parts of our lives that have been disrupted at best or completely destroyed by this pandemic – a drink in the pub with friends, going to a concert, having your nails done (less of a problem for me personally) – but one of the least lamented has been the scrapping of exams for the second year in succession. Indeed, the reaction from many quarters of the educational world ranged from relief to jubilation. The unmitigated disaster of 2020’s ‘mutant algorithm’ and the continuing disruption to normal school life had left many teachers and students skeptical about the possibility of a fair and robust system, and despite the lack of clarity about the replacement, it still felt like this was the only sensible decision.

However, the enforced abandonment of exams has led to a growing clamour for a full examination of the exam system from a surprising range of voices. Everyone from teacher unions to David Davis MP have said that this is the moment to reconsider our system. Scrap GCSEs, move to an International Baccalaureate, reinstate a strong vocational offer – there have been lots of ideas, some imaginative, most well-meaning, all based on dissatisfaction with the current system.

Seizing this moment makes sense. Even if we reinstate exams next year, the impact of two years of Centre Assessed Grades will continue for some time. Will we return to the attainment levels that we had before the pandemic? This would seem very unfair to the class of ‘22 who could well be competing for the same university places and jobs as their peers from this year’s cohort. Progress data will be hugely destabilised, given the fact that we have two year groups travelling through school without Year 11 data, followed by two further year groups without Year 6 data. If we’re going to shake up the system, now is the time to do it.

However, I have found much of the debate dispiriting in its scope, treating as it does, the issue as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be grasped. The question that we’re answering seems to be little more than how we find a fairer and more efficient way of managing the exam system, rather than trying to understand the purpose of our education system and the role of effective summative assessment. It’s almost as if the sport of football was designed so that the offside rule worked successfully – we might solve a particular problem, but if that happened at the expense of the whole game, would we call it a success?

The way that our secondary education system has been established is that we have two points at which students make a significant choice about their next steps – Year 11 and Year 13. Since the days when these points were established, the landscape has changed significantly. The era when the vast majority of young people would leave the education system at one of these points and directly enter the world of work have gone. Nowadays, for almost all students, age 18 is the threshold point at which a potential employer or academic institution needs an accurate picture of how their specific skills compare to their peers who might also be competing for the same spot.

By contrast, the decision taken at age 16 is to choose the model of learning that they will engage with during the next stage of their journey. This could be an academic sixth form, a vocational education route at an FE College, or an apprenticeship. There are almost no young people who take their GCSE exams and then leave all forms of education, and the few who do so tend to be the ones who have failed in the current system with almost no exam passes next to their name.

So the key information that we need for students at age 16 is which is the best route for them to follow. And yet the information we gather is how they compare to all students nationally in a suite of 8-10 subjects. I can think of almost no situations where that is needed to decide next steps.

Let’s take the example of a highly academic student, with an interest and aptitude in STEM subjects, unsure of their ultimate destination but certainly heading for university and perhaps intending to go on to become a doctor. What do we need to know about them at 16? We need to know that they have the ability to cope with a challenging academic curriculum, specialising in Maths and Sciences. We need to know that they are diligent and focused on study. We probably want to know that they are literate, well-read and developing good emotional and interpersonal skills. We would also like to know that they have had access to a broad and stimulating curriculum that has given them the opportunity to understand other areas of the curriculum – however, knowing how they have performed in these subjects compared to a national average is unlikely to be important or relevant.

Another example: a student who has had a successful school career without being an academic high-flyer, performing reasonably well across most subjects. They don’t have a clear idea about the job they will end up doing, but they have good people skills, and are interested in a service industry career, possibly retail or hospitality. This student is faced with a dilemma when they approach the end of Year 11. Do they continue with the gold standard academic route and focus on A levels, cut their losses and go down a vocational route, or hedge their bets with some combination of the two? The biggest problem we have in the promotion of vocational courses is that it is always seen as what you do if you are not capable of coping with an academic route – and given the way our exam structure works, why wouldn’t you think that?

Finally, let me offer another example, one that has some personal resonance: that of a 16 year old with a moderate learning disability attending a mainstream school. At the end of Key Stage 4, they are likely to attend the local FE college, where they will take part in a course with a strong emphasis on employability and life skills. They will be supported into work placements, with the hope of finding one which is well-suited to their interests and talents and could then lead to permanent employment, perhaps in a supported capacity. What do we need to know about this student at 16? We don’t need to know how their academic performance compares with the picture across the nation, a set of exam results which is basically a catalogue of failure. As the father of a child who has been in this position, I can report from first experience that it tells you nothing at all about that young person, other than that they have been badly served by the exam system. We need an assessment profile that tells you what they can do, where their strengths and interests lie, and hasn’t wasted half a year getting them to prepare for exams that serve no purpose.

If, like me, you’ve been around for a while, you may remember the Tomlinson report, published in 2004, probably the last serious attempt to wrestle with this problem by fundamentally re-imagining the structure of 14-19 education. It was well-received within education, but the scale of change proposed proved too controversial for the then Labour government and the Secretary of State for Education at the time, Ruth Kelly, not known as one of education’s great reformers. Widespread change at that time was seen as unnecessarily disruptive, whereas at the moment, the disruption has happened – it’s not a question of whether we’re going to rebuild our education system, but how we’re going to rebuild it – by trying to erect an exact copy of a system that is not fit for purpose, or by placing the needs and aspirations at the centre of our vision for education. The DfE, Professional Associations, curriculum bodies, Chartered College, stakeholder groups, employers – everyone who has an interest should be involved in the discussion. If not now, then when?

I haven’t written this piece with answers, not least because there are no easy answers, and because there are people out there who are more qualified than I am to make suggestion. However, acknowledging the problem and beginning a serious attempt to solve it is always a good start. We’ve evolved an education system that is set up to respond to the demands of its final exams – how about doing it the other way round?