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 In fact, it’s possible to argue that the usual measures have simply been replaced by other forms of public judgement such as comparing the frequency of live lessons or conformity to government safety measures.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 value of sharing bad practice

Several years ago, I was given the task supporting a school in an Interim Headship capacity that had recently been placed into Special Measures. The teachers were hardworking and keen to improve but the school was in a challenging context, and over time inconsistency in the quality of teaching had led to entrenched low outcomes.

I came up with a plan – a colleague knew of a school a couple of miles down the road that had been consistently outstanding in Ofsted. I rang the Head, booked a visit and the whole staff headed over there, notebooks at the ready – we were going to watch and learn.

Of course, it was a disaster. None of the things that were being drilled into teachers to get the school out of Special Measures were anywhere to be seen – no detailed curriculum planning, progress checks or three levels of differentiation (it was a while ago) – and in fact it was very difficult to understand how the school had ever got an outstanding judgement. The teachers did not seem to be putting in the extra hours that their Special Measures colleagues were, there were no detailed and complex systems of review and analysis, no endless meetings. However, there was no reason to question the inspection judgement – the children’s achievement was exceptional, they loved school and the place had an air of quiet purpose.

We left downbeat, demoralised and none the wiser.

The problem with observing truly high performance is that it looks so effortless. If I want to learn how to juggle, then it doesn’t matter how many times I go to the Cirque du Soleil and watch someone throwing and catching 6 flaming torches, it still wouldn’t be advisable for me to have a go. If, on the other hand, I could spend time watching someone struggling to learn the technique of keeping two tennis balls in the air, I might learn something.

It’s an often-stated fact that we learn more from our failures than our successes, so it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that we may learn just as much from watching the failures of others as we do from watching their successes, for exactly the same reason.

Behaviour management is a perfect example. If a teacher is struggling to control their class, then sending them to watch your most skilled behaviour manager is unlikely to be effective on its own. They won’t be able to see how their colleague manages poor behaviour because they probably won’t see any – they’ll just see that mysterious alchemy which means that the student who refuses to stop talking in their class, will be the model of conformity with their highly-skilled colleague.

Of course, we need both to really succeed – we need to know what good practice looks like, but we also need to know how to overcome the hurdles that stand in our way, and understanding what not to do is equally as important as knowing what to do.

I’ve been privileged to have been present in a great many lessons taught by a huge range of teachers over the years, as a school leader, adviser and inspector – I can honestly say that I have learnt something in all of them. It’s an unavoidable human instinct to think ‘What would I have done in that situation? What can I apply to my own practice and what would I do differently?’ It’s this reflection and application to one’s own context that makes observation such a powerful tool for learning.

I have been very interested in the revolution that is taking place in CPD at the moment. I welcome the desire to establish a coherent structure and the recognition that high-quality professional development is at the heart of effective school improvement. I also welcome the way that those who are charged with leading CPD appear to have been selected based on the evidence of their own good or outstanding practice. It gives them credibility and experience of practical strategies. However, it’s very important for those charged with delivering CPD to remember the overwhelming importance of context.

At the risk of over-simplifying, it appears that there is definitely a favoured delivery model. Find individual examples of very good practice, gather them together in a ‘Hub’ structure, pair them with underperforming schools or individuals and let them learn from the experts. I’m sure this has the potential to be effective, but only if it goes beyond the master-pupil dynamic, and once that relationship is established it can be hard to disrupt.

When we’re engaged in improving teaching, especially in the light of underperformance, it’s crucial to take into account that teaching is a complex process, especially teaching large groups of individual pupils at the same time. That’s not to say that there may be simple changes that can make a difference – we’re all always on the lookout for those inspired tips that we can pinch from colleagues and that make our lives easier. However, if we want improvement, the first step is understanding, not compliance, and the way we gain understanding is to see how something works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work.

Teaching is not the same as following a recipe, although CPD can often present it in this way. Whether it’s following a National Strategies 3-part lesson, or ticking off a Rosenshine checklist, there is often a temptation to say that the key to a successful lesson is simply to make sure that you’ve done certain things in a certain order. If only it were that easy.

One of my favourite CPD approaches is Lesson Study – groups of peers working together under the guidance of an expert facilitator to observe one another and give constructive and supportive criticism. It’s a safe place for people to try things out, some of which will work well, others will fall flat – it’s a brilliant learning experience for the person being observed and for their colleagues who are being observed. Sadly, it’s one that it’s very difficult to deliver on a practical and cost-effective way – wouldn’t it be great to install a teaching and learning classroom in every school, with cameras and recording equipment and space for teachers to work together?

The key principle, however, is that while teaching is often an individual endeavour, learning about teaching is far more effective when it’s a shared activity. Opening up our practice takes courage and a culture change – many colleagues are understandably very nervous about allowing others to see them at work, especially if they aren’t feeling particularly confident. If we want to improve schools, leaders have to establish professional communities of trust. To do this we don’t need less observation, we need more – but it needs to feel very different.

I’ve never seen a lesson so perfect that it couldn’t possibly be improved, and I’ve never seen a lesson so terrible that there was nothing that could be built upon. If we can establish the principle that the point of observing teaching is not to judge, but to learn, then we really will be revolutionising CPD.

Values in Action – where rhetoric meets reality

In this blog I share my experience of being a parent to the wonderful, indefatigable Molly. We have read through it together, and she is happy for me to share it with you.

Values are important. Not just in an abstract, theoretical way, but in driving the decisions we make on a daily basis. No matter how pragmatic or evidence-based our decisions are, they will always reflect our deeply-held beliefs, for good or ill. I think this is particularly evident in education when so many of the challenges we face come down to values.

We describe the Trust in which I work as a ’values-based’ Trust. Although we sometimes struggle to define exactly what these values are in a meaningful way, I hope that they are apparent to anyone who knows us and works with us – integrity, inclusion, kindness, humility. Although they are values that are shared in the organisation, they are also personal values that mean a great deal to me.

The reason why we all behave in the way we do, why we adopt a particular set of values, is based on a complex mix of influences, events and predispositions that emerge not just over a career, but a whole lifetime. It’s probably rare to be able to pinpoint one event on its own that has had a profound effect, given that we are influenced by parents, community, schooling and lived experience. However, when I consider what drives my personal and professional values, I think I’m able to do that more than most.

Among the most seismic events of my life was the occasion when I was sat with my wife Sarah, our youngest daughter Molly, and her Cystic Fibrosis consultant at the end of one of our regular hospital visits (Molly had been diagnosed with CF from birth, but the condition was being managed brilliantly by the hospital). He gently suggested that some of the symptoms that we had observed in our 4 year old daughter – developmental delay, extreme anxiety, joint and movement problems, irregular heartbeat, among others – could be as a result of Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic abnormality affecting about 1 in every 30,000 people. Our initial response was scepticism, but as we heard the long list of symptoms, we realised that they described our little girl perfectly and what’s more, they explained why she was struggling so much to keep pace with her peers.

As we learnt more, we realized that this wasn’t a temporary condition, and that it presented some barriers to a ‘normal’ life that simply couldn’t be overcome. A significant learning disability is with you for life, there are some things that become more difficult to achieve, and there are some things that become impossible. Unfortunately, although your biology knows that, society doesn’t. The definition of a successful, fulfilled life that most of us would recognise was suddenly out of reach. As a parent, after the initial sense of loss and denial had worn off, I realised that if I wanted my little girl to have success and fulfilment, I therefore had to change the definition. That’s not a simple task, but it’s one that informs my work every day, and goes to the core of my values.

We know from our contacts with other parents of children with SEND that the experience of working with schools has sometimes been mixed. That hasn’t been our experience – Molly’s schools have done a wonderful job to provide sensitive and skilled support. She has worked with some unbelievably dedicated Teaching Assistants who have helped her with academic work but also provided love and care. Molly attended a mainstream primary and secondary school, before moving to a Special School 6th Form, and is now attending a specialist FE college – we have nothing but praise for all of them.

Despite this, however, our system finds it difficult to cope with children whose lives aren’t running on the conventional trajectory. At every turn, there are barriers, and very often there’s no way over or route around them. For example, putting a pupil with a significant learning disability through a system of GCSEs designed for someone completely different is exactly the same as expecting someone in a wheelchair to enter the triple jump – it doesn’t matter how well-prepared, supported or coached they are, it’s not going to have a happy ending. Who designs a system where the school performance tables benefit from SEND students achieving grade 1s and 2s in full GCSEs rather than achieving well in practical or entry-level qualifications?

When schools arrange 100% attendance reward trips, what about the children who have ongoing health challenges and frequent hospital appointments? How many autistic children have to go through the emotional turmoil of abject failure in a conventional class setting before the correct support is put in place?

Up until the diagnosis, I’d always been in favour of inclusion in schools on a conceptual, theoretical level, but Molly’s taught me what inclusion actually means – it’s not a policy stance, it’s a moral imperative for any society that has a claim to be civilized. It’s not a question of mandating that everyone does the same thing, or attends the same setting, but it is that we give equal value to every child, and equal worth to their achievements. It means that we never turn our back on a young person, even if our love has to be tough love.

A year ago, I sat in my home lockdown office and watched Molly as she left the house on her own to walk to the bus stop, from where she was catching the bus to college – on her own. It’s obviously a completely routine part of daily life for the vast majority of young people, but for Molly, that’s the equivalent of achieving ten Grade 9s at GCSE, scoring a goal in the Cup Final, or playing the violin with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Molly spreads joy. I don’t mean that in a condescending ‘Ah, isn’t she sweet’ sort of way, but by actually knowing how to empathise, by taking a genuine interest in others, by spending time and emotional energy on other people. She has a particular affinity with elderly people and people with disabilities, and suffers none of the social awkwardness that many of us experience when we meet people who struggle to communicate.

When societal attitudes towards the care sector began to change during the pandemic, I felt like cheering – if we lived in a society that valued the ability to connect with an elderly dementia sufferer and take a genuine interest in their life as much as the ability to manage an investment portfolio, Molly’s future would be assured.

It’s my job to make sure that the children and young people in my care succeed, and thanks to the brilliant head teachers and staff teams I work with, we do that really well. I celebrate when our students gain a place at a Russell Group university, or our primary SATs results reach new heights. But those achievements would be hollow if at the same time, we had students who we’ve permanently excluded and became involved in gang culture, or we’d deliberately guided students away from subjects that they had a genuine interest in because we knew they’d bring the results down, or we’d told parents that their developmentally-delayed child couldn’t attend their local school because there was no-one to change a nappy.

If a school ever turns away a pupil because they are too challenging, or too complex, or not clever enough, then no matter what they achieve, according to the value system that I hold, those achievements are empty. That means sometimes having to make tough decisions, but that’s where our values really matter. If we really want to know what drives a school, look at what they do for the most vulnerable members of the community, not what it says on the banner outside the school gate.

Guest Blog: Multi-Academy Trusts: A grassroots view…

The following blog was written by a colleague with whom I have communicated regularly on twitter and who is a supportive and positive presence in the #edutwitter community. Following my blog ‘The Golden Rule of Multi Academy Trusts’, he wanted to share his thoughts and experiences, but is nervous about doing so publicly under his own name, which perhaps gives an indication of the uncertainty that people feel when dealing with MATs. I’m happy to host his thoughts here.

Twitter’s @DrHeery who I greatly respect and enjoy corresponding with on Twitter galvanised me into writing this with the blog he published on 12 April 2021 entitled “The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts.” Before I go on, I’m afraid I’m having to post this anonymously (thank you @DrHeery for hosting this) as I know from painful first hand experience that senior colleagues lurk on social media and while what I have to say is largely positive, there may be some “home truths” that will make less palatable reading.
Before I go on, I feel too I need to declare my political colours so others reading this might have a better understanding of my approach. I first started working in schools when David Cameron became Prime Minister so have been working within a political landscape where the controversy of academisation versus local control was one of the big headlines of the time. I actually did some supply work at the school formerly known as Downhills soon after it become part of the Harris Federation. That experience was so traumatic, I ended up having to step away from classroom duties and received NHS funded psychotherapy for over a year. It was therefore interesting to read in 2018 that this happened:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/harris-primary-academy-ministers-philip-lane-downhills-school-sats-exam-chearing-parents-letter-gove-a8482556.html (last visited 13 April 2021)
Coming back to my political colours, Politics was a significant part of my undergraduate degree and at the time, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Labour Leader, John Smith and the talk at the time of party reform, I was a card carrying member of the Labour Party. The subsequent controversy over “Clause 4” made me revoke my membership. In recent elections I have voted with a much more critical eye and for candidates who I truly believe have the interests of their electorate at heart rather than aspirations for high office.
I thought it important to set out the political context of what I’m about to say as I don’t want those scrolling by to think “Oh what does this voice know about the politics of academisation? They’re just a foot soldier and lacks any leadership experience, especially in schools”. That might be true, but as a keen observer of politics and the economic as well as social policy impact of Central and Local Government decision making, I’ve seen that ideologically the Conservatives during my lifetime have maintained a very clear approach with rolling back the State as it were and I see the academisation of schools as part of that. Furthermore, reading through so much about the History of Education too, the creation of the National Curriculum in 1988 and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976
were or are symbolic of how I believe successive Central Governments irrespective of political colour have a fundamental distrust of Local Authorities. This in school terms manifests itself as taking schools out of Local Authority control or responsibility and not for any other pedagogically sound reasons. Of course, in soundbite terms it sounds better when the Whitehall Wombles say its about “control of curriculum design being given to the teachers and other educational experts” rather than “Local Authorities don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to
teaching and learning.”
During my teacher training too, the emergence of academies was a big talking point and the subject of many written assignments during my University based training. The consensus view amongst the cohort was that “we” would try to avoid working for Academies owing largely to rumours among the student body, as social media was in its infancy
at that time, poor pay and conditions for their staff and draconian working practices.
I had a very chequered and erratic start after I qualified, working in short bursts in many schools. The faith based schools I’ve worked in are experiences I never want to repeat, not just because I felt like a complete classroom novice and unknown to me at the time in desperate need of psychotherapeutic support. In my recovery phase as it were, I had the good fortune to work in some schools which were still in Local Authority control – albeit under a structure which had a “Director of Education and Children’s Services” which operated at arms length from the rest of the machinery of Local Government. I also spent one and a half terms working at a fee paying school in an exclusive part of London which merits its own story for another time. As @DrHeery says the array of strategic school structures from “soft Federations” to fully branded large Multi Academy Trusts means I can’t clearly recall what type of schools I’ve been in during the time I did supply work.
Anyway, since the end of 2015 I’ve worked for what I think is a wonderful Multi Academy Trust. And this is the first really contentious statement. There are so many on social media who would “block” and “mute” me for simply saying that for no other reason than their own ingrained belief that “Multi Academy Trusts are bad”. I saw this first hand as one of the Board of Trustees was presenting her emergent findings from her PhD about her observations of managing the Trust at an academic conference we both attended. From where I was sitting in the audience, I heard tutting and booing from a senior academic at a fairly prestigious University. I suspended my disbelief at such unprofessional behaviour and instead found comfort in the Newman and Baddiel “that’s you that is” comedy routine from early 1990s British television.
I also hear and see all of those reasons why Local Authorities are doing a good to great job of providing a community based service through the schools they have retained responsibility for. There are some Local Authorities who have a wonderfully comprehensive service that they provide to support schools in their catchment area as it were – with
music teaching, professional development opportunities, cross school cross curricular learning provision, SEND support and much, much more. Sadly such practices are not only not universal but are very dependent on individual personalities and commitment. Today’s leading Local Authority could and can rapidly descend because of political whims and a change of focus or Leadership. And this is true not just of Local Authorities but any organisation – whether in the private or public sector. I think I can say this with legitimacy given my extensive management and executive professional paid experience of supporting change management projects across a large (8,000 plus staff) organisation for almost 24 years before I became a teacher.
Anyway, coming back to the wonderful Multi Academy Trust I work for. Why are they amazing? Because they have had a vision from the outset of allowing their Headteachers a “can do and want to” approach in the way the schools locally run. I’ve heard such an approach being described as “collegiate leadership” although I haven’t fully researched what this might mean – although it would make it an interesting aspect of the Action Research that the Trust are sponsoring me to undertake. Yes, and this is another reason why I think the Multi Academy Trust I work for
is a brilliant employer. They have made the commitment to support the professional development of its staff by partnering with universities so that colleagues who want to can study at postgraduate level. I really should be working on my dissertation at the time of writing but exercising my mind in this way is much more appealing.
The Trust have also established a “Hub” type model where individual schools with leading experts in subject fields deliver and support other schools across the Trust to raise teaching and learning standards. The Director of Music and former Director of Art did and continue to do amazing work raising the profile and standards of teaching and
learning for their respective subjects. The Trust brings all of its schools together for memory making Trust wide events like Sports Olympiads, Science Symposiums and a fortnight long annual Arts Festival. I am trying to emulate the same in my own subject specialism – not because I want to return to the lofty heights of Executive Leadership again but because I’m passionate about the subject I adore teaching. The Board of Trustees and the Headteacher at the School I’m usually based at has allowed me to do exactly that.
You’re probably thinking, ‘but surely there must be “weeds” in this beautiful garden I’ve described’. Well, yes there are. The bureaucratic process in parts of any organisation slows down decision making. As a classroom practitioner who thinks about these things, the cost of “administration” for any Multi-Academy Trust in any shape or form means money being taken away from “front-line” delivery. As @DrHeery reflects, the exorbitant salaries of some Executives for any organisation makes me question every day, when I don’t have the resources to enable every learner I work with, the opportunity to receive the outstanding learning experience I expect for my own daughter and son. The examples of best working practice can also be lost in large organisations too to what Economists call “diseconomies of scale”. As an experienced classroom practitioner, I do not expect to be given a “rulebook” to follow but would appreciate strategic decisions on working practices to be unambiguous and not seemingly constantly changed as pedagogical fashion dictates. This personal frustration is perhaps more of a wider observation or reflection of how schools have had to operate since March 2020 and requiring all of us to have a much more adaptable and flexible approach. From my previous experience of change management processes, new structures
and practices do need to be communicated effectively and allowed a period of time to be embedded and reviewed for its impact before any further changes are made. Once again, such observations apply to any organisational structure.
I guess in summary for me, based on my professional experiences and personal observations, I prefer thinking about the Multi Academy Trust model of managing schools as, taking the analogy that @DrHeery has applied, one technique of preparing porridge that some will find is “just right”.

Thank you for reading.

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’.

What goes up, must stay up – the delusion of social mobility

There are some things that are so obviously a good thing that it would be perverse to argue otherwise – motherhood, apple pie, long walks on the beach, an end to world hunger, social mobility – what’s not to like?

Well, at the risk of appearing perverse, I’m begging to differ. Not about apple pie – you can have that one, and world hunger. But the quest for social mobility, in my view, is a damaging and futile one.

The concept of Social Mobility is built on a fundamental belief about the structure of society, namely that society is structured in a hierarchy, and each of us is assigned a starting place within that hierarchy. Since there is plenty of evidence to show that it can be extraordinarily difficult for somebody born into a lowly position in that hierarchy to move to a higher place, we need to make it easier for that person to move upwards, to a place more suited to their abilities and merit. Social Mobility is most often defined in entirely material terms, primarily income.

Anecdotally, we can all describe people who ‘deserve’ a higher place in this hierarchy – the bright child who couldn’t go to university because they needed to go out and work, the naturally instinctive dancer whose parents couldn’t afford ballet lessons.

One of the problems with the concept of course is the fact that as long as we’re accepting the existence of a hierarchy, we have to accept that for every person who climbs upwards, there’s someone else who slips downwards – it would be nice and convenient if the losers in this process all turned out to be over-entitled Hooray Henrys who’d never done a hard day’s graft in their lives, but there’s probably not enough of those and anyway, justice is rarely served so neatly.

If we are to promote social mobility, what are the criteria that we use for identifying worthy candidates? Talent, hard work, or a combination of both? Working in a shortage area? Ability to make money? All the decisions we make are loaded, based on social constructs and influenced by prejudices, visible and invisible.

I suspect I won’t have convinced everyone yet. So, one more scenario, which I’m posing as the father of a daughter with a significant disability which affects both cognitive and physical ability and therefore potential employment and economic success. Where does she fit in? She hasn’t gone to university and won’t achieve higher-level apprenticeships. She tries her best and is an amazing and much-loved person, but for reasons completely beyond her ability to control, she’s unable to sustain her efforts for as long as the vast majority of her peers.

In a system based on social mobility, I’m assuming her mobility is downwards. Not just hers, but many thousands like her, or others who have different but equally compelling reasons why the race is skewed against them. We may be able to provide a soft landing but it’s downhill all the way, I’m afraid.

Now, I’m not arguing that the system doesn’t need fixing – entrenched advantage in our country means that a small handful of schools and universities provide the majority of people who make the decisions over our lives. Institutional racism blights the ambitions of many people who could be offering so much more. Lack of educational opportunity is repeated in some of our communities generation after generation. What I am arguing is that reshuffling the pack is not the answer.

As long as we insist on ranking people, inequalities and unfairness will exist. As a society we love to do this – Rich Lists, 100 most influential women, Top 20 social media influencers – Sunday papers and magazines sell lots of copies based on meeting this desire. It reinforces one key message – inequality, that some people are better than others. By elevating the value of some, we diminish the value of others.

During the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, there was a fundamental shift in the way certain roles in society were viewed. For example, it was suddenly realized that workers in care homes, until that point amongst the lowest paid and least-regarded of occupations, performed a vital service. We could survive a few months without access to Michelin-starred restaurants, but we needed our bins emptying. We could even do without watching Premier League footballers, but we needed someone to put toilet rolls on supermarket shelves.

Will this lead to the promotion of care workers in our league table, or increase the possibility that shelf stackers or refuse collectors will become socially upwardly-mobile? Based on previous experience, it’s unlikely.

If we’re not careful, social mobility becomes the enemy of equality. It means not that the best and brightest succeed, but the ones who are best-suited to doing the things to which we give the highest economic value, and it’s the people already in prime position who get to decide what that is.

If we paid more attention to power structures rather than economic status, then we may take a different view, and unfortunately, our education system is one of the factors that is most influential.

Over a period of decades, many well-meaning policy makers have tried to raise the status of vocational education in the UK, with very little success. It’s always seen as the poor relation, the route you take, not because you display a particular talent for practical tasks or problem-solving, but because you’re not clever enough to follow an academic route. The post-war structure of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns was designed with the best of intentions to guide youngsters along the path to work which best suited them. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way – you took an exam at the age of 11, and if you passed, you went to grammar school. Nobody ever passed an exam to get into a secondary modern. Social stratification had well and truly begun at age 11.

It’s a problem that is particularly marked in this country. In many other European countries, including some with high-performing economies, adults who work in practical jobs are not allocated a lowly place on society’s ladder and therefore students who take vocational courses are not the poor relations that they are in the UK. Given that as a society, we need the full range of jobs to be filled, then seeing only some of those roles as an indicator of success is a recipe for widespread dissatisfaction at the very least. Social mobility comes at the cost of social cohesion.

Is it too much to ask that instead of seeing our society as a race in which there are winners and losers, and in which every person’s success is inevitably accompanied by someone else’s failure, we should instead recognise that there is a place for everyone? That place should obviously depend upon your ability and aptitude, not your class, race or gender, but one role should not automatically be seen as better than another. Wouldn’t it be better to aspire to achieve social justice, rather than social mobility?

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?