At The Key we’ll be working hard, as the general election approaches, to ensure that our members are kept up to date with education proposals from the major parties, and expert opinion on their implications. Following his visit to The Key's London office last week, here we invite Tristram Hunt, shadow secretary of state for education, and MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, to outline Labour's plans for education.
“There’s been too much change and political interference”. Apart, perhaps, from rumblings about workload, this sentiment is the most common complaint I hear from teachers and school leaders on my visits around the country. “But of course you must change this and that and this” is how, paradoxically, the conversation often proceeds.
Such is the puzzle of education reform. And over the last four years it has become more apt than ever. Overnight, accountability is changed, assessment criteria changed on a whim, grade boundaries shifted by diktat - this frenzied churn of ‘initiative-itis' has seen the workload of the average primary classroom teacher, secondary teacher and headteacher increase by nine, six and six hours since 2010 respectively.
This explains, in part, why 40% of new teacher trainees leave the job within the first five years. Why too many experienced teachers leave the profession altogether. And why the high stakes nature of modern school leadership is so often compared to the role of Premier League football manager (without the salary). Yet the worst impact is the hidden one: it gets in the way of teachers excelling at their work and passing on their love of learning to our children.
Acknowledging this context is the starting point for Labour’s reform agenda. Our main focus will be on what the evidence tells us works best for raising achievement – raising the quality of teaching – and what our economy needs most – spreading excellence and opportunity to vocational pathways. In terms of school improvement, we will roll out the last Labour Government’s successful London Challenge programme across England, so that its spirit of collaboration and sharing resources becomes the national school improvement strategy.
Yet when it comes to many of the technical day-to-day aspects of school leadership – child protection, curriculum reform, assessment and accountability – we believe that a period of stability could prove beneficial for raising pupil achievement. This may not be an exciting rallying cry, but it is crucial that the incoming government takes account of the classroom realities.
However, rest assured – this does not mean we want to see too big a reduction in The Key’s own workload! We understand its role in supporting outstanding leadership and strong governance is absolutely vital. After all, leadership remains the crucial factor in nurturing the ethos of excellence and high quality teaching that best raises school standards. And in a school-led system, with far more decisions quite rightly devolved to a school level, the need to properly support school leaders takes on an even greater significance. Therefore, it was incredibly encouraging to see first-hand how The Key has harnessed digital innovation to create a support network which added a staggering 4.1 million hours of additional leadership capacity last year.
But what I hope will change for The Key with a Labour government is the nature of its conversation with school leaders. Never forget that the Labour Party is the party of the original sponsored academies programme. A commitment to equipping outstanding heads and inspiring teachers with the autonomy they need to improve attainment is a key component of our education philosophy. From David Blunkett ‘passporting’ school funding down to school level in 1997, to the code of practice for local authority and school relation in 1998 and the dedicated schools grant in 2006 it was a defining principle of the last Labour Government’s action on school improvement.
Our analysis of the freedoms offered through the Government’s converter academy programme is that they have in many cases proved to be chimerical, stymied by micro-management from an unnecessarily overweening centre. This is a betrayal of the independence and professional autonomy which, alongside a focus upon social justice and ending educational disadvantage, were the principles behind our sponsored academy programme. But the different powers offered through conversion have also been used to set different types of school against one another – poisoning the well of collaboration that I believe is the education system’s natural instinct.
Therefore, Labour’s policy is to extend the freedoms enjoyed by academies – such as those over the curriculum, school day and performance management – to all schools. After all, it is autonomy we believe in, not the particular institutional form that autonomy takes. And if it is right for some heads then surely it is right for all?
We want to see school leaders empowered to use their freedoms and introduce new pedagogies, new curriculum approaches, and take advantage of innovative new technologies - like personalised learning software or big data - with the potential to radically transform outcomes. Of course this will need to be underpinned by improvements to teacher training and a more systemic approach towards continuous professional development. But it will also need to be backed up by strong support systems for leaders and governors, such as The Key provides. Because if we can embolden school leaders to take advantage of greater levels of freedom, then the nature of the conversation should change from “what am I supposed to do” to “what can I do”.
Clearly this is the way the best schools leaders and governors already approach their membership. And more open-ended enquiries will inevitably bring new challenges for the organisation too.
Having visited The Key last week I am absolutely convinced it can assist school leaders to respond to Labour’s desire to move our system away from the top-down, target-driven, exam-factory model of schooling which we believe is so spectacularly ill-equipped for the demands of the 21st century. As Eileen Wilkinson, Clement Attlee’s first Education Minister said:
“It is important not to make plans that are too rigid. Schools must have freedom to experiment, and we need variety for the sake of freshness. We want laughter in the classroom, self-confidence growing every day, eager interest instead of bored uniformity.”
That quote perfectly encapsulates the motivation behind Labour’s reform agenda in 2015. But we will not forget the practical need to take teachers, governors and school leaders with us on this journey.
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