The announcement that Michael Gove will no longer serve as the secretary of state for education came as a big surprise in our sector.
In little over four years, Gove’s impact has been dramatic. On his watch, the Department for Education has effectively restructured the schools system, with the expansion of the academies programme, and the introduction of free schools. It has reformed staff pay and conditions, in an attempt to align teachers’ salaries more closely with their performance. The National Curriculum has been rewritten. Assessments are being revised, and school performance and accountability data are to shift in their focus.
What do school leaders and governors make of all this? In the spring term 2014, The Key, in partnership with Ipsos MORI, surveyed a sample of its members on a number of issues. 1,198 school leaders, and 1,079 governors, responded. As Michael Gove is succeeded by Nicky Morgan, we look at some of our survey’s results and consider the areas in which schools still need support.
Squaring the circle: education is improving, but the government’s policies are unpopular
Currently, almost half of school leaders and governors believe that the quality of education in England’s schools has improved since 2010. However, 75% of the school leaders we surveyed, and almost half of all governors, feel dissatisfied with the current government’s performance in education. So how can confidence in the quality of education be high, when faith in the government, presumably at least in part a reflection of our respondents’ collective faith in Mr Gove, is so low?
A possible reason for this might be the confidence our respondents have in the quality of their schools’ teachers. Over 90% of the school leaders and governors we surveyed believe the quality of teaching in their school is at least ‘good’. This suggests that school leaders and governors believe the quality of education on offer at their schools has been improving in spite of what the government has been doing.
Another reason might have to do with the popularity of certain government policies. Our survey showed that the most popular policies included pupil premium funding, and 0-25 statements for children with special educational needs, both of which ensure school leaders retain the power to make significant decisions about how best to support particular pupils.
However, a sizeable proportion of respondents do not feel that inspections, examinations or the new National Curriculum are, respectively, fit for purpose. Each represents, in its own way, a major lever of central control, but each remains highly contested as a means through which to monitor and support the quality of teaching and learning.
The forced academisation of underperforming schools and the creation of free schools were also among the least popular of the current government’s education policies.
Education policy since May 2010 has been self-contradictory
Our survey reveals school leaders’ and governors’ ambivalence regarding education policy since May 2010. Several policies are very popular; others have provoked high levels of scepticism and/or uncertainty. Views on the government’s overall performance in education are overwhelmingly negative.
It is hardly surprising the government has evoked this response, though, when its policies have contradicted themselves. On the one hand, school leaders have been told they have greater levels of autonomy and freedom (perhaps most notably in the form of academisation). Additionally, the government has been concerned to address the wellbeing and learning of young people across the country, introducing the pupil premium, 0-25 statements for pupils with SEN, and universal free school meals.
Yet the offer of school-level autonomy has been accompanied by a simultaneous centralisation of power. We have spoken to school leaders and governors from maintained schools all around the country, including many from academies, who feel that their freedom to exercise genuine, autonomous judgement has been curtailed by the government’s review of the National Curriculum, revised school accountability measures, and increasing pressure from Ofsted.
Many believe that pupil wellbeing, though supported by some recent policies, could become hostage to a narrower curriculum, and an examinations system that cannot accurately assess their achievements.
Mr Cameron clearly wants to win back support among the teaching profession. Has the new secretary of state been given a care-taker brief until the general election? Or will she be considering the coherence of her Department’s policies? I hope it is the latter.