I have to confess that we don’t have a crystal ball at The Key, so looking at what’s in store for schools in 2015 seemed a tough brief. When I started to think about the term ahead, though, I realised I’ve been lucky enough to hear from some influential people from the education policy world who’ve tried to do just this.
May’s general election won’t be fought on education, according to Jonathan Simons, the head of education at Policy Exchange. When Jonathan spoke to The Key’s staff, he said the election would be fought on the “four ‘E’s: the Economy, Europe, Ed (Miliband) and Englishness”.
But this doesn’t mean we’re in for a quiet year; schools will be facing some real challenges in the terms ahead.
Firstly, declining budgets. The speakers at Whole Education’s annual conference agreed that all types of school face tight budgets (potentially for the next five years or so, said Jonathan, who was presenting there). What’s more, they’ll be faced with the challenge of doing more with less, as social services come under pressure and gaps in society grow. This needn’t be cause for despair, said John Tomsett, head at Huntingdon School and founding member of Headteachers’ Roundtable. In his view, this very real challenge can help schools to focus on what’s important and to reorganise to do this well.
Secondly, along with a lack of new school places and new buildings, schools also face a shortage of teachers in 2015. For Jonathan, we need to be “less snobby” about new routes into teaching, and accept that in the future some people may not be teachers all their lives, while others may join the profession later in their careers.
With all this in mind, I was interested in what was said at the conference on the implications of teachers retiring later. Older teachers may be less willing or able to take on a full-time teaching timetable, for example, but schools have much to gain from their experience and knowledge. “Youngsters of 24 and 25 aren’t the answer to everything”, said John Tomsett.
Vocational education seems to be the one topic that politicians (particularly Labour politicians) are talking about, so expect to hear more on this in 2015, says Jonathan. Depending on who gets in, we may see changes to policy here. In other areas, though, there are still questions. What will the next government do about new providers (free schools, parent-led academies and so on)? Would a Royal College of Teachers be a good thing, or just another incarnation of the General Teaching Council?
Most school leaders would agree with Jonathan when he says that reform fatigue is a problem for both education professionals and politicians. It’s likely, then, that any government would be looking to avoid major policy changes in education, so the pressure will be on schools to address problems themselves, rather than wait for the government to step in.
In many ways, this is a big opportunity for school leaders, who sometimes have more power than they think to take things into their own hands. As Anita Kerwin-Nye, managing director of London Leadership Strategy, pointed out, new voices from schools, such as Headteachers’ Roundtable and education bloggers, are increasingly influential in policy circles. And if they wanted to, headteachers could introduce most of the points in the Headteachers’ Roundtable manifesto without any involvement of the secretary of state.
The speakers at the conference agreed that the quality of staff in schools now, and the opportunities to grow good practice through chains, federations and other forms of collaboration, means the sector is better placed to address these challenges than at any point in the past. Because of this, Jonathan argues, we’ll soon start to see the autonomy narrative starting to shift to one of empowerment.