“What should the political parties promise on education in 2015?” – What I told Policy Exchange…

by Stephen Tall on June 11, 2014

stephen tall px edu
I was one of the speakers at this weekend’s Policy Exchange conference which posed the question, ‘What should the political parties promise on education in 2015?’

Though I work in the education sector, I was there in a personal capacity to offer a Lib Dem perspective; very kindly Policy Exchange had invited Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt as warm-up acts for my seven minutes. You can watch what I had to say in the video at the foot of this post, starting at 2 mins in, or just read on… (If you check against delivery you’ll see I’ve tidied up some of my sentences, such as self-censoring my request to the next Secretary of State for Education to “stop dicking about” with school structures.)

The estimable teacher-blogger Tom Bennett, covering the event for the TES, commented: “Stephen Tall suggested we summon the LEA back from the grave and was self-effacing enough to make me hope that the Liberal Democrats don’t actually die out after next election. Like the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, you don’t start thinking how much you’ll miss them until they start to approach extinction.” Well, mountain gorillas are a step up from cockroaches, I guess.

Anyway, here’s what I said (or at least what I would have said if I’d read out my notes in full)…

A delight though it is to be asked by Policy Exchange to speak, I confess my heart sank a little when I saw the topic: school structures. Because if there’s one issue that already dominates the thinking and policies of parties too much, it’s school structures. In fact, if you want a top-line for what I’m going to say, it’s “Stop talking about school structures!” However, I realise you might want me to flesh that out a little…

I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that politicians have got more interested in education policy as they’ve realised they have little control over the economy. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s famous “secret garden” speech was the same year, 1976, as the IMF financial crisis. Government began to realise it couldn’t any more guarantee jobs for life to its citizens and that low-skill manual jobs were on the decline. Future prosperity, national and individual, required a highly educated workforce to power a knowledge economy.

The diagnosis was right. The problem has been the solution applied by successive governments, Labour and Conservative as well as the current Coalition. Each in turn has made two fundamental errors. First, the belief that Whitehall can pull a lever which automatically raises school standards. Secondly, the belief that the top priority for better education is to prototype the model of a good school and replicate this across the country.

The first error I’ll characterise as “Only government can save!” and is Labour’s knee-jerk response: a highly prescriptive national curriculum, prescribed literacy hours, and so on. No problem couldn’t be solved by an extra bit of legislation or by an extra dollop of ring-fenced funding.

The second error – which I’ll characterise as “We must have new schools!” – stems from the Conservative belief that the main problem with state schools is that they’re not private schools. I enjoy pointing out to my Conservative friends that that the same PISA 2009 study they use to berate the last Labour government as evidence of stalling educational standards also showed that the quality of teaching is the same in the private and publicly funded sectors. And given the average class size in the private sector is half that in the public sector (13 vs 25) it’s more than arguable that the quality of teaching is better in the state sector. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to expect teachers to be qualified or working towards a teaching qualification after all? It’s strange how that PISA finding is cheerfully ignored because it doesn’t fit the right-wing agenda.

I’m not saying schools don’t matter: of course they do. But what matters more is the quality of teaching that takes place within those schools. I’ll go further: it’s the only thing that really matters. In the classrooms of the best teachers children learn at twice the rate they do in the classrooms of average teachers. In other words, they learn in six months what it takes children taught by an average teacher one year to learn. In the classrooms of the least effective teachers, the same teaching takes two years. And in the classrooms of the most effective teachers, children from disadvantaged backgrounds learn just as much as those from advantaged backgrounds. (Source: Dylan Wiliam, Teacher quality: how to get more of it (Spectator ‘Schools Revolution’ conference, March 2010).)

What does a good school look like? Here are some familiar characteristics: effective leadership and governance, well-qualified and well-motivated staff, high expectations, firm discipline, an embrace of research and innovation, engaged parents. And there are good schools up and down the country which have these characteristics. You can recognise them from the signs outside – some say ‘community school’, others say ‘academy school’, and I’m sure in the future some will say ‘free school’. It’s not the structures which matter: it’s what happens within the school.

That means there has to be a real focus on improving the overall quality of teaching. That’s hard in a mass-entry profession like teaching, with 450,000 professionals distributed across the country. It’s perhaps because it’s so hard that politicians have shied away from it. Getting to grips with dry-but-crucial issues like high-quality CPD for the teaching profession isn’t half as exciting as being photographed cutting the ribbon on a brand new Norman Foster-designed academy school. And, let’s be honest, voters are more likely to like the idea of a brand new local school. As ever, we get the politicians and political decisions we deserve.

We cannot, of course, forget the issue of funding. Six-in-10 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds leave school at 16 without the basic qualifications of five GCSEs at grade C or higher, including English and Maths. That isn’t just shaming for a wealthy country like ours, it’s suicide for a country that wants to remain wealthy. Educational inequality here is worse in the UK than in most other OECD countries. It is this scar which Pupil Premium funding – more than £6 billion across this Parliament – seeks to heal. Success has many parents: that so many, including Policy Exchange and the Tories, are keen to claim credit for the Pupil Premium is fine by me. It’s a good policy, one which I hope will survive the 2015 election (even if the Lib Dems don’t).

Final point… We were asked by Policy Exchange to reflect on “ongoing and planned future changes to the middle tier”: if I must. I have looked on at the Tory and Labour contortions on this topic with bemusement. The Tories propose their regional headteacher boards, each with a chancellor, overseeing academies and free schools. Labour proposes their independent directors of school standards. Never before has so much civil service brainpower and think-tank intellectual juice been wasted on trying to avoid the obvious solution of local education authorities. This is, though, sadly typical of the Tory/Labour determination to continue running schools from Whitehall, avoiding real accountability to the voters whose taxes fund the service. Yes, there will be LEAs which fail – just as there are academy chains which fail. And I’ve even heard whispers some free schools might fail, too. That is why professional accountability to a properly functioning and fully independent Ofsted is also critical.

To re-cap. My plea to the next Secretary of State for Education is to stop tinkering with school structures in a doomed attempt to create the perfect school in Whitehall. Instead, let’s focus on what will really make a difference to the educational outcomes of our children: improving teacher quality, fair funding, and local and professional accountability.

Video of Schools Panel on Structures (available here)
Stephen Tall, Editor, Lib Dem Voice; Mary Bousted, General Secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers; James O’Shaughnessy, Managing Director, Floreat Education; Alasdair Smith, National Secretary, Anti Academies Alliance; (CHAIR) Ann Mroz, Editor, TES.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.