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Note to the next education minister: leave schools alone

Schools have sat on the sidelines watching a game of political football. Football match via matimix/

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers has urged head teachers to take control of their own destiny. Speaking at the union’s annual conference he encouraged heads to join their schools together to alleviate the desperate shortage of qualified teachers and the impending explosion of pupil numbers.

The next government will inherit an education system that is creaking under the strain of largely inept political meddling. There are 5,000 fewer recruits to teacher training programmes for September 2015 in the face of an impending dramatic rise in pupil numbers. They will both enter an education system with few accountability mechanisms and no let-up in the level of economic cuts for the next five years.

Schools joining together – collaborating across phases, sharing teachers and being governed by a single governing body – makes sense. Research carried out by Glasgow’s Chris Chapman and colleagues has shown that there is much to be gained by collaboration between schools – particularly when schools themselves choose to federate.

His research has pointed out that collaboration across phases and age groups – between infant, middle and upper schools for example – gives the kind of continuity for students and teachers that is lacking in so many single school structures. Schools that join together like this work for the benefit of the community, pooling resources and providing invaluable support networks – particularly in areas of high deprivation.

In my own research, I’ve spoken to governors working in federations – groups of schools governed by a single governing body – who have outlined some of the benefits of governing in such a system. They point to the cohesion that it provides for pupils and parents and the ability for governing bodies to succession plan. As one governor put it: “It makes sense – you start with the local – the single school – build your knowledge that way, then apply it in the wider context of the federation.”

Given the difficulties that many schools are having in recruiting governors – and the rapid rate of turnover experienced by a number of school governing bodies – a reliable form of succession planning is increasingly important. This particularly the case in light of the diminishing accountability function of Local Education Authorities and threat of cuts to the education budgets.

Competition comes with a cost

The last government’s emphasis on competition rather than collaboration between schools – an ideology backed up by right wing think tanks – has in many cases pitted schools against one another in the fight to recruit the brightest and best pupils. This has left other schools struggling to survive, with low pupil numbers and staff shortages – who wants to work in a school under threat of closure?

This ideology of competition underpinned by freedom of school choice began under Thatcher and was taken up with zeal by every government since then. It has acquired a life of its own, being vaunted at every turn by politicians who lionise it as a solution to all educational ills.

But this so-called choice, like most forms of freedom, comes with a cost. School failures are rarely out of the headlines. But when the news dies down we rarely hear about the fate of the pupils who are then scattered around which ever local school will have them. Some choice.

Competition also stifles professional development and staff learning – a vital element of any public service. As one teacher told me:

Who’s going to share good practice if that very practice is what makes one school better than another – at the end of the day, it might well be the thing that makes the difference between our school staying open while the one down the road closes.

Putting policy into practice

In this general election campaign, we’ve been presented with summaries of what the parties intend for education – a list of high-flying ideals with little substance on how they will be implemented. Yet the politics of policy implementation has always presented problems for politicians. Former prime minister Tony Blair wrote in his autobiography:

At points I wanted to give up everything else and just spend days on the front line learning what it was like to manage a service, what its real pressures were, what could be done within the conventional parameters and how the parameters might be changed.

It is a common criticism – and one of the reasons for public disillusionment with our education system – that many politicians have little experience beyond the closeted world of politics. Far away from the comforts of Whitehall, a few hours walking in the shoes of those who have to implement the latest ideologically motivated idea would be a salient lesson for a group whose policies often appear mercurial and incomprehensible to the general public and the professions whose lives they will so deeply affect.

Schools are a common stop on the campaign trail. Andy Rain/EPA

The teaching profession has had to put up with interference that would never be tolerated by any other. Quick fixes and gimmicks have promised to return education to an elusive “halcyon day” when all was rosy in the garden. Policy ideas have at time seemed founded in the sound belief that turning out happy, well-adjusted students is like manufacturing baked beans. And there has been a conviction that all will be well if we apply market principles to education. Offer a tantalising illusion of choice – for as we have seen, an illusion is all that it is – and when things do go wrong, ensure that the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the parents who made that choice in the first place.

For far too long education has been played like political football, subjected to the vagaries of ministerial whim. The profession and its public sector ethos has been derided by politicians who subscribe to the anachronistic belief that teaching is still driven by “producer interest” - that schools are driven by their own interests rather than those of parents and pupils.

Until the teaching profession takes the initiative and forms a powerful body that can transcend the electoral cycle, education will never be governed by well thought-through, evidence-based, joined up policies that would lead to a democratic and equable education system for all.

Next read: State of the Nation – Impact of education reforms will take decades to play out

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