The imposing words of Matthew 1:23 (Emmanuel; God is with us.) seemed out of place as they loomed over the podium at this week’s TES education hustings. If anything was clear, it was that Nicky Morgan, Tristram Hunt and David Laws have no intention of being educational messiahs.
Although each party had a different methodology, they all seemed to be calling for decentralisation and wanted teachers, head teachers and schools to be in charge. Nicky Morgan advocated a "bedding in" to allow teachers and schools to turn the reforms of the last five years into a system that grew organically, school-to-school and improved itself. David Laws, in a similar vein, called for greater trust to be placed in schools, pointing to pupil premium (which he rather morbidly asked to be emblazoned on his tombstone) as an example of how schools can make the right choices for their locality. Tristram Hunt came closest to announcing new policy when he asked for teachers to be given the professional autonomy to develop a 'Licence to Create' (he got a big round of applause from this RSA staffer for that one) and spoke of devolving the power to create new schools back to the local level.
As each member of the panel spoke, the room (mainly teachers) seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief that no one was talking about an educational utopian future. There was an appetite for improvement, but not for change. Questions were generally focused on how to build on what we already have. How do you recruit and retain talented teachers? How do we build on pupil premium to support the most disadvantaged? How can we continue to develop Early Years provision? The atmosphere was more thoughtful than revolutionary and demonstrated the need for the RSA's Director of Education, Joe Hallgarten’s, 'year of reflection’ where he calls for the academic year following the election to be one when:
No schools-related policies are announced by DfE or any other national or local agency;
No schools are forced or permitted to become academies
No Ofsted inspections take place apart from re-inspections of those schools which have been judged inadequate, and inspections of new free schools and academies
No organisations (and yes, that means the RSA too) should publish any new policy proposals for schools. The phrases ‘DfE should’ or ‘schools should’ would disappear for a year.
Which would allow schools to continue “improving teaching, and responding to changes that already require implementation, temporarily free from the fear of the Wednesday afternoon Ofsted phone call.”
My own experience working as a teacher to set up a free school in East London showed me how important a process of informed reflection can be. When you are trying to create, innovate and trying something new, what you need is trust, not oversight and paperwork. Educators need a chance to look at the data they have been collecting and use it to plan great lessons; not prove why they deserve their pay rise. They need the time to look honestly at their own lessons and improve on their weaknesses; not learn how to hide them from an inspector. They need the space to promote a love of learning in their students; not worry about their next unannounced observation. It would have been easy to walk away from the TES hustings feeling that nothing new had been said; that nothing new will be done, but in doing so, you would miss out on the opportunity to place yourself at the heart of sustainable local change. In his closing remarks Tristram Hunt reminded the audience that “creativity is in our DNA.” It was clear that all the parties wanted the power to create a socially positive, and outstanding education system in the hands of educators themselves. The question now is, if given this new freedom, how will they use it?
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