On Saturday I spoke at an After the Coalition conference, organised by Mike Finn FRSA from Liverpool Hope University. It was a terrific first attempt at what will hopefully be an annual event. I'm hoping that our Fellows in the North West can support next year's conference.
After making my old joke about premature evaluation, and how the educational impact of this government is especially difficult to judge, given the assessment changes at GCSE, I also argued that our understanding of the impact of the coalition on education is dependent on our views of where we stood in 2010. If you think that in 2010 our schools were in the grip of a progressive ideology (caused by a lethal mix of wooly teacher training colleges and excessive central prescription) which had devalued knowledge and teacher authority, leading to decades of falling standards and behaviour, epitomised by our plummet down the PISA league tables, then you'll probably be thinking that the coalition has worked wonders in four years. If you have a more nuanced, evidence-based view of contemporary education history, then you'll be more balanced about a coalition government that has actually chosen continuity over disruption on most education issues. Alison Wolf's presentation was very compelling on the continuity point. Overall, Gove's bark has been more radical, libertarian and antagonistic than his bite.
If the coalition is having a positive initial impact, this should begin to reveal itself through the 2014 and 2015 exam results - in particular whether there has been any closing of attainment gaps. With new assessments in place in England at primary and secondary levels from 2016, expect a lower than expected baseline followed by a rapid rise in results - this is what happens with tests (and largely explains the big rise in primary test scores in the late 1990s, even though Labour and the national strategies tried to claim the credit). Beyond that, we'll need to look at the next two or three sets of PISA results. PISA, by the way, is increasingly reminding me of the World Cup. Every four years England is reminded that we are average, but at least we're better than Wales.
In a brief sweep of Coalition policy, I divided my thoughts into four categories. Stripped of explanation, these might provoke rather than illuminate, but I'll take that risk.
1. Assessment-related accountability
2. The National Curriculum
3. The Pupil Premium
4. Adoption and Looked After Children
5. Teachers’ use of evidence
1. Governance and accountability
2. The School Curriculum beyond the National Curriculum
3. Practical learning and assessment
4. Information, Advice and Guidance
5. Performance-related pay
THE IRRELEVANT (or, at least, much less relevant than people and the media think)
1. (Convertor) Academisation
2. Free Schools
3. Initial Teacher Education reforms
4. Unqualified Teachers
5. British Values
1. The arts
3. Youth services and mental health
4. Vocational education
5. Teacher CPD
I am aware that this long list is just that - a list. It doesn't add up to any kind of overarching analysis. Jonathan Simons from Policy Exchange, who spoke after me, did this much better, talking about Gove as the dominant minister of his day (which I agree with), whose impact would therefore be transformative (which I disagreed with). He also described the tension between autonomy and centralism (definitely agree), but argued that there was an overall intellectual coherence to Gove's reforms (disagree again!). The greatest unknown is the most significant factor - whether these reforms will add up to improvements in the quality of teaching. My presentation ended with a question I didn't answer, but is worth asking of any part of any government, especially in a first term: What are they softening us up for?
Joe Hallgarten Director of Education @joehallg