Almost a year ago, the RSA published Schools with Soul, our report on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education (SMSC). Our key recommendation was that everyone involved in education in the UK should designate 2015-16 (the academic year after the next general election) as a "year of reflection”.
In this 'gap year', we recommend that:
- no schools-related policies are announced by DfE or any other agency;
- no schools are forced 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 new academies, and;
- no organisations publish any new policy proposals for schools.
We suggested that school communities should be encouraged to exploit a period of relative stability to ask questions about their deeper purpose. If we want to give schools the power to create, the first thing they might need is the space to reflect.
The recommendation arose from a concern that the broader goals that used to define the purpose of schooling appear have moved to the periphery, overwhelmed by attainment-related accountability pressures. It appears increasingly challenging for schools to think about anything other than short-term gains to short-term outcomes. The deeper thinking about the purpose and the development of those values and skills that are at the heart of SMSC, and that are anything but soft, has been rendered far more difficult by the constantly changing terrain of policy initiatives and the attendant focus on narrow priorities.
Anybody who thinks that such a gap year would really damage standards needs to show me the evidence. Schools will, of course, carry on teaching, improving teaching, and responding to changes that already require implementation, temporarily free from the fear of the Wednesday afternoon Ofsted phone call. Pupils will carry on learning and taking exams. Local authorities, academy sponsors and others will continue to drive improvements in their own ways, without the distractions from the department, or, for academy chains, the pressure to grow.
Reflection is a tough, active process. During the year, school communities could be encouraged to exploit a period of relative stability to ask questions about their deeper purposes. Thinking carefully and expansively about purpose, as well as properly using evidence to understand the effectiveness of existing practices and cultures, is genuinely demanding work that requires proper time and space to accomplish. Governing bodies should have a central role, making sure that all schools look outwards as well as inwards and upwards. When, in Summer 2016, people ask schools what they "did in their gap year", all schools should be expected to have an answer.
Whilst the response to the report was very positive (and we are still planning a follow-up an SMSC leadership programme for middle leaders), the reaction to this proposal was more curious. The most common response was ‘great idea, but it will never happen’ line.
One year on, I am as enthusiastic as ever about the possible benefits of such a year of reflection – not just for schools. OFSTED, for instance, could really benefit from a year off, to sort out its insourcing of inspectors, and possibly define a proper organisational theory of change. I am also optimistic about the chances of a period of relative stability in schools. It’s been hinted at by David Laws, Tristram Hunt and OFQUAL. Amidst all the calls from the CBI and others for schools to value and be accountable for a broader set of outcomes beyond exam results, these still feel imposed from above, driven by a flawed deficit model of schools as ‘exam factories’. What schools really need is to define their broader goals for themselves, with their communities and other stakeholders.
There has also been the usual pre-election flurry education ‘manifestos’ from various parties (most of which, with the honourable exception of the NAHT’s, are not really manifestos at all, since they demand from others, rather than promise actions themselves). Whilst many of these suggestions are laudable (especially those which deal with the growing teacher shortage problem), none of them feel immediately necessary. So I still remain convinced that a year of reflection for schools in England could do more good for outcomes than any policy change.
Generally, politicians seem to agree that busy-ness, even franticness, is a recipe for electoral success. Even in the education realm, which the British public do not believe is an election priority, they are trying to out-busy each other. David Cameron’s call for a mass expansion of Free Schools (based on a strange Policy Exchange report whose press release looked like it had been written by Tory head office), is being followed by various promises from other parties for rapid post-election action on schools. Despite the liberationist rhetoric of all parties, manifesto pledges are generally based on the premise that the Centre knows best, and that ‘something must be done’ (and done nationally). As usual, localism looks like the first casualty of this general election.
Now that we’ve dialled P for Purdah, the RSA is going to continuing pushing for the year of reflection during and after the election campaign. As an organisation, we will commit to publishing no schools-related policy proposals, whilst continuing to find other ways to inspire and influence practice, giving pupils, teachers and schools the ‘power to create’. Over the next few weeks, we will be finding ways for other people and organisations to make similar commitments, and petition the next government to sanction a gap year for schools. If you are interested in getting involved, contact our project engagement manager Thomas Gilliford.
We’re realistic to know that a year of reflection for schools may never happen. However, every time you hear a politician, or anyone else, propose a policy change for schools, ask yourself this: might doing nothing be a better option?