Ms Nicky Morgan has been unleashed! Following the re-election of the Conservatives as the sole party of government, untrammelled by their Liberal Democrat coalition partner, the true-blue agenda for education has been unveiled by the Secretary of State. For Ms Morgan the solution to “raising standards” in our schools is an even greater dose of Gove’s academies and free schools. Her zeal is such that she plans to strip away the right of local councils to challenge forced academisation. Indeed, she goes further, planning to deliver on an earlier promise to sack Heads and Governors who fail to improve standards in “coasting” schools.
Where to begin with this radical declaration of intent from the Secretary of State for Education? Ms Morgan certainly means business and has a forensic focus on next steps. Like every politician, she needs to be “doing”. Yet in this haste to whip the state sector into shape, I beg Ms Morgan to just take a moment to reflect on her language of discourse. Education should not be a battlefield with the person who is ultimately responsible for our schools speaking disparagingly about leaders in schools if they fail to meet a target set by Ofsted. I do not deny that there are probably many issues which require addressing, but to be sending in the educational equivalent of the SAS to pull a school up by its boot-strings has more than a whiff of a Hollywood Blockbuster about it. Indeed this belief in the efficacy of hired guns is John Wayne in a suit armed with data.
Surely the culture of an individual school is more complex than the Education Secretary’s plans for improvement imply? A scorched earth approach fails to address the underlying pressures facing Heads and their staff day-to-day. I have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting school leaders from the maintained sector who work tirelessly to ensure the pupils in their schools receive the best possible life chances. Their schools are a mix of academies and schools remaining in local authority control. They strive to promote aspiration in their schools whilst juggling ever tighter budgets and ensuring their data meets the demands of Ofsted. Granted, the schools they lead are deemed either good or outstanding by Ofsted, but they all know that this state of affairs can change very quickly.
Now can I suggest to Ms Morgan that a more effective approach to her quest to improve standards across all schools, which I applaud in principle, would be to value Heads who frankly in many cases are already doing an extraordinary job in challenging circumstances. And if a school appears to be coasting would it not be more constructive to offer support and training to the leadership team to enable them to improve their school rather than offering threats which will inevitably discourage initiative and foster a bunker mentality. Instead of seeing the Head and the leadership team as the problem, make them integral to the solution. And in those cases where there really is a problem of leadership, deal with it on this basis, as a problem specific to an individual school. Do not caricature Heads because of data – take the time to look more closely at the context.
And whilst the Secretary of State is taking up her cudgels, she would do well to note the impending crisis we face across the education sector – teacher recruitment. The Heads, who Ms Morgan holds accountable for school performance, are only as successful as the staff who work in their schools. Heads need to recruit and retain the best teachers because it is the teacher who effects the change in the classroom. It is the relationships they forge with pupils which facilitate their progress – inspiring, encouraging and chivvying in equal measure.
This is the cautionary tale for our political masters who would do well to remember that whilst they continue to use combative language against our school leaders they do little to promote the profession to potential future teachers. Why would you want to be a teacher when you have a big stick waved at you? Teachers in schools learnt long ago that this tactic alone does not really work. Our Education Secretary needs to add inspiration and encouragement to her toolkit if she is to build constructive relationships with Heads and teachers in schools everywhere.
I am proud that my school is at the forefront of deploying digital technology in the classroom. Technology has become embedded in our learning environment and really is just another tool in the teachers’ and learners’ toolkit. In a valedictory letter sent to me recently by parents, who were initially sceptical about the 1:1 deployment of iPads, I was delighted to read that they were now convinced that this had had a hugely positive impact on their daughter’s education observing that for her using digital technology is completely natural.
And yet, with the many upsides of our approach, we cannot ignore a broader trend being fuelled by the omnipresence of technology. The very real concern of our teachers, particularly teachers of English, is the growing sense that reading as an activity is being crowded out by all the distractions offered by the digital age. There is just so much instant gratification out there. This emerging view is coloured by the exponential changes in the world around us which we all experience day-to-day. It is of course always difficult to calibrate change when you are in the middle of it – there are no longitudinal studies to help us. But we do have the professional experience of staff. Our Curriculum Leader in English is of the view that over the last 5-6 years she and her colleagues have observed a real difference in the attitude of our students in reading for pleasure. Indeed, such is her concern, that she and her colleagues are seriously considering introducing reading lessons in our senior school next year.
But the unintended consequences of the digital revolution go beyond merely the activity of reading. There is also a growing awareness that what is being read does not necessarily fall within the classical canon of literature famously advocated by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. For many of our teenagers the lure of Dickens and Austen is cast into sharp relief by authors who take advantage of the free platforms to publish on the Internet. The positive here is that at least this is evidence of reading but the real concern is about the quality of the literature being read.
So was Gove right, in his previous role, to insist that the classics of English Literature should be included in the National Curriculum and the reformed GCSE? Certainly inclusion in the curriculum marks the importance of the English canon of literature. Yet my concern is that force-feeding reading of the classics is not necessarily going to energise our young learners to want to explore the classics beyond Dickens and Austen. The danger is that the classical canon of literature will be seen as the stuff for qualifications and irrelevant for reading for enjoyment.
Do I have the answer to this very digital conundrum? I don’t think I do. But I do know that by acknowledging this reality around reading at least we have made the first step in addressing it. What was previously backgrounded in learning is now foregrounded. How the English canon is passed down to future generations is the challenge and this is beyond merely the process of reading – it is about our cultural identity.
When Michael Gove had the baton of the education portfolio wrenched from his reluctant hands last year, I had some optimism that his successor, Mrs Nicky Morgan, would be more than Gove-lite. The new Secretary of State for Education has certainly made emollient noises about teachers and has even invited the teaching profession to share their concerns about workload. So I was somewhat dismayed when our Secretary of State whipped off her benign mask and showed her true colours. In an interview with the Sunday Times Nicky Morgan proclaimed: “We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel.” And how will she ensure this is achieved?
“The new tests for 11-year-olds we are introducing next year will be strengthened to ensure that every young person is meeting the mark.” Not so much Gove-lite but pure unadulterated Gove with the threat of dismissal for Heads who fail to ensure their pupils come up to the mark.
Where does one begin to respond to a Secretary of State who announces policy cloaked in threats? Accountability has become so much part of education that there is some perverted logic to extending it to sacking a Head Teacher for failing to “meet the mark” set by the Secretary of State for Education. After all in the push for academies there has already been collateral damage with Head Teachers’ careers coming to an abrupt end – all in the name of standards.
How utterly dismal and depressing it is that hard-working professionals can be viewed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the undulating waters of education policy. We have come a long way if a Head Teacher’s raison d’être is purely results with no regard for the broader educational imperative facing our young learners who are growing up in a world of exponential change. Of course youngsters need to learn the basics but if testing of basics to ensure children “come up to the mark” becomes the school’s major focus (because otherwise the Head Teacher will be presented with a P45), how far can a school’s function be truly educational?
Only recently the Department of Education published league tables which presented an extraordinary examination scenario where my school (where 93% of GCSE grades were A*/A last year), was awarded ‘0’ in the table because we offered a mix of GCSEs and IGCSEs. And we were not alone. We had examination league tables which were demonstrably cast straight from “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with high performing schools propping up the bottom of the table. Fortunately for me my job is not on the line. As an independent school we have the educational luxury of choosing the best qualification for our learners – we are not regulated by the latest diktat about league tables. Yet I am acutely conscious that this brutalist approach to measuring our schools is the iron-hand weighing on the shoulders of our school leaders across the country. Of course there are schools that can do better – indeed all schools should believe this is the case. Yet the battle-lines (and I use this term advisedly) which have been carved between the government and educators, means that the education of our young people, which is the most rewarding of challenges, has become a war of attrition, as evidenced by Mrs Morgan’s most recent announcement.
Most tragic of all, to me, is the underlying assumption presented by the Secretary of State for Education that Head Teachers and teaching staff don’t really care enough about how the children in their schools’ progress and it takes the cracking of a whip by Mrs Morgan to ensure each child performs. How sad that we have come to this.
I am greatly encouraged that Mrs Nicky Morgan, the new kid on the Education block, has conceded that education is about far more than merely the acquisition of qualifications. Indeed, she goes further in putting government money where her mouth is : “The &3.5m grant scheme for character education projects is a milestone in preparing young people more than ever before for life in modern Britain”.
As the leader of a school which values a holistic approach to education, I certainly would applaud this intention to give value to the overall personal development of an individual. What I question is why are we caught in the self-perpetuating matrix of segmenting learning in this way? Is “character” to be something else to be put onto the educational shopping-list of what schools must deliver to be solemnly measured by some arcane Ofsted measurement? I find it somewhat questionable that character development can be promoted through a series of character building “projects”. Mrs Morgan may argue that she is advocating a balanced education but for me this box ticking approach misses the point of what a good education should offer a youngster.
The learning environment valued by a school should be supporting the positive personal development of every learner. Far from box ticking, learners should be encouraged to think outside the comfort of their box – taking risks, learning from mistakes, taking the time to understand the perspectives of others. This can happen within the classroom in the curriculum where young people are encouraged to take intellectual risks and challenge others and not constantly feel that they are a set of data to be weighed. And of course in co-curricular activities where there are a myriad of opportunities for individuals to learn about themselves.
And how does this debate about character sit with the digital revolution which is changing our world in intended and unintended ways? The World Innovation Summit for Education, a Qatar sponsored education charity, recently carried out a survey of educational experts across the world asking their opinion about what schools will be like in 2030. The results are fascinating – if the predictions are right, a student’s interpersonal skills will be their most valued asset, with 75% of respondents ranking it number one compared to 42% for academic knowledge. In this world where online content will be king, it is argued that “old fashioned knowledge” becomes secondary. Collaboration, creativity and communication will be vital skills underpinned by critical thinking.
My view is that the debate is more evenly balanced because knowledge is integral to who we are. It strikes me that an approach to learning which values intellectual as well as personal development – not treating them as a false binary – will offer the best possible educational experience for youngsters in this future of unknowns. After all, studying the works of Shakespeare will give you a deep insight into resilience and grit in an abstract sense whilst an outward bound activity, for example the Duke of Edinburgh Award, places the learner in a personally challenging situation.
Actually Mrs Morgan, on reflection, I think we already have the tools for this task – let educational professionals get on and use them.