Humanity v. Accountability – Education Reform Summit 2014

Imagine it. You have the power to reform the education system in this country. This has been the power offered to Michael Gove and, judging by his speech at the Education Reform Summit in London, he believes his reforms have unleashed real change which will benefit all young people irrespective of class. Sitting in the audience, as Mr Gove gave the introductory key-note for this event, I was absolutely convinced that the Secretary of State’s conviction that education is the key to righting the wrongs in our society is sincere and acts as a powerful impetus for everything he does. Ministers from countries in Europe and a senior Head teacher from Shanghai appeared to share Mr Gove’s vision of education. They all talked about PISA and improving their country’s performance, raising the bar, giving autonomy to schools and academic rigour.

Yet, as the NUT held a day of action outside, clearly Mr Gove’s view of Nivarna is not shared by at least one national Union representing the teaching profession. High level strategy inevitably results in turbulence on the ground where change is not necessarily seen as beneficial for education. Steven Hodas, an advocate of innovation in education from New York, offered real insight on this dimension of change quoting Seth Godin: “Increase alignment, decrease fear.” Which points to the fundamental fissure in education in this country. Time and again speakers who advocated structural change assumed this was now a battle won whilst this was not necessarily the sense of everyone in the room – or indeed protesting outside.

So it was a revelation to cut through the politics and listen to practitioners – Head Teachers who have walked the walk because their focus and moral mission was focused on the young people in their charge. The individual who truly inspired me was Dame Kathy August. Dame Kathy was Head of Manchester Academy, the school which reinvented the failing Ducie High School. This school was part of a community which shared memories of the riots during the 1980s. A real challenge. However, Dame Kathy is a lady on a mission – a mission possible. For her, the Manchester Academy was where young people, associated with gang culture, left their tribal loyalty at the door and, upon entering school, entered the world of learning. Dame Kathy had no truck with gang language in school. This in her view marginalised them – she was very clear that students in her school would engage with the wider world and use the language of this world. She ensured that a series of mantras imbued with positivity enveloped the school.

I was particularly struck by Dame Kathy’s anecdote about how she had a weekly spot where she addressed the entire school through IWB’s. She shared with me one story where she talked about University Challenge. This was the subject of her weekly address where this quintessentially middle-class show was raised as a point of interest for everyone in the school; before long the school was discussing what their mascot would be if they were involved. Arguably University was demystified and became a realistic option for those for whom it was entirely alien. This illustration shows how the inventive Head worked hard to create an ethos of aspiration.

I enjoyed meeting Dame Kathy enormously. She clearly has been an instrument of change in her school. Other Head Teachers at the summit shared her commitment and determination. And as I left London to return to Cambridge I reflected on the importance of the individual in education. The strong leader with a clear vision; the inspirational teacher who engages students. Neither of which are easily measurable by education research or data. But therein lies the challenge – humanity v. accountability. Surely both should be valued.

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