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.